What to See at Amsterdam Art Week

Our choices feature a prominent showcase by Wilhelm Sasnal and a performance inspired by Jean Genet from Billy Bultheel

BY Andrew Pasquier in Critic's Guides | 29 MAY 24

Billy Bultheel | Thomaskerk | 30 and 31 May 

Billy Bultheel, The Thief’s Journal, 2023, performance view. Photograph: Spyros Rennt

Thief’s Journal (2023) is Billy Bultheel’s semi-autobiographical expression of the sacred and profane artistic influences that have shaped the Belgian composer’s spatial-sonic universe. The hour-long performance takes its cue and title from Jean Genet’s 1949 classic tale of gay vagabondage, and stars nine musicians, playing everything from euphonium to flute, as they move hauntingly around the spectacular interior of Amsterdam’s brutalist Thomaskerk. First debuted at Kraftwerk during the Berlin Atonal in 2023, Butheel applies his techno-metal sensibilities and classical compositional skill to the piece anew, treating Thomaskerk’s unique space as a musical instrument. The two-night run of Thief’s Journal kicks off a new performance program, ‘Time Crystals’, that will first reanimate the Dutch modernist treasure before decamping to various locations in Amsterdam over the year.

Lydia Schouten | Rozenstraat | 10 May – 7 July 

Lydia Schouten, 'Yes, There Will Be Singing In Dark Times', 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Rozenstraat, Amsterdam; photograph: Peter Tijhuis 

Lydia Schouten’s off-kilter feminism animates a career-spanning show at Rozenstraat centering her 1970s performance work and subsequent turn to colourful video art, plus fresh installations from the Dutch artist. The well-timed retrospective gives new life to key early performances, such as How does it feel to be a sex object (1978). In the video of the piece, Schouten, bound in a corset and whip-in-hand, lunges forward in pitiful attempts to burst ink-filled balloons. While the project space initially sought to restage this and other performances – as Marina Abramovic’s protégés are doing in her survey show at the Stedelijk – Schouten refuses institutional reenactments. Instead, video documentation of the 1978 performance is cleverly projected through a new sculpture work. Moving beyond her performance era, a row of televisions offers a selection of video work from the 1980s and ’90s. In many of these, a sexually aware woman (Schouten) embarks on a solo journey through unsafe territory – everywhere from the sides of French autoroutes to imaginary feminist worlds with hallucinatory set design. In The Lone Ranger Lost in the Jungle of Erotic Desire (1981), Schouten acts out sexual fantasies, ravaging male dolls while sporting animalistic make-up and tropical costumes. This flair for cartoonish world-building carries over into her new multimedia installation, which shares the exhibition title: Yes, There Will Be Singing In Dark Times (2024). Forever on the move, this time around Schouten casts herself as a pirate. 

Tenant of Culture | Fons Welters | 11 May – 15 June

Tenant of Culture, ‘Dry Fit’, 2024, recycled garments, thread, elastic, 170 × 80 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam; photograph: Gunnar Meier

At Fons Welters, Tenant of Culture contemplates the destructive patterns of the fast-fashion industry by literally embracing them. Under the pseudonym, the Dutch artist Hendrickje Schimmel prints industry-standard ‘memories’ – the faux wear-and-tear patterns found on distressed jeans – on sheets of blue denim. Rather than ingrain real ‘memories’ of a wearer’s movements, these predetermined patterns – titled Ferrero, Jane, Osaka and ‘pleasme’ – typify the fashion industry’s strange predilection for pre-consumer destruction, a career-long fascination of Schimmel. Like much of her output, the current show, ‘Slub’, juxtaposes sartorial research with a cutting-edge eye for deconstruction. In Dry Fit (2024) and Faux Biker (2022), hung in the middle of the gallery, she has torn up leather and synthetic biker jackets, then restitched them into striking, Frankenstein-like patchwork garments suspended on hangers. Is it couture or sculpture? Both. 

Open Studios | Rijksakademie | 30 May – 2 June

Peng Zhang, ‘72m² Land’, 2023, installation view, Rijksakademie Open Studios 2023. Courtesy: Rijksakademie, Amsterdam; photograph: Sander van Wettum

Refreshingly, the most anticipated happening of Amsterdam Art Week is the non-commercial Rijksakademie Open Studios, a multi-day bonanza of clear-eyed art from the 47 residents. The competitive two-year program exemplifies the Netherlands' strength in importing the best from abroad, with many residents sure to catch the attention of the European art world. After prodigious quantities of video art in recent years, expect a breezier feel this edition, with more painting and sculpture on the lineup. Considering how Art Week is pegged to Rijksakademie's Open Studios (not the other way around), the bevvy of talks, readings and performances programmed within the sprawling show – plus the festive vibes at its pop-up canal side bar – provide more than enough reasons to visit and visit again.

Unathi Mkonto | Stevenson | 4 April – 1 June 

Unathi Mkonto, 'In place', 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Stevenson, Amsterdam 

A visit to Unathi Mkonto’s open-studio residency at Stevenson reveals how, even in death, wood retains the memory of the tree, preserving its malleability. Starting with plywood boards, the South African artist bends, clamps and grafts the plain material into playful, swooping sculptures that feel like the unvarnished maquettes of a retro-future city. A trained architect, Mkonto imagines complex assemblages that, as he told me, ‘contain urbanisms’. His open, experimental process in the gallery culminates in a finissage show this weekend where his wood-working wizardry will be on display alongside vices, glue, and wood fragments evidencing his trial-and-error grit.

Wilhelm Sasnal | Stedelijk Museum | 30 March – 1 September

Wilhelm Sasnal, Untitled, 2017, oil on canvas, 1.4 × 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and Foksal Gallery Foundation, Amsterdam; photography: Marek Gardulski

‘I take everyday things very seriously’ reckoned Wilhelm Sasnal on the opening day of his conceptually playful show, ‘Painting as Prop’. The exhibition is a tour-de-force of the artist’s painterly range, amassing 25 canvases, around half of which are near-copies of masterworks made as props for his recent film, The Assistant (2024). A turn around the vast one-room exhibition confirms the celebrated Polish artist’s serious obsession with, and knack for, depicting the banal. In First of January (2023), his casual treatment of the scene makes even a drive past the gates of Auschwitz on the way home from a New Year’s Eve party feel quotidian, capturing his wife glancing over and then away from the silhouetted death camp. Elsewhere, visitors to the show encounter, seemingly without apparent logic, a vase of flowers (Untitled, 2022), a clock (Untitled, 2017) and a portrait of the current Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban (Orbán, 2024). Often, quieter subjects, such as a former state-run Polish Pigsty (2011), hold more poignancy than his recreations of notable works by Henri Matisse (Untitled after ‘Dance’, 2018) and Pablo Picasso (Untitled after ‘Absinthe Drinker’, 2023). The sense of eclecticism and unevenness is intentional – the show subverts and questions what we consider mundane and what is celebrated as mastery, exploring the realm of painting versus the realm of film. 

Main image: Wilhelm Sasnal, Untitled (After Still Life by Georges Braque), 2023, oil on canvas, wooden frame, 1.4 × 2 m. Courtesy: the artist and Foksal Gallery Foundation; photograoh: Marek Gardulski

Andrew Pasquier is a writer and researcher. He is based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.