Gastschrijver 8; Charles Esche – Looking Back

[Je kunt als museum ‘gewoon’ tentoonstellingen maken, een toffe kunstenaar vragen om werk te laten zien en vervolgens weer een andere kunstenaar vragen. Maar er zijn ook instellingen die het […]

[Je kunt als museum ‘gewoon’ tentoonstellingen maken, een toffe kunstenaar vragen om werk te laten zien en vervolgens weer een andere kunstenaar vragen. Maar er zijn ook instellingen die het idee van een tentoonstelling bevragen, of het museum zelf. Het van Abbemuseum is de laatste jaren uitgegroeid tot een museum dat niet zomaar tentoonstellingen maakt maar ook haar eigen positie bevraagd en probeert te kijken naar wat een museum meer kan zijn dan een plek waar ‘gewoon schilderijen worden opgehangen’. Ik heb dan ook veel waardering voor de wijze waarop Charles Esche het Abbe gebruikt om een internationaal engagement te tonen. Zijn gastschrijver-bijdrage gaat dan ook over die positie van het Abbemuseum, maar for that matter voor alle musea.]


Looking Back

I’ve been at the Van Abbemuseum for nearly 9 years now. Time passes quickly. With the launch of Internationale as a new museum confederation on the near horizon, it seems an opportune moment to look back for a moment and see if it’s possible to pick out some major strategies or events that have determined these past 9 years in the museum.

In 2004, the Van Abbemuseum seemed to me full of unfulfilled potential. It had a good collection with some unique pieces and some outstanding groups of works from the seventies and early eighties in particular. In the nineties, the focus on increasing the capacity of the building had led to some strong shows in temporary buildings but the developments in post-1989 art were only partially followed and there was a strong emphasis on following the western canon in The Netherlands, Belgium and the USA. This meant that a whole world lay open to us, quite literally, and it was exciting to start thinking first about central and eastern Europe and then about the Middle East and Asia. Curating the Istanbul Biennale with Vasif Kortun was crucial to realising these ambitions.

In parallel with this, we started commissioning works and working with artists on broad thematic topics that seemed relevant to the society in which I had just landed. In the mid 2000’s, The Netherlands was a rather different country than today. While the tensions of immigration and unequal capitalist development could be felt, they were small tremors that didn’t yet fully disturb the old ‘gidsland’ (guide country) ambitions of toleration, openness and individualism. These tremors were however what we focused on, looking at the traditions of protest and resistance in art (Forms of Resistance) or the question of identity (Becoming Dutch) as well as the relations to specific geographies (Heartland; Eindhoven-Istanbul). These seemed at the time signature group shows that set out the rewrite and politicise in the broadest sense a local art practice that had become quite tame and disciplined around the quest for subsidies and attention. Thinking about them now, I wish we had been clearer about the change of direction this entailed and more focused on explaining it all in advance. For many of our visitors, I think we came across as unbending in our commitment to a new kind of art, where we wanted to address the process of change from an Eurocentric to a multipolar world and from known artistic traditions to exchanges between diverse and unknown systems of representation. In response, we focused on the known (the collection) in relation to the contemporary moment in an 18 month long programme called Play Van Abbe. What makes me happiest about that series are the forms of information and exchange of ideas with different publics that we established throughout the four chapters. There was a certain coherence to them all that allowed a eclectic selection of works to speak as a whole.

Heartland: Eindhoven & Istanbul

Heartland: Eindhoven – Istanbul

Throughout all these projects, there was an underlying attempt to increase the capacity for connectivity between art and the wider world of media, economics, politics and social change. I wanted the museum to represent a possibility to speak about the condition of the world (or of The Netherlands) through artistic expression with all its complexity and idiosyncracy. In retrospect, I think I could name a number of projects within the whole that felt to me to make a difference. I would consider as a pivotal moment a small and early room installation of the collection by Hyn Jin Kim where she juxtaposed a series of drawings on an angled wall with a Dan Flavin geometric lightwork. Few will remember this, but the Flavin as modern classic was installed so that it lit the incoherent variety of international drawings in a way that subtly captured the shift from modern to contemporary. I would also mention Superflex’s copying and distribution of the Sol LeWitt; Petra Bauer and Annette Krause’s work on Zwarte Piet; taking the 1943 Picasso to Ramallah; the two rooms of Akram Zaatari and the exposure of documents and art together in the various Living Archives and Museum Indexes as all crucial moments in which the reconstruction of the museum’s potentiality took place. The mediation we used in Play Van Abbe chapter 4 would also be high on the list as would the Kijkdepot.

Picasso in Rammalah

Picasso in Ramallah

What is interesting to me now is to see that this list ranges across projects entirely shaped by artists to curatorial and even ‘educational’ activities with the public. It is clear to me that now that any museum is not a vessel to be filled by art but a fire to be kindled by a staff, a public and artists. The idea of neutrality of the white cube, the sovereignity of the artist and autonomy of art from its environment in the widest sense, seem only temporary moments in the history of art. They were dependent on a particular society that was largely convinced of the rightness of its own ideology yet felt existentially threatened from without. Under those conditions, art could be tolerated and artists indulged in order to demonstrate the value of freedom in one corner of the planet. Gradually after 1989, when the world became smaller, flatter but also more various and confusing, such excesses could no longer be so easily permitted, even though it took a while to become apparent. Now we live in the lingering aftermath of those outdated ideas and we face with some urgency the need to find a new rationale for defending the public value of art and the significance of what we do for the wider collective.

I hope that some of the projects Van Abbemuseum has done in the last years have contributed to developing that new rationale. I have to admit to a degree of uncertainty about their reception in The Netherlands. The opposition of the local PvdA in 2011-12 caused me to doubt our impact on the local situation (and much internal suffering), but the support and our eventual success gave me much heart for the fights to come. Now that we enter into a broad international confederation, we will need to keep our feet on Eindhoven ground. For that reason, we will launch a more permanent installation of the collection in November 2013. This is the result of much that we have learned in years gone by and a platform, from which to make the next leap into a dispersed and transparent museum that, I hope, eventually appears across many platforms and locations. Internationale is a brave step into a new future where the challenge of the local the European and the planetary can find a new equilibrium. I hope it will be as exciting and controversial as the last 9 years.