Amsterdam is synonymous with great art; millions of tourists flock to the Van Gogh museum every year. It is also renowned for slightly less salubrious pursuits (in a nut-shell, drugs and prostitutes). This summer I spent two days in the Netherlands, visiting Rotterdam, The Hague and Amsterdam, to discover some of the most exciting contemporary art exhibitions in Europe and find out what else is going on aside from windmills and stag weekends.
11:20, Schipol Airport, 26th May 2010: I arrive at the meeting point and wait for what I assume will be a student press trip. Bleary-eyed I look around, and, unable to see anyone younger than thirty-five it dawns on me that this is a ‘real’ press trip, with professional journalists. My blue gym bag now looks distinctly shabby.
14:00, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam: By this stage I have established myself as the only amateur in the group and I attempt to bluff my way through a discussion about the London/European art scene. The first exhibition we visit is Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Notion Motion’. Eliasson is best known in the UK for his huge sun installation at Tate Modern in 2003 and ‘Notion Motion’ is a similarly ambitious project. The large installation consists purely of water, light and space combined to create a visual effect far beyond the sum of its parts. The experience is quietly overwhelming. Rippling, echoing shadows stretch across the vast gallery walls; interlacing and merging into ever more complex patterns. The simplicity of the piece’s construction (the artist used projectors to enlarge the shadows created by ripples in a shallow pool) enhances its power, showing how art can be expansive without glitz or bravado. It is a space in which the viewer can pause and reflect.
15:30: A blustery water taxi ride through Rotterdam’s harbour, with fantastic views of the city takes us to Submarine Wharf. It had recently been converted into a massive 5000m² exhibition space – the largest in the Netherlands and comparable to Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. It currently hosts Joep van Lieshout’s installation ‘Infernopolis’. Strewn across the space are large sculptural pieces: a machine for converting human excrement into energy, a giant sperm cell with a bed in it and mutilated, dystopian statues. A free-standing lamp in the shape of a disembowelled man attracted the attention of one journalist; when asked how much it cost the artist declined to say, but I suspect it will be out of my budget.
10:00, Mauritshuis, The Hague, 27th May: Back on the straight and narrow at one of the Netherlands’ most famous museums. ‘The Young Vermeer’, consists of the three earliest paintings by Vermeer, exhibited together for the first time. Vermeer is one of the most famous Dutch artists of all time, widely known for his domestic interior scenes and portraits, notably ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’ (which is also at the Mauritshuis). I felt immensely privileged to be able to see these beautiful paintings at close quarters. They are a refreshing contrast to the large-scale contemporary pieces I saw the previous day.
15:00, Art Amsterdam: The final stop on our trip was Art Amsterdam, the Netherlands’ equivalent of London’s Frieze Art Fair: hundreds of galleries exhibiting a dazzling array of contemporary art. Walking through the fair, videos, sculptures, and paintings of increasingly strange and often disturbing content vied for my attention. The sense of competition in the vast space was palpable, the low hum of artists, gallery owners and dealers frantically networking. A lot of the art seemed to be lacking in substance, and it felt like many were trying to cash-in on the contemporary art boom of recent years.
17:00: Back at Schipol, exhausted before my flight I tried to take stock of my trip:
1. The Netherlands does not consist of just Amsterdam, sex shops and tulips. Commercial cities like Rotterdam are exhilarating cultural centres in their own right.
2. International contemporary art is much more than a few Brit-art celebrities. It was interesting to see work by European artists I had not heard of and a number of Chinese galleries who exhibited at Art Amsterdam.
3. Gym bags are not appropriate for press trips.