Jana Euler: High In Amsterdam. The Sky Of Amsterdam (The Stedelijk Museum- Amsterdam)

Hi everyone!

Thanks for checking out CanvasAndCrumpets.  As you may know, I just got back from my Euro Trip and I’ve been posting about the exhibits I saw in order. I recently posted about three different exhibitions I saw in England. You can check them out here, here, and here. After a week of museuming and eating bangers and mash with my English cousins, I flew to the Netherlands.  On my flight I was seated in the middle of a large bachelor party, next to the groom-to-be-himself. If you have the chance to travel with a very drunk bachelor party you absolutely must take it because it was the best flight I’ve ever had. There was also a large party of middle-aged-women wearing shirts that said “F*** off, I’m with the birthday boy” and a rather emo looking high school student wearing a shirt that said “F*** off, I’m the birthday boy.” All of the women were screaming.

And so, I arrived in Amsterdam slightly tipsy and very excited. The city did not disappoint (as always!) At the absolute top of my list was a trip to the Stedelijk Museum. The Stedelijk is where I fell in love with Dutch art, and where I did much of my research for my senior thesis. I’m obsessed with the art, the building, the library, and the now deceased museum director Willem Sandberg. (I’m currently reading a compilation of Sandberg interviews).

On view at the Stedelijk right now is the exhibition, “Jana Euler: High in Amsterdam. The Sky of Amsterdam.” While it is difficult to read that sentence without immediately thinking of Dutch drug policy, it would be remiss to read off the German artists’ trippy canvases as mere mushroom-inspired dreamscapes. Euler’s works are explorations of different genres. She takes the concepts and strategies associates with each and plays with them, bending them inside-out. The Stedelijk describes Euler’s work as being “recognizable not by how it looks, but by its effect.” Let’s take a look at my favorite work from this show and see Euler’s process in action.

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Here is the ethereal Understanding Doubts and Logic (2017):

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For this work Euler airbrushed acrylic paint onto the surface of the canvas and then used oil paint on top. The two layers operate as separate paintings as well as aspects of a finished whole. The airbrushed layer features a multi-limbed and multi-breasted female figure resting in a garden filled with flowers. The oil layer features shoes, nail polish, and fake eyelashes. If you look closely, you’ll also see that there are tiny pictures of men sitting at a table with a bottle of wine painted in thin brushstrokes of oil paint. Stranger yet is the fact that white breastmilk from each of the figure’s many breasts pours into the bottles at the men’s tables. Oil is also used to spell the phrase “understanding doubts and logic” and to connect this phrase to a yellow sun by way of a thin yellow line.

Now, I have a lot of thoughts about this painting and what it might “mean.” So I’ll begin by saying that Jana Euler’s work is not explicitly symbolic. It does not fit into an allegorical box that matches icon with signification. Rather, it suggests a multiplicity of signification for various images across the canvas. It points to potential interpretations without maintaining that it must be read a specific way. And so, my reading should be seen as one angle of many that fit Euler’s multifaceted work.

I see Understanding Doubts and Logic as a blend of two genres: the female nude, and the sort of impressionistic cafe paintings that were popular in late 19th-century Parisian art. The airbrushed painting is the nude, as the naked figure takes up the majority of the canvas. Her head heads several inches below the top of the canvas, and her many feet end slightly before it, or have their toes chopped off by the bottom of the canvas. Because she fills the canvas, the focus of the painting is on her. The viewer’s eyes are free to travel across the surface of the painting, consuming different parts of her body at every turn. We as viewers fill the role of the voyeur in the relationship between viewer and subject in this genre. Euler is keenly aware of this dynamic and playfully mocks it by multiplying the subject’s breasts. Euler seems to be saying, “I know you’re going to look at this woman, so why don’t I give you a lot more to look at!” The artist has also multiplied the amount of feet in the painting. I find this very amusing, as it is clear to all that feet were never the focus of the viewer’s gaze.

Another way that Euler plays into this genre is through the figure’s gaze. In classic female nudes like this and this the female figure looks away from the viewer, allowing him to consume her without confrontation. Making eye contact would break the illusion that she wants to be consumed and is there for male consumption. She would be individualized. No longer staring at an anonymous doll, the viewer would feel confronted by the figure and embarrassed by his blatant ogling. And so, restricting eye contact allows the viewer to consume the figure in peace. Like the academic nudes do, Euler’s figure looks away demurely, allowing the viewer to get lost in her multitude of breasts and legs.

However, the longer we stare at the figure, the more we begin to feel that we are being made fun of. Not only has Euler multiplied the significance of the figure’s gender through the multiplication of breasts, but she has also aggressively emphasized other aspects of femininity. The long, curling eyelashes added over the airbrushed layer of paint are so ludicrously long it would be difficult for the figure to open her eyes. There are many kiss imprints haphazardly stamped on the surface of the painting. The figure’s red fingernails are half the size of her fingers themselves. Her breasts are many different colors, as if the figure is somehow able to be many ethnicities at once and therefore satisfy the male viewer’s many racial fantasies. Euler has created a woman who screams “WOMAN” so loudly that she becomes a parody of what the voyeuristic male wants– and expects– women to be.

This interpretation is supported by the second layer of the painting that I find resembles the cafe scenes in impressionistic France. Men outlined in black paint sit around a table drinking from proportionally enormous bottles of wine. I am reminded of 19th century cafe scenes because of the leisurely, gendered nature of each tableau. I find it comical that the female figure has been so artfully constructed with layers of paint and bright, vibrant colors, while the males are designated to mere outlines of form. While painterly attention to the female body is often objectifying, Euler’s self-conscious multiplication of gendered body parts is actually empowering. Thus, the contrast between the colorful female figure and the haphazard outlines of teeny male figures renders the male characters inferior. Euler further emasculates them by unknowingly serving them wine bottles filled with breastmilk. Droplets of white paint spill from each nipple into a bottle on each table. This is perhaps the most amusing aspect of this painting. Euler has taken the sexist notion that a woman’s role is as a wife and mother alone and used it to turn the power dynamic between men and women on its head. The men are infantilized by their small size, simplistic depiction, and the hysterical fact that they are drinking a woman’s breastmilk.

Here are Lara (my travel pal) and I, very amused at this:

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So what do we take away from Understanding Doubts and Logic? I quite like the interpretation I just presented, though I am not sure how the title fits in. Perhaps the female creature, whose forehead bears this phrase, is somehow all-knowing in her female genius. She can understand both the understandable and what we doubt we can comprehend. I come away from this painting feeling empowered and amused. Euler has turned gender dynamics on their head with a coy smile. Her belittling depiction of men is not a statement that women are actually superior, but a commentary on the way the reverse is so prevalent in our society.

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. The point of this book is that the so-called weaknesses attributed to underdogs are actually qualities that give them an advantage against their opponent. Euler has taken the “weaknesses” of women that the patriarchy attributes to the “fairer gender” and turned them into symbols of power. Breastmilk and long eyelashes signify greatness and strength.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

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The Demise of Abraham Reiss (National Holocaust Museum- Amsterdam)

Well, it finally happened. My four months in Amsterdam came to a close (with a few tears, and a whole lot of gruyere). I may be back in the Big Apple, but I’m not ready to let go of my blissful semester abroad just yet- partially because I am in denial and partially because I still have a few posts queue’d up! My last couple weeks in Amsterdam were spent scurrying from museum to gallery to museum and back again, as I feverishly attempted to cross everything off my bucket list.

