Unsafe Harbour


Left: Actor Wim Konings performing Elmgreen & Dragset's It's Never Too Late to Say Sorry. Right: Artists Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

I DON’T KNOW HOW other people prepare for a Venice Biennale, but to brace for the fifty-fourth edition, I stopped off in Rotterdam. Two words will explain the trip: Elmgreen and Dragset. Thanks to “The One and the Many,” the dynamic duo’s living theater of an exhibition in the bleak Dutch city, I had a taste of the carnival to come. If the May 27 private view of their show lacked the celebrification that infected the Venetian lagoon like the mad cow of social disease, it created a scene where, for once, the disenfranchised outranked the self-entitled.

Instead of Courtney Love––suddenly the art world’s It Girl––it had male hustlers and a frighteningly realistic infant abandoned at a dusty ATM. Instead of bright and shiny fabrications framed by Tintorettos, it featured a Dumpster piled with Flemish art books and a four-story, prefabricated concrete apartment house straight out of the former DDR. And instead of taking on a national pavilion (as they had in the 2009 Biennale), the artists staked a claim to a vast, harborside shed that once housed submarines and cruise ships.

Submarine Wharf is now an art site operated by the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in partnership with the port of Rotterdam, a city that is unusually friendly to scabrous public sculpture. A group of candy-colored Franz West turds, for example, decorated the grassy bank of a canal across the street from my hotel. On a pedestrian plaza a block away sat Paul McCarthy’s enormous bronze Santa with Butt Plug. “They were expecting a Christmas tree,” a chortling Michael Elmgreen told me. “And so they believe it is.”

Left: Boijmans museum director Sjarel Ex. Right: Artists Adam Helms and Matthew Day Jackson.

He didn’t tell me that an actual tree would figure in The One and the Many at the wharf, a fifteen-minute water taxi ride away. Nor could I have guessed that I would start the evening by climbing into a cage on the creaky white Ferris wheel in the show with Matthew Day Jackson, getting a bird’s-eye view of the bad neighborhood the artists had constructed below. “This is pretty fantastic,” said Jackson, who had come for the opening from Amsterdam with Adam Helms and Helms’s Dutch dealer, Jorg Grimm.

As an artwork that confused the illusory with the real, it was also pretty convincing. A “blind” accordion player sat at the entrance of a long, corrugated aluminum tunnel leading into the murky dark of the space. The curving walls of its graffiti-smeared interior, which looked something like a passageway in a London tube station, were hung with public service posters advertising both the show and the premiere of The Light at the End of the Tunnel, a fake reality TV series.

In the space beyond, a nighttime street scene was unfolding. Mechanics (actors from Rotterdam’s Ro Theater) were stripping a white limousine while two hustlers (also actors) made aggressive moves on male guests checking out a construction trailer tricked out as a public toilet. “That guy really freaked me out!” said publicist Brian Phillips, emerging wide-eyed from the trailer. A young woman pushing a baby carriage while conducting a loud argument on her cell phone initially had me just as fooled. Other guests, such as MUSAC director Agustin Pérez Rubio and artist Simon Fujiwara, sat beside her on a park bench without ever realizing she was playacting.

Left: Artist Jeroen Doorenweerd with Dees Linders, director of Sculpture International Rotterdam. Right: Collector Vincente Amigo and MUSAC director Agustin Pérez Rubio.

The locked apartment house was the same building that the artists first exhibited at ZKM in Karlsruhe last year, only this time the cubicles inside the windows were outfitted with Delftware, hooker lingerie, and found Dutch furniture. A silicone mannequin of a teenage boy lay on his cot in one room, staring at a computer screen where his own image was displayed on Gay Romeo, a chat room that had attracted actual solicitations from men visiting the site. “It's all about exposing your own desires,” Elmgreen said.

At dinner after the preview, Boijmans museum director Sjarel Ex admitted that the €500,000 show had been a challenge for both the museum and the city. “An exhibition like this is always a risk,” he said. “It’s dark, and it comes as a shock. But it has a social-artistic aspect that we liked. And if you have fun organizing things like this, it’s fun to look at too.”

Noon the following day brought us to a decommissioned post office for the unveiling of It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry, a performance the artists concocted to free the passing populace of whatever burdens of guilt they may shoulder. Scheduled to repeat every day for a year, it employed an actor who proclaimed the title words through a stainless steel megaphone he removed from a glass display case on the site—with remarkably effective results.

After an elaborate, Jennifer Rubell–style lunch at the Boijmans, where I had one of the best museum experiences of my life, it was time for the public opening at the wharf. The weather did not cooperate, but brisk winds, rain, and cold did not deter the people of Rotterdam from turning the pilgrimage into a raucous family outing. When I arrived, there was a long line for the dinky Ferris wheel and a mobile kitchen serving French fries parked on the pier outside. Several people walked away in a huff when they discovered the door to the apartment house was locked. But with so many people mixing with the actors and crowding the toilet, the illusion was mostly lost, replaced by a seedy street fair where the exercise of voyeurism was the only game in town––a perfect prelude to Venice.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: The public lines up for the public opening of “The One and the Many” at Rotterdam's Submarine Wharf. Right: Artist Simon Fujiwara and publicist Brian Phillips.