“Century 87”

Indoor and Outdoor Locations Throughout Amsterdam

Amsterdam, designated by the European Economic Commission as the “cultural capital of Europe” in 1987 (succeeding Athens and Florence in that title), has been celebrating this occasion by organizing various art events here with the aim of strengthening the cultural ties among the nations of Europe. As part of this celebration, three young Dutch art historians—Sjarel Ex, Nicolette Gast, and Els Hoek—curated “Century 87: Kunst van nu ontmoet Amsterdams verleden” (Today’s art face to face with Amsterdam’s past), a contemporary art show organized as an art walk in the old center of town. Twenty-nine European and American artists were invited to create individual installations or exhibitions of their work at an equal number of preselected public sites, in keeping with the trend that seems to have dominated large exhibitions in Europe over the last few years.

In this case, works of art—many of them commissioned for this event—seem to have been used to stimulate mass tourism. Unfortunately, the organizers did not take into consideration that the center of Amsterdam for a long time now has been unable to cope with the flood of tourists that it attracts. The mazelike medieval heart of the town and the 17th-century ring of canals surrounding it are increasingly threatened by the profusion of consumer-visitors. Moreover, how could such an atmosphere of blatant promotion provide the proper setting for fairly fragile pieces such as those by Giovanni Anselmo (the compass set in stone in the lofty space of the Wester Tower), Christian Boltanski (rows of candles throwing uneasy shadows in a 17th-century prison cell), James Lee Byars (three display cases with fragile minimalist objects in a museum room), J. C. J. van der Heyden (horizons painted in a bower), Wolfgang Laib (30 bowls of rice and a bowl of pollen on a medieval church floor), or Pieter Laurens Mol (tears of lead on the window of a 17th-century Roman Catholic conventicle)? The very massiveness of the exhibition seemed to go against the character of works like this, which require an atmosphere of silence and meditation and whose effectiveness is acutely diminished by overexposure.

But maybe the exhibition might have been saved as an idea if the organizers had more explicitly played on this almost irreconcilable contradiction between the intention to create silence and fragility and the manifestations of mass. Although many of these artists are used to working for a large audience, none of them addressed these problems directly—not Jenny Holzer, nor David Mach, nor Sarkis, nor Peter Struycken. Only in a few works, such as Rhonda Zwillinger’s presentation of Hollywood-style puppets in the fragile-looking period rooms of the local historical museum, and Daan van Golden’s poetic transformation of the concentric, semicircular pathways in the local botanical garden into a pedestrian’s equivalent of the city’s canals (by covering the walkways with with little blue pebbles), was this contradiction even recognized, clearly but implicitly. But most of the artworks, for whatever reason, utterly lacked any sign that their makers were conscious of this interplay of attraction and rejection between art and visitors. Most pieces did not stand up to the immense, mostly careless scrutiny they received—for it often consisted of uninterested glances, the shallow, one-dimensional kind of attention that degraded many pieces to accidental parts of a larger context.

It is good practice to protect works of art as much as possible against the abuse of improper objectives, and it is a pity that the organizers of “Century 87” had not envisioned that the overwhelming interest shown by the masses might be pernicious to the art rather than good for it.

Paul Groot

Translated from the Dutch by Benno Groeneveld