One museum I am extremely glad I visited was the National Holocaust Museum. Amsterdam has several institutions dedicated to the Jewish experience in the Netherlands. I visited the  Jewish Historical Museum, the Portuguese Synagogue, the Holocaust Memorial, the Dutch Resistance Museum, and the Ann Frank House all before the National Holocaust Museum opened in May. Despite the abundance of Jewish institutions in Amsterdam, the National Holocaust Museum feels extremely prudent, and fulfills an important niche in Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter. It uses both history and art to weave together an emotional history of the Holocaust in the Netherlands.

The exhibit currently on display is The Demise of Abraham Reiss, by Jeroen Krabbé. In this exhibition, Holocaust survivor Krabbé imagines the life of his Grandfather in a series of nine multi-media works. Krabbé’s grandfather, Abraham, unfortunately did not survive the Holocaust, and was brutally murdered in Sobibor. This series of works is accompanied by a documentary in which Krabbé himself discusses his artistic choices. I will reference his ideas as well as my own in the following analysis.

The first work is entitled, Spanderswoud, 1904. It depicts Abraham at his prime, a successful diamond cleaver and lover of leisure. Here, he is perched in the grass in the woods, where he likely arrived on his Raleigh bike.

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Notice how the the landscape is heavily decorated with both paint and sand. Not a spot of grass or tree is left unpainted. And yet, Abraham himself is sketched in charcoal. It seems as if the slightest brush of a hand could wipe away the marks that represent him. He looks out at us, the viewers, with an unreadable expression. His body, though at rest, seems oddly stiff, as if he is posing for a photograph he did not want taken. Note the one white tree at the viewer’s right. This tree will become important later.

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The second work, Ostend, 1929, depicts a seaside scene. Here, Abraham strolls down the beach while on holiday in Ostend.

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He does not know that it is his last holiday there. At this time, he can afford expensive suits and vacations, but his investments in American Stock are about to bankrupt him. Krabbé illustrates this sense of foreboding through several visual techniques. Note the way Abraham’s shadow is swallowed up by the surf. Murky blue and green water grab hold of Abraham’s yellow shadow and disfigure it, blending it into the foamy sand. Abraham saunters on, blissfully unaware of what is right next to him. Krabbé also indicates the coming troubles with the rainclouds at the top left. Here is a detail of the storm:

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Note how Krabbé uses overlapping vertical and horizontal lines- a technique called cross-hatching- to create a sense of gusting winds. These cross-hatching lines descend into the water, blurring the line between sea and sky. The water, too, looks hazardous, gradually surging towards the coastline.

Abraham’s black and white form is once more drawn with charcoal, while the rest of the painting is covered in thick brushstrokes and dotted with grains of sand. This isolates him, especially in relation to his family, who are clumped together in the middle of the painting. They are difficult to discern because Krabbé has barely colored them in. They remain white on a beige beach. Perhaps Krabbé meant to foreshadow Abraham’s isolation from his family. Or, the proximity of the wife and daughters to the impending storm symbolizes the catastrophic effect of the stock market crash on the Reiss family. Just how catastrophic this was, is revealed in the coming pictures.

Krabbé also notes that he included a stairway at the top right of the beach. He calls this stairway an ‘escape.’ The addition of an ‘escape’ is poignant because the viewer is aware that Abraham was unable to utilize it.

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The third work, April 24 1942, Jekkerstraat 14-3, was painted from an actual photograph of Abraham, his wife, and his two daughters.

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After the stock market crash in 1929, Abraham lost all of the money he made in the diamond business. His family was forced to move from their luxurious home to a smaller one on Jekkerstraat. This would prove to be fatal for the Reiss family, because they did not have the money to go into hiding once the Nazis started deporting Jews. Abraham’s wife suffered from diabetes, and actually died the day after this photograph was taken. She may not have died in a death camp, but Abraham often said that it was the Nazis who killed her. She died after reading a newspaper headline that stated all Jews were to wear an identifying yellow star. Abraham kept this newspaper, and intended to use it as evidence after the War that the Nazis had killed his wife.

In Krabbé’s painting, imagery plays a vital role. Once more, Abraham is a charcoal ghost, while his family members and the room itself are thickly painted. The room is half a room and half a forest. On the viewer’s left, the room is filled with trees. Do these trees look familiar? Refer back to the first painting, Spanderswoud, 1904, and note how the singular white tree in that painting has multiplied in this work. Furthermore, hints of red have covered its white bark. Then, on the right side of the room, we see decorative wallpaper surrounding a door. The black door leads to a room so red it is quite literally on fire. Everywhere the Reiss family turns, their life is transforming: into fire, into forest, into death.

Perhaps the most haunting details are the whispers of silver sand across the surface of the painting. Take a look:

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The breezes of grey dust cover Abraham, his wife, and only one of the daughters. One daughter- the mother of Krabbé, who survived the Holocaust- is left untouched. We can see, then, that these ‘whispers,’ as Krabbé calls them, signify the inevitability of death descending upon them.

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This is Westerbork, 20 June 1943, the fourth work in Krabbé’s series. It depicts Abraham when he arrives in the Dutch labor camp.

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His charcoal form stands out in the center of this yellow canvas. He still wears his woolen coat and hat, and clutches his bag with one gloved hand. Here, sand, field and sky are one. Swirling yellow sand covers the canvas both figuratively and literally, as sand is a material used in all nine works. The effect is claustrophobic, just as the camp would have been to its inmates. A row of soldiers lines the right side of the canvas. In the far back on the viewer’s left there are tiny figures toiling in the field. They, too, are unpainted, concocted from charcoal and negative space. Their identities are slipping away, much like their representation on canvas.

This was a very heart-wrenching painting to look at. I find the way Abraham clutches his bag to be especially upsetting. The contents of his bag are the last items he brought from home. He probably carries old photographs and family heirlooms. Upon deportation, Jews were told to bring with them only a small bag. Of course, all their possessions would be taken from them, but instructing them to bring a bag created an illusion of safety. If they were allowed to bring their possessions, how bad could their destination be? This psychological deceit I find particularly nauseating. For this reason, I find Westerbork, 20 June 1943 to be one of the most poignant, most emotionally stirring paintings in the series.

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Westerbork, 6 July 1943 takes place several days after the previous work. In this painting, we see Abraham being sent by rail to the next, unknown location. This location would be Sobibor.

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The ‘whispers’ we saw in April 24 1942, Jekkerstraat 14-3 are even more prevalent here. Krabbé has coated the surface of the painting with a tremendous amount of black, grey, and white flecks. As you can see in the following detail, these specks disfigure the faces of the travelers, rendering them identity-less. The man in this detail looks like a mass of yellow paint with black splattered all over. One cannot discern his eyes from the whispers of death. As the whispers become more prominent, and the identities of the figures less distinguishable, one is left with a sense of foreboding.

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Meanwhile, Abraham continues to look at the viewer. There is too much glare on his glasses for us to properly make eye contact with him. And yet, the way he turns to face the viewer at this moment that everyone else piles into the crowded train suggests that he does see us. This moment, this pause, is filled with grace and dignity. One cannot help but admire the way Abraham regards the viewer with quiet confidence, despite the uncertainty of his situation.

