The number of tourists pouring into Amsterdam increases steadily every year. Obviously Madame Tussauds, the Anne Frank House and—of course—the red light district are popular destinations, but in the last decade or so museums have become a serious pull-factor. Number one on the list is the Rijksmuseum, welcoming more than 2.4 million visitors in 2014 and on track to break that record this year. For the exhibition Late Rembrandt alone half a million tickets were sold.
Besides happy faces on the municipal tourism board, this resulted in criticism in newspapers and on TV: the museum was simply too crowded. Rather than art, visitors could only see other visitors. When confronted with this complaint Rijksmuseum director Wim Pijbes snarked that the nagging party-poopers “should get their own Rembrandt.”
Late Rembrandt visitors at the Rijksmuseum, 2015. Photo: Andrea Alessi
Pijbes, a self-declared advocate of “intelligent populism,” was being sarcastic, but there are some who would argue just that. For them looking at art is an inherently elitist activity and it should preferably be undertaken in an intimate, private environment. Only under those circumstances—being able to get close to a work and take as much time as you need to study it from all possible angles—can one truly experience and appreciate the work. The museum setting is inadequate, not only because of the crowds blocking the view, but also because of its very nature. Museums are artificial spaces—often disproportionate in relation to the artworks—creating a distance between viewer and art. Here works become icons, objects to be registered but not seen, let alone experienced.
For art in public space it’s a different story altogether. Especially if it’s been at a fixed location for a good number of years, public art tends to blend into the cityscape. It becomes like urban furniture, not something people notice. No one seems to care about monuments or how they’re perceived, whether they’re perceived at all. It takes a conscious effort to really see them again.
Taturo Atzu’s artistic practice is all about helping along this process. Operating under a myriad of names—Tatzu Nishi, Tazu Rous, Tazro Niscino, Tatzo Oozu, Tatsurou Bashi—the Japanese artist has reactivated monuments by encasing them in specially built constructions. Around the Columbus statue standing on a 60-foot pedestal on New York’s Columbus Circle he created a penthouse, with the 13-foot-high statue itself resting on the coffee table. In Helsinki he conceived a hotel room around a fountain near the waterfront market square, with the bronze nude penetrating one of the mattresses like the nuclear missile in the 1985 comedy Weird Science.
Atzu has now taken his act to Amsterdam, to tackle one of his biggest monuments yet: the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest church. He has built an enormous scaffolding on the eastern side of the building leading all the way to the roof. A massive terrace has been erected around the belfry. The weather vane has been encapsulated by a cabin that from the inside looks and feels like your average Dutch living room. It’s got prints on the wall; a bookcase contains literature about art, Amsterdam and religion; the vane sticks right through an Ikea-like table, looking like an oversized table ornament to be admired from the couch. It’s homey and surreal at the same time.
If God is in the details then this installation’s title, The Garden Which Is the Nearest to God, is right on the money. Climbing the scaffolding and strolling around on the terrace you get to see things you’ve never seen before and they’re awe-inspiring: the pointy roof construction, the parts where extensive restoration work has been done, the elegance of the tiling, the rhythm of the gothic architecture, the robust wall anchors. Plus you get a view of the city that is unrivaled. Suddenly, you notice the names on facades across the canal, quirky annexes and rooftop sundecks usually hidden from view. It’s an exciting and enriching experience—even on a rainy or overcast day. You’ve been granted a fresh perspective on the city you’ve walked around in for years. It’s like being handed a new set of eyes. And being handed back a part of the city you weren’t even aware existed.
That’s what makes the group of citizens opposing the artwork so incomprehensible. “The church has been taken away from the city,” they complained in the local newspaper Het Parool. But what Atzu is doing is the opposite of excluding. He manages to marry two seemingly contradictory values: a democratic experience of art and the intimacy necessary to make that experience meaningful.
(All images, unless otherwise noted: Taturo Atzu, The Garden which is nearest to God, 2015, Installation at Oude Kerk, Amsterdam. Photos: Wim Hanenberg)