How six Amsterdam galleries are countering international populism with collaborative initiatives
As the Netherlands prepares for the general elections on March 15, and the far-right Party for Freedom led by Geert Wilders is adding fuel to the fire of populism we’ve been experiencing internationally, six Amsterdam galleries (Annet Gelink Gallery, Ellen de Bruijne Projects, Galerie Fons Welters, Stigter Van Doesburg, tegenboschvanvreden and Martin van Zomeren) have come together for the joint initiative Nieuw Amsterdams Peil (NAP), a collaborative effort denouncing the “fragmentation, individualism, self-interest and fear” currently plaguing international politics.
The time is ripe for their first project, an exhibition titled “Where do we go from here?”, which brings together 25 artists hailing from 13 countries. The show, curated by Alessandro Vincentelli of Baltic Art Centre, running until February 25, has the ambitious aim of reconsidering the role, responsibility and sometimes disastrous consequences of speech at a very delicate historical moment.
“The unspeakable and unutterable has become commonplace, and that happened after Brexit,” says Vincentelli. “At the moment we’re in a very black and white, stupid, not-thinking moment, and that’s a problem that artists know how to deal with: how to deal with nuance, metaphor and complexity”.
Falke Pisano, Figures of Speech (diagrammed), 2009. Courtesy Nieuw Amsterdams Peil.
Thus, Falke Pisano’s impressive installation Figures of Speech (2009) — recreated for this exhibition and on show at Galerie Fons Welters — explores in great depth the making of meaning, that is, how signs translate into communication and exchanges, and what this translation involves. At a time when the structures we’ve used to make sense of both art and our society are increasingly under threat, Pisano’s work reminds us that they are carefully constructed, very complex and the complete opposite of pure demagogy.
The performative aspect of some of the featured works, such as Dina Danish’s video Practicing foreign languages — where the artist recites words and phrases shifting from English to French, German and Arabic — together with an extensive reflection on language, aim to the restore the meaningfulness of the artistic gesture. “There should be value in the artistic gesture, which has as much truth now when everyone’s questioning truth,” says Vincentelli.
Pisano’s installation is in dialogue with the eye-catching flags which feature in Otto Berchem’s work Impenetrable (Europe). (2015) These signs, traditionally linked to ideals of patriotism, are pierced throughout — the vast holes in the flags representing the discrepancies that threaten established linguistic and visual codes. As a migrant himself, Berchem, an American working between Amsterdam and Bogota, confronts a sense of belonging that is more and more subjective, beyond allegedly universal systems of signification.
Otto Berchem, Impenetrable (Europe), 2015. Courtesy Nieuw Amsterdams Peil.
By exploring our relationship with language, the artists featured in this exhibition make strong points about visual communication and its capacity to orchestrate the will and desire of an audience. But despite the somewhat dramatic context within which the exhibition was conceived, the works are not there to simply denounce the political rhetorics of our “post-truth” era. On the contrary, the artworks attest to the vitality and possibilities of speech, and more often than not, “Where do we go from here” presents an optimistic outlook on the questions it raises.
Sigurdur Gudmundsson’s photograph D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (study no. 4) (1976) establishes a connecting principle throughout the exhibition’s spaces: the photo, showing the artist holding an arrow under his arm, evokes the show’s decidedly positive vision, as well as the forward movement it hopes to incite, much like Yael Bartana’s We shall be strong in our weakness (2012) — which speaks for itself.
Yael Bartana, we shall be strong in our weakness, 2012.
Bringing artists back to the heart of the artistic experience was also fundamental to the galleries involved. Martin van Vreden of tegenboschvanvreden gallery explains: “We wanted to create a new platform for contemporary art. There aren’t many possibilities other than art fairs, but these have become very commercial enterprises, and often terrible surroundings for artists.”
In what is a largely unheard-of model, the galleries have also decided to share costs as well as the revenue of sales, showing artists they don’t necessarily represent. As the gallery format changes and the myth of economic individualism appears to have the upper hand in both the art and the world’s market, Nieuw Amsterdams Peil seems to make a point about Amsterdam being one of the last bastions of international liberalism.
"Where do we go from here" runs from January 14 through February 25 at six Amsterdam galleries: (Nieuw Amsterdams Peil) Annet Gelink Gallery, Ellen de Bruijne Projects, Galerie Fons Welters, Stigter Van Doesburg, tegenboschvanvreden and Martin van Zomeren.