As the Netherlands’ administrative centre, The Hague has neither the tourist appeal of Amsterdam nor the industrial power of Rotterdam, both somewhat bigger and reachable from the city in under an hour. It does, though, combine calm self-sufficiency with an outward focus as the self-declared capital of peace and home of the International Court of Justice. It also has an art legacy disproportionate to its population of 525,000, including the world’s third-oldest art academy, the royal collection at the Mauritshuis and the Gemeentemuseum. The city held little contemporary art 20 years ago: since then, however, it has developed a lively scene through well-funded support.
The publicly funded coordinating hub Stroom (‘current’ may be the best translation, as the Dutch word means both ‘power’ and ‘flow’) supports 850 artists financially and practically. I visited the studio of one beneficiary, Marleen Sleeuwits, whose practice has made the most of another feature of The Hague: a post-recession surplus of commercial property. She began as a photographer of ‘nonspaces’ and is now working in the fourth of a series of vacant office blocks that she’s used as the source of materials to make on-site constructions which she then photographs.
Subsidized project spaces are also core to developments. Artist-run 1646 was showing the Dane Christian Falsnaes. Believing that artists tend to foreground the reactions of critics, curators and collectors over the experience of the general public, he works with the audience as his primary material. Here, he invited 15 people from the preview-night throng to contribute in turn to a painting, One (2016), unifying them as producers of an abstract expressionist work under his considered instruction. Falsnaes’s tactics were to disarm the volunteers (‘shake your body loose before you start’), give fairly technical instructions( ‘start at the top and follow the line down’) and act as cheerleader – all so that there wasn’t too much conscious thought blocking the natural xpressiveness he hoped would produce a saleable painting. The resulting canvas stood in 1646’s front space after the opening, while the back room contained a new video daily – made by asking the first visitor of the day to perform various movements, shout their slogan of choice and choose an action to demand of those who came to visit later in the day. These simple actions raise several issues in an engaging way: how is authority obtained, what are its limits and is it transferable? Can an artist engage his audience more effectively as a facilitator than as a demonstrator of his own capabilities?
Falsnaes’s approach seemed a good fit for The Hague. NEST, one of a dozen or so other project spaces, makes an explanatory film for each exhibition to enable even the least informed visitor to grasp oblique work, such as ‘Happy Like Yesterday’ – its current examination of lost technologically driven experiences. (Roman Štětina, for example, presented films of experts using steadicam and tape-editing techniques made redundant by computer developments.) Stroom were exhibiting the concluding stage of ‘The Observer Effect’, a complex exploration, in several iterations, of how audience activity can alter – and potentially restrict – choice: just as online algorithms track preferences whilst seeking to re-inforce and exploit them. Dutch artist Waalko Dingemans and Hague-based Anglo- American Jason File (who is also a lawyer in the International Court) presented the results from a two-phase forerunner exhibition. In the first stage, each member of the audience got to curate part of the show for succeeding visitors, with white-coated assistants monitoring participants’ movements. These measurements were used to produce an average route across the space, which determined the placement of boundary markers to suggest, and control, how visitors should navigate the second phase of the show.
Sculpture features prominently in shows in The Hague. The highlight of the 100-odd public works is James Turrell’s Stroom-commissioned Celestial; Vault (1996), an open skyspace set into the dunes to the west of the city, which gives perhaps the best sense available in Europe of how participants will eventually experience the Roden Crater. Just behind the sandy beach of Scheveningen, The Hague’s seaside resort, is the private museum Beeldenaan Zee, which focuses exclusively on contemporary sculpture. Other shows include ‘Brazil, Beleza’ (Brazil, Beauty) an exemplary open-air 27-artist survey of recent work from Brazil, complete with visitor-refreshing ice cream, albeit in greyscale, courtesy of Jo.o Loureiro’s Shade of Grays (2012–13). My strawberry flavour was the colour of dark ash.
Sleeuwits, who works with another of the city’s non-commercial spaces, LhGWR, draws attention to the sort of place we might not ordinarily notice, then makes us wonder what we are actually seeing. How real? How big? How deliberate? If The Hague itself was something of a contemporary art non-space 20 years ago, there are plenty of reasons to pay attention to it now. And that, of course, may change its dynamic. Several artists and curators mentioned to me that being ‘under the radar’ made it easier to be experimental. What, I wonder, will be the observer effect of The Hague’s increasing recognition?
Main image: Roman Štětina, Souvenir I, 2015, doryphoros plaster cast, silly putty, 212 x 42 x 30 cm.