Last Sunday morning in Arnhem, the Netherlands, visiting journalists to the tenth edition of the Sonsbeek International Sculpture Exhibition witnessed an assortment of guilds gather in the backyard of an old milk factory. Dressed in uniforms (black pants and white shirts), the guild members resembled factory workers about to start their day on the assembly line. But their efforts were in service to not industry but art. Curator Anna Tilroe had asked Arnhem citizens to participate in the show by carrying works made by the twenty-eight included artists in a preopening “procession,” perhaps as a way to liven up to the show’s theme: “Grandeur.”
A casual lunch (meat-and-cheese rolls) was served out of cardboard boxes, while a second group of locals arrived at the town hall, where the mayor welcomed them with champagne and finger food in the glow of the procession’s kickoff. It was unclear just how it was decided who would do what—the former group eventually walking, the latter only watching. Both sides did seem necessary. Maybe they drew straws.
In any case, the procession got off without a hitch. What we saw—in addition to brass and drum bands and a real elephant (Marijke van Warmerdam’s contribution)—was a fantastically laconic parade of human typologies. Members of the Advocates Guild (carrying Fernando Sánchez Castillo’s Stalin fountain), the Guild of Readers from the National Newspaper (with Alain Séchas’s cat sculpture), the Homeless Guild (with a large sculpture made by Matthew Monahan), the Arnhem Rotary Guild (pushing a big wooden roulette table by Serge Onnen), and, of course, the Artists Guild all took part, each group demonstrating its own particular brand of marching. The interpretations of the term grandeur offered here couldn’t have diverged more radically from those of the just-passed Art Basel.
A copy of Tomas Saraceno’s work, a cute, bubbly, transparent balloon structure, floated past held by members of the Guild of Children of Architects. Meanwhile, three teams of technicians were busy setting up a giant balloon house—Saraceno’s biggest sculpture to date—among large trees in the venerable Sonsbeek Park. Within walking distance and likewise located among the leaves is Brody Condon’s tree house, which, during the exhibition, will be inhabited by LARPERs (live-action role players) playing a scenario devised by the artist and designer Bjarke Pederson. A throne with one of these participants, wearing neo-medieval costume, was carried in the procession by the LARPERs Guild.
The Sonsbeek sculpture exhibition first opened in 1949, five years after the city was nearly destroyed in the famous World War II Battle of Arnhem, during which the Allies met unexpected resistance from the Germans who held the city. After the battle, tens of thousands of citizens were evacuated, but Arnhem has since gone through a dynamic reconstruction, and its population has flourished. Grandeur can be an attribute more befitting kitsch than art, but last Sunday’s procession seemed, when taking into account the city’s tragic history, a modest civic statement, and as such it was peaceful and grand.