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6,7,8 July 1943 depicts the inside of the train during the journey from Westerbork to Sobibor.

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I am uncertain if this is meant to be three versions of Abraham in the three positions he assumed during the journey. The charcoal coloring of all three figures suggests that this is the case. All three figures have balding heads and collared coats with trousers. In this work, the boxcar walls are red and black. If you look closely, you may see the familiar tree motif etched into the red with black paint.And then, in the center, there is a giant X scratched onto the canvas, symbolizing, perhaps, the end. The whispers are black now, floating heavily over all three versions of Abraham. He has closed his eyes, bowed his head, and in one iteration, laid on the floor, but never has he lost his dignity. He stands solemnly, his shoulders relaxed. Even in despair, the Abraham that Krabbé has depicted is noble.

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The following work is entitled, Sobibor, 9 July 1943. It depicts Abraham’s arrival at the Polish death camp.

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This is the first time that we see Abraham’s back, rather than his face. He exits the train car and walks toward the lineup. I find it odd that this work, and the previous, depict the train car to be empty despite the testimonials that these cars were filled way past capacity. I believe that this was done to highlight Abraham’s personal emotional journey, rather than to create a realistic image of what the transportation would have been like. Isolating Abraham serves to place focus on him and his relationship to his surroundings, which are filled with symbolic imagery.

In this work, the landscape begins to turn charcoal like Abraham’s figure. The trees in the background- yes, the tree motif we have seen throughout the series- are drawn entirely in charcoal. These are the famous birch trees that populated many of the forests surrounding extermination camps. They are known for having white bark and peculiar black markings all up and down their trunks that resemble eyes. This gives a deeper meaning to the expression, “the forest has eyes.” In this case, the forest did have eyes, eyes that witnessed what was about to happen to Abraham and his fellow Jews.

It is in this painting that the themes of the series come together. The trees and whispers of death that have followed Abraham throughout his life- throughout this series of paintings- end in Sobidor, where they surround him. Abraham’s charcoal existence begins to make sense. It is Krabbé’s way of representing what the Holocaust did for individuals: it tore away their identities until they were nothing more than blank white canvases. Sobidor stripped Abraham of his identity. His past life became a memory, and then a myth. In the first several works we see, it is as if we are looking back on his life after he has died, and his identity is threatening to wash away completely. Krabbé has captured him with charcoal, forcing his memory back onto the canvas and into the minds of viewers. In depicting his grandfather’s story, Krabbé returns to him his identity.

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In the last two works, the metaphor is completed. Much of the canvas turns to charcoal while the color of the paint desaturates until it is only black and white. This is Sobibor, 9 July 1943 11 am. 

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In this work, Krabbé depicts the de-humanizing act of undressing that the Jews were forced to endure in front of the Nazi guards. I think the sorrow in Abraham’s face speaks for itself.

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The forest is watching too. Note how the forest is almost as powerful a protagonist as Abraham himself.

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And finally, Sobibor, 9 July 1943 11:30 am. 

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The field is empty. All of the Jews from the train, including Abraham, are inside the gas chamber of Sobibor. The smoke that steams out of the chimney is black and dotted with white specks- these are the origins of the whispers that chased Abraham through the previous eight paintings, the remnants of his body and soul wiping away his identity:

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Krabbé explains that geese were used to cover the noise of people dying in the chambers, so that new arrivals would not panic and flee. They are painted in red. Perhaps this is because they are the only figures left alive on the canvas.

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It is not easy to read posts like this. I recognize that, and don’t blame you if you skimmed through this or only made it halfway through. It was even harder to write, and more difficult yet to see at the National Holocaust Museum. But exhibits like this are important. In exhibiting this series, Krabbé returned to his grandfather his dignity and his identity. The more we say his name- Abraham Reiss, Abraham Reiss, Abraham Reiss- the more we triumph over the evil that stripped him of his personhood in the first place. Keep Abraham Reiss and Jeroen Krabbé in your minds and hearts.

The Demise of Abraham Reiss is a poignant example of why I love art so much. It has the capacity to make people learn things and feel things that they could not have had they simply read a history textbook. I hope that these images and my words helped you with both. As always, feel free to let me know if you disagree with something I said, or have something to add.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

 

Link to my review on the Greenbox Museum’s Website!

Hi everyone!

It’s been quite a busy day. After posting about Mediamatic I explored Amsterdam Noord. In fact, I just got back from the Eye Film Museum and Cinema. What an incredible place!

Just wanted to share some quick and exciting news. In April I wrote a piece on the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia. I was happy to see my review listed on their website under ‘press.’ Take a look. And while you’re at it, explore the Greenbox website. It’s a fantastic resource if you’re interested in Saudi Arabian art, and aren’t sure where to begin.

Many thanks to the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudia Arabia!

xoxo, Chloe ❤

Banksy: Laugh Now (Museum of Contemporary Art-Amsterdam)

Hey guys!

Last weekend my parents visited me in Amsterdam, and I was so happy to take them around and show them all my favorite artistic spots. But I was even more happy to explore the Moco with them, because it opened only a few days before they arrived! The Moco (Museum of Contemporary Art)  is the latest addition to the bustling museums in Museumplein, such as the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk, and the Van Gogh Museum. It is also another in a continuing stream of museums around the world that devote themselves to late modern and contemporary art- a difficult feat, as museums are typically retrospective spaces in which temporality is presented chronologically. Museums have to adjust their historical perspective to allow contemporary works to be seen. I will save my discussion about the shift in museum culture for another day, but keep this in mind while I discuss the Banksy exhibit at the Moco.

Here is the exterior of this absolutely beautiful building.

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And here is the placard that hangs on the gate outside the museum. It is also repeated on merchandise throughout the museum shop. I bought a t-shirt with this phrase on it, and have been walking around feeling 75% cool and 25% obnoxious.

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The first work that caught my eye was The Key to Making Great Art (2004), made from spray paint on canvas.

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The Key to Making Great Art is a wonderful visual pun. The phrase on the canvas reads: “the key to making great art is all in the composition.” However, the layout of this phrase cuts off the word ‘composition,’ effectively enacting poor composition. It is a cheeky commentary on the rules of design. Who says what makes ‘great’ composition? And what happens when your composition doesn’t fit these standards?

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I also found Crude Oil Jerry (2004) very humorous.

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In this work, Banksy has taken an existing painting, likely purchased from a second-hand store, and painted over it the motif of Jerry from the children’s cartoon, Tom and Jerry. The original painting features an idyllic landscape. Houses are tucked away behind verdant trees and boats sit peacefully in the still water. The brushstrokes are light and frothy, lending this painting a gentle air. It looks like a painting by John Constable or one of the Hudson River School artists.  Cartoon Jerry, however, has been painted in thick, smooth slabs of paint. He sits on a tree branch in the foreground with a match and lighter fluid in his paws and a frighteningly enthusiastic smile on his face.

The juxtaposition of these two scenes is very funny for the viewer. It is not every day we see a pyromaniac cartoon character traipse over a beautiful landscape. But I believe Banksy was after something more than comedic anachronism. In painting over a traditional, existing work, Banksy makes a statement about the western art canon, and what we define as “traditional.” This statement is mirrored by the figure of Jerry starting a fire. When he drops the match, the landscape will go up in flames, consuming the little boat, the tiny houses, and all the green shrubs that are visual markers of an elitist, euro-centric art canon. These two acts: painting over an existing scene, and depicting the scene on the verge of destruction, very clearly articulate Banksy’s views on traditionalism and privilege. He obviously sees this impressionistic style of landscape painting as indicative of wealth and euro-centric traditionalism that he wishes to destroy with an image- Jerry- who is universally recognized and enjoyed. In this sense, Crude Oil Jerry is more accessible than the original painting.

