Twist and Lieshout

Jennifer Allen at the fifteenth anniversary of Atelier van Lieshout

Left: Artist Joep van Lieshout. Right: A visitor to the show. (All photos: Natalie Kovacs)

TALK ABOUT UNDERWORLD MEETS UNDERWATER. Atelier Van Lieshout’s “Infernopolis” was recently organized by the Boijmans van Beuningen museum inside the cavernous halls of the Submarine Wharf in the Rotterdam harbor. The industrial building—54,000 square feet and five empty stories tall—was once used to construct submarines. The AVL collective, founded by Joep van Lieshout at a (more modest) warehouse just across the Nieuwe Maas, used the show’s finissage last Sunday to also celebrate its fifteenth anniversary with an urbane take on Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Instead of nine circles of sin, AVL’s Inferno was filled with body parts and buildings, from the XXX-Large crawl-in Wombhouse to the giant purple sperm Darwin with its own info booth. Everything looked anatomically correct (although I don’t think my left ovary has a minibar, let alone champagne glasses). Rather than sinners—usurers, blasphemers, profligates, fellow art critics—I spotted designers Christoph Seyffert, Richard Hutten, and Marlies Dekkers; collectors Pieter and Marieke Sanders; the Beijing-based dealer Waling Boers; Dees Linder, director of Sculpture International; and TENT Rotterdam curator Mariette Dolle. Freelance curator Natalie Kovacs suggested we go for a drink in BarRectum. “Total genius,” she said. “What a masterpiece. What bar doesn’t make an ass out of everyone?” AVL’s version does the work for you.

A bit of the bubbly helped me find the museum’s willowy director, Sjarel Ex, who had just stepped off the Aqualiner that scooted hundreds of guests back and forth from the mainland throughout the day. The Submarine Wharf represents a brand new partnership between the Boijmans and the Port of Rotterdam, and the result is something like the Netherlands’ own version of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Instead of announcing the artist slated to follow AVL, Ex revealed five finalists under consideration for what promises to become an annual event. There’s John Körmeling, the architect who designed the Dutch pavilion at this year’s World Expo in Shanghai. Elmgreen & Dragset must be used to big commissions by now, although I can't imagine what they’d do with this much space. Hans Schabus garnered a lot of visibility at the 2005 Venice Biennale for transforming the Austrian pavilion into a giant mountain on the outside and a wooden maze on the inside. Ugo Rondinone is yet another Venice graduate (the Swiss pavilion with Urs Fischer in 2007). Last but not least: Ernesto Neto, who could probably raid the harbor storehouses for spices.

Left: Boijmans van Beuningen director Sjarel Ex. Right: Cooking the shellfish.

So what about women artists? “Isn’t this Toys for Boys country?” Ex asked, pointing to the humongous building. “We do Marijke van Warmerdam in the Boijmans next summer . . . ehhh, not as a compensation, though!” As for van Lieshout, he was outside adding fuel to the flames—not the fires of hell, but a massive mobile military stove—in preparation for the final feast for 1,500 guests. Architects working in the harbor, including a posse from Rem Koolhaas’s OMA and Winy Maas from MVRDV, moved through the crowd. Somehow I got cajoled into stirring fifty gallons of onion soup, which was bubbling alongside even more goulash and borscht. Certainly game for the space-filling challenge, AVL even made a special giant metal pan in which to cook up fifty cubic feet of shellfish. “I’d rather cook a lot than a little,” said Lieshout, tossing a handful of salt into the soups.

Instead of a dinner bell, there was a spectacular show out on the water shortly before mealtime. Twin tugboats from the local port authority began to circle near the Submarine Wharf, only to then spray their water cannons high into the air. It was something like a cross between a whale and a twisting sprinkler system. As a rainbow appeared, my camera lens and I got all misty . . . although it might have just been the bubbly. If this is hell, then heaven can wait.

The water show around Submarine Wharf.