When I first rode my bike to Slotermeer, it was to check out the house that would eventually become my place here in Amsterdam. I could see the cozy restaurants and cafès of the city center turn into Kebab eateries and Muslim bakeries, as the Dutch capital's signature narrow brick homes were gradually replaced by more anonymous housing, spiced up by the occasional colored handrail. On that very first trip, while crossing the second drabbest underpass before my destination, a vision caught my eye, so surreal it felt like I had just stepped out of one of the coffeeshops downtown.
There it was: an oasis, buried deep in a forest of concrete pillars, under a viaduct in the middle of Bos en Lommer. Palm trees, a shiny pond, even a waterfall. Had it not been fenced far out of my reach (and had I not been late for my house viewing) I would have walked to it for a closer inspection, but I just cycled along.
After I moved in a few blocks away, the underpass oasis became just another landmark on the way home, like the LIDL sign, the football yard where the neighborhood kids play, or that strange sort of zen garden construction site. I kind of stopped wondering what that was.
Since I came to Amsterdam, little more than a year ago, I have been writing about a few art projects dealing with urban areas, especially those marked by certain stereotypical profiles. I have been to the Zuidas - a Manhattan-inspired business district - and the Bijlmer – a social utopia from the 60s turned first into an ill-famed ghetto and then into a gentrifying area – but I've always known very little about Slotermeer or Bos en Lommer as an inspiration for artists.
Sitting way further West than the more gentrified and canal-equipped Jordaan, these neighborhoods are nevertheless in a nice area, close to many green spots (several parks, among which the culture-friendly Westerpark and the beautiful Sloterplas lake) and are livened up by a host of Turkish restaurants and grocery stores.
When I finally decided to delve into the omniscient Internet to find out more about the mysterious oasis I have been sleeping on for so long, I wasn't surprised to find out it was a public art project. What I hadn't foreseen, though, was that the guy who had infused the neighborhood I live in with its mysterious appeal had been planting a couple other seeds around.
Leonard van Munster (leonardvanmunster.com) is an Amsterdam-based Dutch artist, active since the late nineties. He has been playing with various media and contexts, but his latest works all share a sharp focus on public space, powered by architectural skills and energized by a youthful irony. Turns out both the underpass oasis and the zen garden construction site I briefly mentioned before have come out of his hat, and they're the second and third chapter, respectively, of a three-piece discourse titled Under Heaven.
The first piece was a tree house that towered above the temporary Stedelijk Museum, at the time (2004) hosted by the Post CS Building in Oosterdok, an architecturally exciting area just a few minutes away from Centraal Station, dipping into the cold waters of the IJ. A vantage point to overlook the whole city, but also a natural extension stretching up from the top of a massive concrete block.
The second piece - the oasis one - stages similar nature/concrete dialectics, this time with a more explicit irony that derives from the fencing and the obvious use of plastic instead of real water and trees.
Under Heaven 3 goes back to using real natural resources and (for what I have been able to discern from the Dutch documentation on the artist's homepage and on voordekunst.nl, an online platform allowing users to fund art projects), sets out to create an ideal place to hang out in a semi-natural environment, carefully built by using a zen-like mix of design and landscaping. So far what I saw was nothing spectacular – a water pool with some wooden props next to a metro underpass - but according to the website the project is only 43% funded, so it's going to take some time to complete. The project description also mentions some LED lighting grooving it up at night, but I haven't been able to see them yet. I did see some crazy lighting going on, though, in a big building just five minutes away, right by the Vlugtlaan metro stop.
There is no way the building - a white high-rise shaped like a skewed parallelepiped – is one of Van Munster's creations, but the synchronized light show I happened to witness for the past two nights is nothing short of artistic. Seeing this vacant, ghostly construction glow its way till dawn like a creepy lighthouse is quite impressive, and, if anything, Leonard van Munster and his underpass oasis got me used to such serendipitous encounters in my routine cycles to the city center and back.
Maybe if I was able to read Dutch I could Google my way to the truth, but I'm not sure I want to unravel the mystery. I like to think there is something surprising about the neighborhood I live in.
~Nicola Bozzi, a writer living in the Netherlands.
(Images: (top-bottom) NicolaBozzi portrait, photo by Catalina Iorga; Underpass, photo from www.leonardvanmunster.com; Under Heaven #2, photo by Joost van den Broek; Under Heaven #1, #3, photos from www.leonardvanmunster.com; Buildings + Swans, photo by Nicola Bozzi)
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