While accessibility of the arts is one of my major interests (hence, the existence of Canvas And Crumpets), its focus in this work contradicts the prices of Banksy’s works and their presence in a museum that charges €12,50 for adults and €10,00 for students. Now, for Museumplein, that is not a steep fee. The Stedelijk next door charges €15,00 for adults. The Rijksmuseum charges €17,50. I understand that museums need to charge money because they need to pay their overhead costs- it is a business, after all. But all of that seems very contradictory to Banksy’s critique of the western art canon and inaccessibility in the art world… On the flip side, Banksy does need to make money too. Spray paint and rent money don’t fall from the sky. It is an interesting paradox. How can a street artist keep his cred when he goes global and starts making big money?

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This work is entitled Kids on Guns (2003).

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Here, Banksy uses spray paint on canvas to depict two small children standing on top of a mountain of guns. They seem blissfully ignorant of the ground beneath their feet. The little boy clutches a teddy bear. The girl holds a red balloon in the shape of a heart above their heads. The two look at each other. We cannot see what they are saying, or what their faces are revealing, because they are silhouetted against the white sky.

The depiction of children amongst firearms is a common trope used to make a statement about violence. Children represent innocence. They are a reminder that we were all once children, who didn’t believe in the causes that lead people to kill each other today. Children are not inherently racist, colonizing jerks driven by thirst for oil, and a simultaneous desire to keep those different from us, away. These are learned behaviors. Depicting children amongst firearms- reminders of the violence that plagues this planet- is a call for peace.

Seeing these two figures above the mountain of guns makes me feel like everything going on is, well, silly. Obviously police brutality, terrorism, and the aftermath of colonialism are nothing to laugh at. But when you see children amongst the mess, you start to wonder what the hell is wrong with all of us. How did we go from clutching teddy bears to holding guns?  Banksy seems to be asking the same question.

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In Four Monkeys (2001), Banksy utilizes his usual medium of choice-spray paint- to make yet another statement about society.

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This image recalls for me the image of the monkey, dressed in a vest, trained to play the cymbal in old Vaudeville acts and movies. They also used to make, and still make, toys commemorating this totally humane practice. Here’s a video, in case you never want to sleep again.

What this old practice points to is more than just animal cruelty. Mankind has always had a strange relationship with monkeys, perhaps because they are more similar to us than we care to think. When Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, he was met with scorn by his fellow humans who believed they were too dignified to be at all related to such a primitive species. I find this rather funny, given that slavery and colonialism were paramount at the time of The Origin of Species’ publication. But that’s a separate rant.

Anyway, hearing that this ‘evil-lution’ business was proposing strong ties between man and monkey had a strange effect on people. They were eager to demonstrate just how stupid monkeys were, in order to separate themselves further from them. Thus, the monkey became a symbol of stupidity, simpleness, and primitivism. It was shown clapping a cymbal repeatedly, with a glazed look over its eyes, to prove to people that monkeys were only capable of simple tasks. (Unlike the human, who could enslave entire races of people. What a skill!)

What Banksy has done here, with Four Monkeys, is bring attention to the idea of human-supremism. These monkeys stand almost entirely upright. Their faces are turned down in a very human expression of sadness. The signs around their necks warn that their time in charge is coming. Even as someone who doesn’t think monkeys are stupid, that is a terrifying thought. After all, we have been raised to feel superior, because we are people, and have the most highly functioning brains of any species. With the exception of poaching laws in certain countries regarding endangered species, we kill all animals we deem tasty, dangerous, or inconvenient. We have assumed our role at the top of the food chain in an unsustainable way. The world is far too populated with humans to sustain us infinitely.

In Four Monkeys, Banksy reminds us that we are not the only beings on this planet smart enough to be ‘in charge.’ It is both frightening and humbling.

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Lastly, here is a photograph of Girl with a Balloon Diptych (2005). This motif, created from spray paint on canvas, is one of Banksy’s most iconic images.

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Here I am, attempting to imitate the pose of the little girl with the balloon. Unfortunately I’m squinting and look more like a terrible ballerina than the little girl in Girl with a Balloon Diptych. 

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The little girl here is mostly silhouetted, though we can see her hair blowing in the wind and the hint of an eye. She stretches one arm upwards towards her escaped balloon. It has blown so far away that it is on another canvas, threatening to leave it through the top-right corner. This girl does not really reach for the balloon. If she were, she would be on her tip-toes, jumping, both hands reaching towards the sky. Her posture is much more stoic. She stands upright, calmly lifting one arm towards her flyaway balloon.

Her attitude towards the balloon is much more relaxed than one would imagine for a small child. The way she stands firmly on her feet, gazing up at the sky, indicates that she has come to terms with the fact that her balloon is gone. But her outstretched left arm reveals that she will never lose hope. It is a kind of calm, constant, peaceful hope that I would not expect to see in a little girl. Perhaps that is the most pure kind of hope; unwavering faith despite the appearance of failure.

This little girl’s hope has a multiplicity of meanings, depending on who is looking at her. When I see her, I think about my life, and the calmness and openness I want to approach it with. When someone else sees her, they might feel hope for the entire future of mankind. I believe that Banksy intended for this multiplicity of meanings. I love art that takes into consideration the experience of the viewer. In fact, I think Girl with a Balloon Diptych needs a viewer’s interpretation to be complete. Banksy’s works don’t just hang on a wall. They are conversations with people.

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Now, I’d like to leave you with a few works that I won’t analyze. See if you can draw your own conclusions about these works from what we have been discussing about Banksy and your own observations.

Top Left: Bomb Hugger (Not dated)

Top Right: Keep It Real (2003)

Bottom: Tortoise Helmet (2009)

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Speaking of hope, I hope you enjoyed this post! And I hope all is well and that, wherever you are, it’s warmer than where I am. It’s 48 degrees and I am NOT happy about it. Good thing I spend 80% of my time in museums 😀

Until next time!

xoxo, Chloe ❤

Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art From Saudi Arabia- Amsterdam

Goedenmiddag!

Today I am going to tell you about the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia. This small museum is located in Leidseplein, in a larger office space down the street from a cluster of busy bars and clubs. I stood in front of “The Chicago Social Club” for a good ten minutes seriously pondering if a collection of contemporary Saudi art could be housed inside in some secret room (behind the bar..?) But no. If you intend to visit, walk down Korte Leidsedwarsstraat, beyond the mass of outdoor bars, toward a silver-doored office complex. You will absolutely not regret it. And here is why:

The Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia is a gem; a sizable collection of fascinating Saudi art, each work with a unique story and connection to the collector/curator. I am not sure which to refer to him by, as his personal acquisition of each work would suggest that he is a collector. Yet his extensive and scholarly knowledge of Saudi Arabian history and contemporary politics/art, as well as his consideration of the viewer’s experience when viewing the work, reveals that he is undoubtedly a curator as well.

