Forward-thinking architecture and continual city planning since the postwar reconstruction period have optimized Rotterdam for beinge fficiently moved through, but not for loitering in – which makes it an all-the-more-tempting site for temporary public art works. Curated by Nicolaus Schafhausen and Anne-Claire Schmitz, ‘Melanchotopia’ was an ambitious three-month project that presented works by around 40 artists in various mixed-use locations throughout the city centre – primarily corporate or privately-owned spaces that also serve public functions, from a hotel lobby to a hospital prayer room.
True to its title, the exhibition twined elements of the spiritual and existential. Sarah Morris’s addition of rain to Witte de With’s cloud logo set the tone for a show based on weighty comparisons, one of which was our actual experience of buildings and sites versus their intended functions. But few of the works were mired in introspection and, in fact, some actually seemed to gather lightness from this base. One such work was Saâdane Afif’s The Soapbox Speaker of Rotterdamse Centrummarkt (all works 2011), for which Afif gathered lyrics by various art-world contributors, and commissioned Andrew Smart, a talented young actor who performs rap and slam poetry, to perform the series of poetic vignettes during the bi-weekly market. Messenger bag in tow, Smart had the casual appearance of someone in transit, well suited to pirating the attention of shoppers. As elderly couples and babies in prams moved past, his delivery of verses from an upturned crate evoked steamy images of a pre-abolition past tied to this port city with a history of trade – and slave – relations.
Such a performance was hard to miss, but other interventions were less visible. Michael Beutler invited a resident artist to help visitors at a public drop-in centre inside Pauluskerk to create hand-stitched pillows based on church hassocks. Meanwhile, the contents of Mårten Spångberg’s installation at the Pathé cineplex, Last of the Mobile Hot Shots – which included bullhorns, electric guitars, unpacked boxes, Chinese vases and a rack of wedding dresses – were dispersed throughout the city by cinema-goers eager to take items away.
Of the many contributions and new commissions, two were particularly outstanding. Screened inside Witte de With (which mainly served as an info point for the duration of the show), as well as at the local bar Rotown, was Peter Wächtler’s film Tim and Racky. In this work, the artist filmed members of a local student fraternity enacting his theatre play in various rooms of their fraternity house – their library, for example, serving as an unaltered backdrop for bedroom scenes. The deadpan delivery of Wächtler’s script, brought to life by non-native English-speaking students moving slowly through their lines, presented the exhibition’s themes on a micro scale, with the interpretation of a script drawn perhaps as a parallel for navigating the spaces of daily life.
Equally impressive was The Kattenburg Heritage Collection, Zin Taylor’s collaboration with a family-run business that makes workers’ clothing. Taylor dramatically altered the least popular and worst-selling uniforms in the company’s archives, piecing the khaki garments back together after dramatic alterations and redesigns that included copious pleating and off-kilter patterning based on 19th-century advertisements. The prominent placement of these anti-uniforms on mannequins in the shop’s windows, and Taylor’s attempt to turn a sober collection for the service industry into garments fitting for a fashion house, added a wayfaring interjection into the worker town’s humdrum sobriety, hinting at the exhibition’s larger aim. While Alex Morrison’s small torch on Witte de With’s façade subtly borrowed the blue and white colours of UNESCO’s world heritage site symbol, Filip Gilissen’s less discreet illuminated sign, It’s all downhill from here on, made from 1,000 light bulbs, dangled from a nearly completed high-rise.
Both works underscored the sentiment of a period that might see the end of Dutch funding for artistic projects like these. ‘Melanchotopia’ was Schafhausen’s penultimate project before leaving his directorship of Witte de With, a position he has held since 2006, and the exhibition felt reflective of his programme. It very thoughtfully and unexpectedly placed works across a city whose plan is completely ordered, activating these locations, while allowing new narratives to emerge. Surprisingly, a large number of the exhibition’s artists were based in Brussels, a city that, with its historical division of funding bodies and decayed political situation, couldn’t be less planned or more individualistic in terms of how it is used and what it is used for. As cultural institutions begin exploring their newfound independence, one strategy might be: take to the streets. In fact, now may have been the perfect time for an institution of this calibre to have engaged with its locality in such an explicit and visible way.