BY Vivian Sky Rehberg in Opinion | 13 DEC 17

Looking Back 2017: Rotterdam

From debates around colonial histories to resonant conversations around precariousness, a year of questioning long-held convictions

BY Vivian Sky Rehberg in Opinion | 13 DEC 17

I don’t know about you, but I cannot wait to bid 2017 a hearty adieu – symbolically, at least. It’s been a gruelling year, socially, politically, culturally and environmentally; it’s been emotionally strenuous. It has also thrown many of my long-held convictions about art and politics, culture and society, aesthetics and power, I suspect permanently, into question. Hence, there are no definitive opinions here: my year in review is not a stacked platform from which I can proclaim my position, but an imbalanced geographic itinerary of points of interest.

Sophie Calle, Silent Heart Attack, 2017. Courtesy: Sophie Calle / ADAGP, Paris and Perrotin

Rotterdam, the Netherlands, is currently my home-base, although it seems that my lousy Dutch language skills will prevent me from ever feeling settled. Fortunately, I have still been able to participate in, and benefit from, the host of meaningful conversations around aesthetics and politics that have taken place in this city, and elsewhere in the region, in 2017. A bird’s-eye view indicates that regional institutions like Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, BAK basis voor actuele kunst and Casco Art Institute, both in Utrecht, have situated decolonization, the collective commons and anti-fascism at the heart of their programmes, and these emphases do not appear to be newfound glitches in their DNA. At the same time, Rotterdam art spaces TENT, Showroom MAMA and Garage Rotterdam have all organized exhibitions and projects that focus on urban appropriation, youth culture, LGBTQ rights, and the politics of gender and sexuality. Meanwhile, artist Jonas Staal’s itinerant New World Summit (2012-ongoing) and New Unions (2016-ongoing) have used the collective assembly to discursive advantage, facilitating global debates over art, democracy and propaganda. I’m intrigued by the ways in which art intersects with the social, cultural and political, almost simultaneously and occasionally with the same participants, on such different scales (individually, collectively, institutionally) across this country. I don’t yet know what that means for contemporary art in the region, or beyond.

Casco Team & Annette Krauss, Site for Unlearning (Art Organisation), Unlearning Exercises, installation view, ‘We Are the Time Machines: Time and Tools for Commoning’, Casco, Utrecht, 2016. Courtesy: Casco, Utrecht; photograph: Coco Duivenvoorde

Many of the most visible, issue-oriented institutional projects are often made up of, or accompanied by, punctual discursive programmes, pedagogical initiatives and various forms of public outreach. More often than not, such undertakings go under-recognized. This was not the case at Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, on the occasion of Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s ‘Cinema Olanda: Platform’, which coincided with the artist’s presentation in the Dutch pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale. Van Oldenborgh’s exhibition, which included a six-week long programme of live events and was in keeping with the artist’s longstanding commitment to exploring Dutch colonial histories, inspired protests against the name of the very institution that was hosting it, which refers to the colonialist naval officer Admiral Witte Corneliszoon de With. Topics still being addressed here since the publication of a critical open letter include institutional recognition and reconciliation; adjustments to Witte de With’s programme; and there has been a swathe of conversations around the role of public and private dialogues versus media scrutiny, the impact of city policies, confrontations between right and left politics, and the nationalism and globalization of the Dutch art scene. Witte de With’s advisory board have since voted to rename the art centre, with the change set to be implemented in 2018, once the current director Defne Ayas has passed the baton to incoming director Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy.

Sophie Calle and Serena Carone, ‘Beau doublé, Monsieur le marquis!’, Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: the museum and artists

Such timely, resonant debates have been occurring closer to home, too. At the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, where I’m employed as course director of the Master Fine Art, I regularly interact with a younger generation of emerging artists who are grappling with similar questions of privilege and precariousness, of feeling and being other, and of doing the othering. Earlier this year, visual culture theorist Nana Adusei-Poku engaged the predominately white and non-Dutch students on my course in powerful, closed-seminar discussions about white privilege, identity politics, cultural representation and appropriation, which culminated in a symposium with Barby Asante, Quinsy Gario, NIC Kay and Van Oldenborgh. For perspective, Adusei-Poku’s e-flux journal article ‘On Being Present Where you Wish to Disappear’ and cultural theorist Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (2016), are must-reads.

Marie-Louise Ekman, In the Toilet (Evening Trunk), 1969, Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Courtesy: the artist, Moderna Museet, Stockholm and Bildupphovsrätt

Amidst these more local preoccupations, I spent much of 2017 trying to figure out what I wish to continue to say about art – and how I might say it. There has been more looking, experiencing, thinking, talking and note-taking than there has been writing. (Even this text feels very presumptuous, not to mention premature.) However, I will confess that I discovered something new about my own taste when I fell head over heels in love with Marie-Louise Ekman’s soft, slick and saucy Fishcakes in Lobster Sauce (1968) while visiting the Swedish artist’s delightful retrospective at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Elsewhere, a childhood fascination with other people’s baubles was amply nourished by Anne Dressen’s impressively curated jewellery exhibition ‘Medusa: Bijoux et Tabous’ at ARC/Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris. And you are in for an immense treat if you have not yet had the chance to visit the incredibly poignant treasure hunt that is Sophie Calle and Serena Carone’s duo show, ‘Beau doublé, Monsieur le marquis!’, embedded in the objets d’art and taxidermy animal collection of the Paris Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, which is, I suppose, my true exhibition ‘highlight’ of this year. Despite my ambivalence, I’m not quite ready to diagnose my indulgences as symptoms of the times. 

Main image: Marie-Louise Ekman, Fiskbullar i hummersås, 1968. Courtesy: © Marie-Louise Ekman, Bildupphovsrätt 2017

Vivian Sky Rehberg is a course director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.