In a visit to a larger museum, there is little opportunity to interact with curators and gain first-hand information about the work beyond the wall placards and audioguide. Here, the curator walked me through the exhibit and engaged me in a dialogue about Saudi Arabian history, politics, and art. In this way, the experience was more like visiting a gallery, and yet none of these works are for sale. That is the wonderful paradox of the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia: it has the intimacy of a gallery and the dignified atmosphere of a museum.

Take a look at some of the impressive works and their stories. My analyses are a combination of what I learned from the curator of the museum and my own interpretations. Feel free to challenge me, or to add on to my thoughts.

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Here is a photograph called,  The Path, by Abdulnasser Gharem (2008).

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The Path is actually a still photo of a video work of the same name. Both works depict a bridge in a south-western Saudi Arabian village. During a dreadful flood in 1982, villagers took refuge on this bridge. Tragically, the foundation of the bridge was unstable, and the flood caused the bridge to break, killing all of the people on it. In 2007, remnants of the bridge remained, reminding people of the tragedy that occurred over twenty years before. No one is certain why the bridge collapsed, but it was likely because the builders did not give it a proper foundation. This irresponsible decision likely also saved the (corrupt) construction company a lot of money.

Gharem visited the site of the collapse in 2007, and spray-painted the word ‘al siraat’ over and over again on the road. ‘Al-Siraat’ means ‘the path’ in arabic. This act was captured on camera in a video-installation. In this video, the child of a victim partakes in the spray-painting, which adds a greater tone of somberness to this already bitter work. You can watch the video here.

‘The path’ may very well refer to Islam. In the Islamic faith, ‘the path’ is the road Allah summons Muslims to take; a way of spiritual living outlined by Allah. By repeating the word’ al-siraat’ over and over again on this broken bridge, is Gharem suggesting that certain elements of his faith are broken? That following ‘the path’ may lead to death?

It is, of course, possible, but I do not think that this is what Gharem is trying to say. It seems too easy a jump to make- too simple and graphic a metaphor. I believe that Gharem is pointing out a flaw in the mentality of his people, not in religion. Perhaps he is saying that the basic tenets of Islam are being lost beneath religious politics and modernization. After all, it is written: “Serve God…and do good — to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are near, neighbours who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (you meet), and what your right hands posses: for God loves not the arrogant, the vainglorious.” [4:36] Respect for human life is a basic principle of Islam. There is nothing less Muslim than the tragedy of 1982, as it was the consequence of corruption in the construction firm that built the unstable bridge. After all, it is much cheaper to build a shallow bridge than a properly stabilized one. The moment that saving money becomes more important than protecting human lives, there is something deeply wrong. In this way, I believe that Gharem is calling for a return to ‘Al-Sitaar.’ His people have wandered off the path, and he is directing them back.

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This is Pedestrian Crossing, also by Abdulnasser Gharem (2008).

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Pedestrian Crossing depicts the iconographic image of the plane flying into the World Trade Center. On the viewer’s left is a curved yellow road meant to represent the same metaphorical Path described in The Path.

In this work, stamps are the medium, but not to create a print. Usually, stamps are used to imprint an image or text in ink on a sheet of paper. Here, the stamps themselves are used, their rubber corners lined up to one another to form a larger image. Note how most of the work uses arabic-lettered stamps, but the body of the Twin Towers utilizes latin letters.

It is important to note that 15 of the 19 hijackers associated with the 9/11 attacks were members of Al-Qaeda from Saudi Arabia. With Pedestrian Crossing, Gharem seems to be grappling with the fact that several of his countrymen were responsible for the attacks. The Towers and the Path are depicted starkly, with clean, straight lines delineating one form from the next. They float in a gray vacuum, forcing focus onto the motifs of the buildings and the plane. Such a graphic representation forces the event to be seen, and begs for it to be discussed. Pedestrian Crossing does not get bogged down in aesthetics or emotions. It puts forth the facts: two buildings were struck, thousands died, and the majority of those responsible were Saudi Arabian. By forcing the facts onto the table, Gharem demands viewers to face what has happened. He wants them to talk about how such a thing could happen, how a basic principle of Islam- respect for human life- could be forgotten.

Again, Gharem is not attacking his own faith. Rather, he is questioning the general mentality of his country that has engendered extremist groups whose warped version of Islam abandons its true, peaceful intentions. With Pedestrian Crossing, Gharem exposes this twisted mentality, and calls for a discussion about confronting extremism in Saudi Arabia.

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 Cardiac Illumination, by Ahmed Mater (2007) approaches the subject of Islam in a very different way.

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Mater uses gold leaf, pomegranate, tea, ink, and x-ray to create this illuminated ‘page’ of the Quran. It is reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts, yet this page is not book-size. It is over a meter tall and reads more like a painting than a book.

I find this work fascinating because it rides the fine line between profanity and sacrality. In the Islamic faith, figurative representations are prohibited. Contrary to popular belief,  figurative Islamic art does exist outside the Mosque. However, such a thing is sacrilegious in religious spaces, because the only image of Allah is The Word, printed in the Quran. And so, the use of x-rays as decoration on an imagined page of the Quran is questionable. An x-ray, by definition, is a depiction of the human form. At the same time, it is a scientific scan, rather than an actively painted or drawn estimation of the human body. Furthermore, an x-ray only depicts bones. It leaves out all of the elements that make a figure resemble a figure, like muscle, skin, hair- a face! What is an x-ray more than a series of eerie white lines arranged around a spine?

So why, then, did Mater choose to include these controversial x-rays in his work? It can not be just to provide a loophole to a rule in his faith. I think it has something to do with the pureness and liberty of faith. Having faith is an act of baring one’s soul, and opening it up to light. For many, prayer is an act of sharing one’s innermost thoughts and seeking peace of mind. A skeleton is a very literal translation of this concept.

Furthermore, skeletons look more or less the same, while individual people with faces and clothing are distinguishable. By depicting x-rays of human bones, perhaps Mater also suggests that we are all the same to a higher being. Skin color, social status, daily stresses and problems are stripped away in the eyes of Allah (or the Jesus Christ, or God… is it really any different in any other faith?) The fact that one is just as loved as everyone else is a very comforting thought to many who are unsatisfied with their present conditions on earth.

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Lastly, I would like to show you Yellow Cow Products, also by Ahmed Mater (2007).

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The yellow cow is part of a story in the Quran in which Moses tells several Israelites to slaughter a yellow cow and perform several rituals with it. In doing so, they will find out who has committed a dreadful murder. It has taken on a role as a motif that is highly recognizable as a part of Islamic faith.

And so, its commercialization as a line of dairy products is a cheeky response to modernization and capitalism in Saudi Arabia. The yellow cow becomes a product that can be farmed, marketed, sold, bought, and ingested. Importantly: it can also go bad. After all, dairy products do have an expiration date. Mater writes on his blog about this work: “In the ‘yellow cow’ the world is ornate; its bright color is joyful. This glittering world implies that it is highly valuable, that it is all that you want, and all that you live for, but once it owned you (while thinking it owned you) you start to realize what a poor, shabby world it is. And you become a poor shabby human.”

I think this most interesting aspect of this quote is the concept that the world of the yellow cow owns you, rather than the other way around. This is the effect of capitalism, in Mater’s mind. It is a trap in which we are caught and tricked into thinking we have control, but in reality, we are slaves to the products we think we need. Capitalism, Mater says, has the ability to transform even the holiest of things- the yellow cow- into something that is churned (put intended) out to meet consumer demands.

