Double Dutch

Nicolas Trembley around Rotterdam


Left: Witte de With director Nicolaus Schafhausen. Right: Artist Erik van Lieshout.

Why was one of last Friday’s trains from Paris Gare du Nord to Rotterdam so packed? The arrival of an orange-clad passenger reminded me that—of course!—Saturday was Queen’s Day, the beginning of Holland’s weekend-long homage to her Majesty. If you’re not a fan of beer festivals and public urination, however, this is a holiday to avoid, and perhaps this was the reason that there were so few attendees at Witte de With’s press conference about the first exhibitions to open under the leadership of newly appointed German director Nicolaus Schafhausen. Or had the crowd thinned in reaction to recent difficulties faced by the institution? (Witte de With had been accused of being too detached from its local context by members of Leefbaar, the populist, right-leaning Dutch political movement based in Rotterdam. One result of their protestations was the departure of director Catherine David, an outspoken figure who had apparently once told the local press that she thought The Netherlands neocolonialist, conservative, nationalist, and—this one must’ve really stung—provincial and anti-intellectual. Merci et au revoir!)

Schafhausen’s immediate assurance that his own contribution would not be an easily swallowed antidote to David’s was thus entirely to be expected. Also logical was his announcement of “Unraveling Rotterdam,” a series of informal discussions focusing explicitly on the local political situation. Schafhausen then introduced his new team—German curator Florian Waldvogel, Renske Janssen (a Dutch holdover from the last regime who knows the local community), Sophie von Olfers, and Zoë Gray—as well an advisory board comprising architects Nikolaus Hirsch and David Adjaye and artists Angela Bulloch, Joep van Lieshout, Sarah Morris, and Liam Gillick.

Left: Artist Mathias Poledna. Right: Artist Johanna Billing.

Announcements over, the small crowd moved into the galleries to visit Schafhausen’s debuts: a solo exhibition by Austrian Mathias Poledna and a group show titled “Don Quijote.” Poledna has divided the first floor into two parts, with films in each creating a kind of mirroring; black-and-white opposing color, sound balancing out silence, and movement countering the static pose. I found a very different arrangement two floors up, the works in “Don Quijote” lit only by timed, computer-controlled spotlights and accompanied by the rumble of thunder (a sound installation by Hannah Rickards). Michael Beutler’s scaffolding landscape provides further framing for the twenty-two young artists (average age twenty-nine).

Back downstairs, it was time for an artist’s talk featuring Poledna and Willem de Rooij, himself a member of the Witte de With’s board. Unfortunately, without specific direction, the discussion somehow drifted into a diatribe on LA and its weather. It seemed an appropriate moment to quit the scene and stroll a few blocks to the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen for the opening of the Bless retrospective. Bless, a celebrated fashion label run by Desirée Heiss and Ines Kaag out of studios in Berlin and Paris, are well known for Conceptual art–like gestures such as hijacking magazines to distribute their seasonal look books and refusing to pose for photographs. (The latter is about to change, though, as the duo has just been nominated as one of the one hundred most important people in Germany, an honor that necessitates a photo-op.)

Left: Boijmans curator Thimo te Duits. Right: Bless founder Ines Kaag.

Faithful to their guerrilla strategy and practice of opening temporary stores in unexpected locations, Heiss and Kaag integrated their products within the museum’s collection of design classics and in private storage areas. During the installation, when they put their famous fur wigs on the heads of the carved-wood, thirteenth-century sculptures Boijmans design curator Thimo te Duits almost passed out. “At least they could have asked!” he exclaimed when I encountered him, dressed in head-to-toe green in what could have been an homage to Dutch fashion heroes Viktor & Rolf. “No, no. It’s [Burberry] Prorsum,” he corrected, as we moved to the party in the museum restaurant. The room was full of old friends and loyal supporters of the brand, including Walter Van Beirendonck (also in green) and a number of visitors who had trekked all the way from Japan. The group seemed more like an extended family than business partners.

The two halves of the evening converged for an after-party, featuring artist David Lieske as DJ, at club Zaal de Unie. Other newly appointed, foreign-born directors of Dutch institutions, including Emily Pethick (English; director of CASCO in Utrecht) and Ann Demeester (Belgian; now head of the De Appel Center for Contemporary Art), joined Schafhausen to celebrate. Who says Holland isn’t international?

Left: Designer Walter Van Beirendonck. Right: De Appel director Ann Demeester.

Left: Artist Willem de Rooij. Right: Designer Manuel Raeder.

Left: Artist Markus Schinwald. Right: Witte de With curator Sophie von Olfers.

Left: Publisher Caroline Schneider. Right: Artist Chris Moukarbel.