At the bottom of the frame the words “ideologically free” are printed. This is a play on words, as some dairy products are “pesticide free,” and “homogenized” and “pasteurized.” Here what we are free from is not hormones, but any kind of ideology with a set of values and beliefs. Instead, we have been stripped of our individual ideologies in order to survive in an increasingly consumer society.

I think that this attack on consumerism can apply worldwide, but that it is specifically aimed here at Saudi Arabia, a country whose modernization in the past forty years has been uneven. Gharem’s The Path shows how modernization in small villages has been careless and haphazard. In central cities, however, Mater describes crowds of people snapping pictures of towers with their iPhones. Using the yellow cow, a symbol of the Islamic faith specifically, is a reminder to the people in Saudi Arabia of the entrapment of consumerism.

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I hope that you enjoyed this post. The Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia was one of my favorite museums here in Amsterdam. I left feeling like I had learned a lot, but with even more questions than I started with. I look forward to doing further research about contemporary Saudi Arabian art. I am also doing research on conflict in Saudi Arabia for one of my courses here in Amsterdam, and I look forward to incorporating what I learned at the Greenbox into my paper.  It’s funny how things come together like that- I discovered a museum devoted to Saudi Arabian art the same week I chose Saudi Arabian modernization as a topic for my research.

Keep your eyes and ears peeled for art that can add depth to other things that you are learning. It is fascinating to see how interconnected the world is.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood (Rijksmuseum- Amsterdam)

Hey everyone!

Today I am going to tell you about The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood, an anonymous painting that hangs in the Rijksmuseum. It was painted between 1490 and 1495, around 75 years after the events of the painting took place. I was immediately drawn to this painting because I found it’s form very intriguing. The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood is split into two panels that depict the narrative of the great flood that occurred on November 19th, the Feast Day of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. On the right, we see a badly damaged village, and on the left, the town of Dordrecht, which was thankfully spared. The two scenes are connected by the presence of rafts in the top left corner of the Dordrecht scene. The figures on these rafts represent survivors of the flood seeking refuge in Dordrecht.

I find this construction very interesting. The two panels represent two separate spaces, two spaces that could never be seen simultaneously with one pair of eyes. And yet they are linked by proximity, proximity that is visually represented through the role of the tiny raft in the top-left. This motif is what allows these panels to occupy the same space and temporality.

Here is a picture of “Elizabeth’s Day Flood” as it hangs in the Rijksmuseum.

And here are close-ups of each panel. The first picture represents the panel on the left, and the second, the panel on the right. Note the sense of calm in the first work, and the feeling of chaos that governs the second.

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Now I would like to point out several details in these two panels that construct the overarching narrative and reveal telling characteristics of late medieval/early Renaissance Dutch art.

This is a detail from the first panel.

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We see a man in black pants and a brown tunic carrying a heavy load on his back. He is entering the gates of the town. His steps look labored- note how both his knees are bent, perhaps under the weight of his bag. His feet are also turned inwards in a position that feels both wobbly and cautious. He could be struggling to walk, or even bowing in a gesture of humility, as he seeks refuge in Dordrecht from the flood.

Even here, in the in-tact town of Dordrecht, the aftermath of this horrible natural disaster can be felt. The woman in a green dress, who pulls a young boy behind her, also appears to be heading to the city gates. Perhaps she, too, is seeking refuge from the storm. Note how her son has the proportions of a very small man. His face is mature, and his stance, upright. This is typical of Dutch depictions of the human form at this time. You may recognize similar man-children from other paintings of the 15th century. Once the renaissance is in full swing (a movement that was strong in the north as well as in Italy!) we begin to see age-appropriate depictions of children.

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Here is another detail from the first panel. In fact, this is the upper-left corner I mentioned before, where the rafts from a flooded village iconographically link this panel with the next.

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Pardon the glare. If anyone would like to buy me an expensive camera, this problem would be solved and I would also be eternally grateful.

Anyway.

This beautiful winding river is so beautifully Dutch. The river bends constantly, carving circles into the river bed. Bell towers can be seen in the distance, reminding the viewer of distant towns hit by the severe storm. Other buildings along the way are marked in gold leaf. I cannot read what they say but I assume they act as geographical markers, assigning various names to stone buildings. The raft in the corner is a tiny but vital element of this work, as it is the key to linking the two panels.

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Here is a detail from the right side of the left panel. You can see the frame on the viewer’s right.

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Note the figure in the top right. He is naked, and scuttling up a tree. This tiny detail adds a level of cheeky humor to the painting, while also revealing the extent of the consequences of the flood. I’m not really sure how this man managed to lose his clothing, but evidently conditions were bad enough that he felt the need to escape the water by climbing up a tree in his birthday suit.

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And now we move to the panel on the right. This panel depicts a village ravaged by the flood.

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The lack of perspective and proportion is quite comical in this fragment of Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood. Note the pig trying to swim to safety. It looks as if it is standing bolt upright in a vacuum. It is not blended into the scene in a realistic manner- but this is typical of a work painted before the Dutch Renaissance improved painterly techniques. With some suspended belief, one can view this animal as one of many swimming to safety.

There is also a rather bizarre looking dead body floating by in the water. His head looks strangely large given that he is meant to be BEHIND the figure with red pants. If he is behind, then the laws of perspective tell us that he should actually appear smaller. This is one of many disjointed elements of this painting that place it in the 1490s in the Netherlands. However, I find great success in his expression, which reads most definitely as ‘dead.’ His chalky pallor, closed eyes, and slightly agape mouth lend The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood an aura of death.

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Paintings of this time were extremely detailed, as they told non-linear narratives, and needed to contain different plot points within the same work.

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If you look closely, you can see a woman peering out from her door. Perhaps she is surveying conditions of the flood. The placard next to this painting explained that this woman had been left behind, but I do not think this is necessarily true. What this figure does do, though, is add to the sense of fear and uncertainty that envelops this panel. Doorways are transitionary spaces. For her to be frozen within the doorframe suggests that she, for some reason, is unsure about where she ought to be in space… inside her shelter? Or outside, moving towards higher ground?

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The last detail I’d like to show you is simultaneously the most gruesome and the most comical.

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Several animals drown in an unconvincing swirl of white brushstrokes, while a disembodied head floats by. Despite its strange, early attempts at perspective and proportions, this painting still manages to evoke desolation and desperation. The figure in the boat doesn’t even turn around to acknowledge that both people and animals are drowning in the water. Such circumstances would only come about if conditions were truly terrible.

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I hope that this analysis made you realize how interesting and involved a lot of old paintings can be. Many of my friends have mentioned that works from the 15th century are unaccessible and difficult to understand. In other cases, I have been told that such works are “only focused on religion” and “really boring.” But as you can see, The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood is really anything but. It is both humorous and bleak, and is a wonderful example of the early stirrings of the Dutch Renaissance. Today, elements of this painting may seem a bit silly- like the man-child or the disembodied heads- but they are indicative of early attempts to place the human form in realistic space. In the next century, The Dutch Renaissance would flourish, and these attempts would turn into successes.

Today I am off to the Van Gogh Museum! More on that later. Until then!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

 

 

I Didn’t Ask for It (Interview with the Artists from OT301-Amsterdam)

Hey all-

I am really excited to share with you the work of Debbie Young and Katerina Sidorova, two rising artists who are studying at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague. I had the wonderful opportunity to see their work exhibited in I Didn’t Ask For It at OT301 last week in Amsterdam. I was later able to interview them in their studios in The Hague. Read on to find out what inspires these artists to create, their thoughts on group exhibits and Dutch contemporary art, and more!

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I first meet Debbie and Katerina at OT301, the multi-media art organization located near Vondelpark. I am not immediately sure who they are, as the exhibit space is a mass of artistic types draped in woolen coats and decked out in colorful lipstick. Any of these uniquely-dressed people sipping wine and chatting could be the artists. I end up meeting the curator, Lorena, who introduces me to the them. Debbie is wearing the same red lipstick she wears in her video installation piece. I am surprised that I did not immediately recognize her from this work. It might be because her brown hair, straightened in the video, is thick and curly in person. When she speaks, a bright Scottish accent comes out. She and her friend Katerina stand at about the same height- several inches shorter than my 5’8″- but they could not be more different. Katerina has a blunt blonde bob and speaks with a slight Russian accent. They are both curious about how my friend and I ended up here. I gather that OT301 is not a spot frequented by Americans.

I chat with the two artists briefly, and learn a little bit more about their work, which is being displayed in the same, small, vibrant space. We agree to meet the next day in The Hague to chat about their work and to take a tour of their studios. In the meantime, I explore the fascinating artwork displayed by these two artists and let them mingle with the excited crowd.

I Didn’t Ask For It explores the intricacies of human nature through two specific case studies. The first is Deborah Young’s, which examines the relationship between characters in the media and their obsessive fandoms.

The most prominent element of her work is a video installation projected onto a blank, white wall. Here are several stills from this work:

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In this video, Young creates a character that is obsessed with Justin Bieber. She performs a youtube tutorial in which she describes how to make Justin Bieber her boyfriend, through a variety of steps that include makeup, confidence, and flirting “techniques.” It is wildly comedic at times, such as when Young steps off her chair to illustrate the importance of flexibility in wooing Justin. Yet it is also alarming to see this character’s dissolution into utter insanity.

A bedspread, shown below, with Justin’s likeness and the likeness of Young’s character, is absurd and yet also unnerving.

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Stores do sell Bieber bedspreads (I actually looked and you can buy one here). Yet depicting herself next to Justin on this spread underlines the strangeness of this practice. It demonstrates the lengths that obsession can go in a humorous, light-hearted tone.

The third part of Young’s installation is the following altarpiece:

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In this work, sketches of Bieber are framed and surrounded by creepy, deformed, three-dimensional figures. My first instinct is that these little figures are meant to represent the fans who have lost their own identities in their obsession with Bieber.

In the same space, Katerina’s work is displayed. There is only a few feet of space between the two. Katerina’s installation piece is inspired by the the journey of the hero in mythology, and how people buy into mythology as a means of grappling with their own mortality. Envision the previous images, in the same space as the following:

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At first, I am not entirely sure what Sidorova’s work was meant to represent, but I recognize symbols of strength and power. The pitchforks stretch from the floor to the ceiling, but are constructed from many separate pieces of wood tied together. The emphasis on construction is clear. The white sheet also undergoes a transformation throughout the trajectory of the work. In the corner, where the light is dim, it is grubby and muddy. The grime disappears closer to the center of the room. The swatch of sheet draped over the pitchforks is completely clean. I look forward to talking with Sidorova to gain more insight into the meaning of this multifaceted work.

The next day I meet Debbie and Katerina at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague. They show me their studios and I am instantly jealous that I don’t go to art school. Everywhere we go we pass friends they say hello to, and art I want to steal. Only in art school do you find a guitar, ten empty cookie boxes, and a human body made of plaster all in the same room. I put my bag on the ground and cloud of white dust splashed across it. They apologize simultaneously, but I say it gives my bag “character.”

Chloe: So guys, tell me about your early experiences with art and how you knew you wanted to be artists!

Debbie: I’ve always been good naturally, it was one of the first things that I really enjoyed doing, and it was mostly drawing cartoons and just drawing all the time. And actually I ended up going to study psychology first because, in Scotland, there is a very realistic way of thinking… [it is] self-deprecating, sort of pretentious, to be seen as an artist, or to see yourself as an artist. Then when I was 21 I decided I wanted to move away from Glasgow [and be an artist]. I just moved to the Hague really on a whim because I got in here.

Katerina: I was growing up under the guidance of my Grandma. She was an engineer but she always wanted to be an artist. She would introduce me to the world of drawing, painting, and just some modeling from clay. It kind of embedded in my brain the fact that you can become an artist but not in Russia. I started to catch up on drawing first by myself, then in my at teens I was really into street art. I was just running around with brushes in my hometown painting- what was it back then? Words and naked ladies I think haha. Trying to be a rebel. Then I started to take it actually serious and I thought that it can be a full time occupation. It is rather recent the realization that I can do this, this is what I am going to do with my life.

Chloe: I want to hear about the work that you two showed at OT301 and what you were trying to convey to viewers. Debbie, tell me about yours.

Debbie: It all started with the idea of the persona, and the hero aspect, the idolizing of a human being. I thought was a really strange concept because we are all humans. But we forget that these are people too just because they have a large skillset and the will to accomplish the goals we all want [to achieve.] So then I was thinking, what’s the contemporary hero? The contemporary hero seems to be celebrities because people aspire to project themselves onto celebrities. They also judge them quite harshly. They rise and fall quite hard. So I was interested in that concept of the E News world, the Kardashians who are superficial, shallow, the mindset of the whole thing. It’s an illusion, the whole world. Even the people who have a lot of skills and make it to the top are turned into this character and therefore are mythologized into this godlike presence. I was really interested in the fandom as well, with Justin Bieber especially, who is the contemporary idol of all the teenage girls. I was thinking he was the best example currently of how to illustrate these crazy fan groups, and how disconcerting this is in a way.

Chloe: How did that influence the fact that you chose to do a video, and that you had the bed sheet? The altar? How did you choose those specific mediums?

Debbie: Video is really fast and you can edit [yourself into] it. This can be superficial, yourself creating this character that is just this YouTube celebrity- which is a new type of celebrity. It’s so accessible and anyone can do it, so people seek to put on this character [to stand out]. That is a really interesting aspect as well. I just did loads of research on YouTube on people who have become famous on YouTube for the makeup tutorials and all these different types of characters. The bed sheet was a teen fan-girl thing but I wanted to make it a renaissance painting with a godlike Justin.

Chloe: Well I like that you put your image onto the bed sheet as well. I thought that was interesting. Can you say more about that?

Debbie: Yeah, well I did that to go with the video mainly because that is the creation of the character. [The character] is almost psychopathic by the end of it and you see a gradual demise of her sanity. So I thought that it would be a funny addition to the video to have the bedsheets. And also just I’ve always been into portraiture and I thought it would be witty.

Chloe: It definitely added even more humor to an already self-consciously funny work. I really enjoyed it! Now Katarina, can you tell me about the work you displayed at OT301?

Katerina: I work with narratives and for this I decided to make it year-long. Each of the works presented would be a step in a story .The whole bigger project is about “The Feat,” and the reflection on the logics of mythology. So the structure [includes] the hero being born, realizing that there was some sin performed in his early life/birth, the necessity to make up for this sin with the Feat, the preparation for The Feat by the family, the wandering, and The Feat itself. Then, the consequences of [The Feat]. So in OT301 I concentrated on the wandering, on when the hero is just becoming this active figure. I was trying to show this first step: leaving the place to try and fight for something, not knowing why, having some weapons that are rather limited and not so much skill  or experience yet. But having the drive to do something, and [the hero] doesn’t know what yet. This logic I’m applying to a very simple human thing: how do we deal with the knowledge of our mortality? For me it is about creating this logical construction of narratives, whether it is religion or science or art per say or mythology in the case with this work.

Chloe: So how did you apply this concept of myth as a means of dealing with human mortality, to the materials you used and the form that you created?

Katerina: What I’m trying to do is transform materials that I used in the first steps throughout the whole project. So it all started when the hero realized he’s mortal and that death is really disgusting, with chamber pots made of clay next to a dirty bed of a dead person. The cloth from that bed was washed, ironed, and prepared, sewn together into that big peace of fabric that you saw [at OT301]. The big spades or pitchforks that were holding it used to be legs of a bedframe. So [the materials are] transforming throughout the whole project and they will be reused again in a different form. So the whole journey of the hero is becoming more a journey of materials.

Chloe: That’s such an interesting idea to use the same materials throughout the different acts in the myth. What is the next step in the journey?

Katerina: In the beginning I made quite a strict structure for myself, but it was made in order to break free later on, which is what is happening. So the next thing on the list is, of course, that the hero performs The Feat. He performs the labor. This for me will be the erection of a church or a chapel-like structure. I don’t know yet how it’s going to look. I don’t know if it’s going to stay or fall and what’s going to happen with that.

Chloe: Well I look forward to seeing the next step in hero’s journey, and how you use the same materials to represent that! Now guys, why OT301? What drew you two to the space?

Debbie: We actually got the opportunity through a girl we know, Lorena. She did an open call and Katarina is the one who noticed it, and she asked me [to apply with her].

Katerina: We just had a school show that was quite an exhausting experience, but I had the strong urge to keep on going on our own. As an art student it is very easy to get carried away within this education, and you attempt to forget that this is not your real world. You are in a very safe greenhouse bubble. It is necessary to make first steps outside school already because, if you don’t take initiative, nobody will. When I heard about the opportunity to exhibit at OT301 I didn’t think twice. I figured I’ll just apply, I’ll put Debbie’s name on it, we will figure it out later.

Debbie: So we decided to collaborate because we always sort of end up having quite similar thoughts.

Chloe: How do you guys think the element of having someone else’s work in the same space, influences the way your work is perceived?

Deborah: I think it definitely makes a big difference. We got a lot of comments last night about how it was really surprising that our work was so different, but it seemed to work. We both used sound, so we had to swap [alternate using sound]. Even when Katarina’s sound went over my muted video, it worked. Her music went with it even though it was completely different.

Katerina: Yeah, I think for viewers it worked quite successfully, and that’s what I experienced as well. The main difference between our works is the approach, I guess. In this project I attempt to make things over-serious, over-dramatic, rather dry, and she went for the humorous side. Showing them together exaggerated our original intentions. I think the works were screaming more than if they were just by themselves, and I quite like that.

Chloe: I definitely felt similarly. When my friend and I first saw the Justin Bieber altar we thought it was part of your exhibit Katarina! The white color and the melting shapes… the works really interacted in such an interesting way.

Debbie: They did! We were like, “this is really crazy!”

Chloe: So exciting when things come together like that. What else is exciting you guys right now about the art world in general?

Debbie: Well, it’s really open. You can do anything. You can do installation, which I really like to do.  I like the playfulness in today’s art. But mostly I am inspired by old art and other things that aren’t in the art world per say like film and seeing something beautiful in the street.

Chloe: I saw the influence of the old art. The way you portrayed Bieber reminded me of the “Heroic Nude” in history paintings.

Debbie: It was definitely deliberately an academic painting because I wanted it to seem like someone, like a fan, took a lot of time to paint him.

Chloe: Definitely. And Katarina, what’s exciting for you?

Katerina: I think this part is the exciting part for me. [I like] the idea of being able to put up a show yourself and to invite the crowd you want to address your works to. That artist initiative is something that really keeps me going because I know I have the drive to make things happen. Sometimes just making artworks is not enough. Its more about creating somewhat of a platform for discussion around it and putting people who are sincerely interested in your work around you, rather than people who appreciate your work on a purely shallow level.

Chloe: And it must also be exciting for you guys to be experiencing contemporary Dutch art when both of you come from different places. Have you noticed anything specific that stands out about the Dutch contemporary art scene? Are there vibrant Scottish and Russian contemporary art scenes?

Katerina: There is a Russian contemporary art scene, still dealing much with Post-Soviet heritage, which I don’t like. But it’s still emerging now so that’s interesting to look at. With the Dutch art scene I do have more problems. Because these artists have been spoiled with funds for a while, they have gotten little lazy and I never appreciated laziness in thought or in deed. But there are quite some talented people around as well.

Debbie: I don’t think I would make the same art at all if I was in Scotland. It would probably be very Scottish.Scotland has got quite a good art scene. There’s also this tendency to use painting a lot which has rubbed off on me quite a lot. It’s always kind of colorful, always got a lot of humor, kind of more playful than textual. There’s  a lot to do with the body and subtleties, whereas in the Netherlands it’s more conceptual. It’s more, maybe minimal?  For instance, I was always really disappointed when I first came to the Netherlands because I couldn’t really associate with the art and I was always feeling like it was a bit empty. But there’s certain artists I really like in the Netherlands. Materials are really important [here] in a really tangible way. Art is also quite expressive.

Chloe: Do you think you guys will continue making art here after your graduate?

Debbie: Katarina and I are actually going to go back to Glasgow when we graduate. We’re going to start an artist-run space and show our own work and invite people we’ve met who we really respect art-wise to come and show there as well.

Katerina: We have a quite similar working attitude. We like to work, yeah, simple as that. Debbie’s from Glasgow and she knows the art scene there and she knows there is now energy in the air that is quite receptive for young artists with initiative. We share very similar thoughts on what a true artist is and what that person is ready to do for his work.  We want to start our own little space and see how it goes from there!

Chloe: Wow that sounds like a really exciting prospect. I can’t wait to hear about how that goes! I just have one last question for you two. If you could show your work at any gallery or institution in the world, where would it be?

Debbie: Obviously the MoMA in the New York.

Chloe: Oh my God can I curate that exhibit?

Debbie: That’s the dream haha! I do also really love the Guggenheim in Bilbao. It’s such an amazing building, it’s such a cool space.  In Hamburg there’s also some really cool places. In Glasgow I would like to exhibit in the Tramway.

Katerina: I have a dream to show my work in my hometown. We just have a contemporary art museum that opened a couple of months ago. It looks horrible. But I dream of the day when it would be quite a vivid institution and I would like to show work there. Apart from that, I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t matter, just as long as it can reach some people who could respond to it, I’m happy.

After saying goodbye to Debbie and Katarina, I begin the journey back to Amsterdam, images of Justin Bieber and pitchforks swirling in my mind. It is so exciting to see the artists of tomorrow in the beginning phases of their careers. I am sure you will be seeing more from Deborah Young and Katarina Sidorova very soon. Keep an eye out for these talented artists!

Until next time-

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