From a strictly formal point of view, Holland’s Pavilion could be described as a conflation of painting, architecture and film (actually, two films) and this is one of those cases where having hired a curator seems justified. I am saying this because what one sees on the screen contradicts the spirit of the architecture and this contradiction is the theme of the film by Wendelien van Oldenborgh which is about squatting as a form of resistance and, of course, survival for the refugees and activists that have found themselves in limbo not being able to work in the Netherlands but, at the same time, no being able to go back to their countries.
The first set of screens project two parts of a film that mirror each other both in form and content. ‘Prologue: Squat/Anti-Squat’ is set in architect Aldo Van Eyck’s Tripolis building in Amsterdam which was built in the arly ninenteen nineties, the building has echoes of Van Eyck’s social experimental architectural of the seventies. Fragments of slightly contrived conversations between a dozen activists, architects and artists inform us that this building has been the site of recent squatting action by a group of undocumented migrants known as We Are Here.
On the other side of the Pavilion behind a red and yellow screen that allude to Mondrian’s suprematism, there is a 15 minute long film titled Cinema Olanda (2017). There, the connection between the architectural location and the social action becomes even more clear. Situated in Pendrecht, one of the Netherlands’ exemplary modernist postward districts, the film alludes to the Dutch postwar society, which was then reimagining itself as a uniform modern State Pendrecht was designed by (Bauhaus trained, CIAM related) Lotte Stm-Beese, who became one of Rotterdam’s main urban planners in the 1950s.
Even though, viewer might have, at this point, enough information to grasp what the issue is about, a clarifying text by Gloria Wekker set the tone of its postcolonial concerns. There, she differentiates the way the Dutch and, for example, the Portuguese claimed an exceptionalism of sorts refusing to acknowledge the reality of their slave trading past. While Portugal sexualised the encounter leading to ‘an alleged fraternal space of conviviality’ as if leaving the past behind was provoked by the irresistible desire for each other, the Netherlands convinced themselves of their exceptionalism convincing themselves that it was the work of Providence. This self flattering form of negation makes the Dutch think of themselves as tolerant and open minded when, in fact, their last elections show that the two main contenders were different expressions of populism.
It is highly meaningful that Van Oldenborgh’s and curator Lucy Cotter’s project Cinema Oland was selected to be exhibited in the Dutch Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale because of the paradoxes that are brought to light between the most common reading of the original Dutch Pavilion and the content and messages of the three filmic works on display. Moreover, the exhibition installation includes site specific elements that draw attention to the aesthetics of the Rietveld pavilion, which in itself holds significant symbolic meaning. Far more than a mere necessary material enclosure, architect Gerrit Rietveld designed it in 1953 in an optimistic postwar atmosphere of reconstruction and of renewed confidence in the nation itself and the future as ‘a triumph of modernism, openness, rationality, sobriety and propriety’. The different self-representations, called up by Rietveld’s and Van Oldenborgh’s contribution to the Venice Biennale lie at the core of what the curator wanted to convey.
And those contradicting self perceptions emerged with all clarity in this year’s elections. Although the international media referred to them as if the brave Dutch electorate defeated populism by denying the bid by the Party for Freedom (PVV) of “the Dutch Trump”, Geert Wilders, to become the biggest party in parliament, the truth is that the winning coalition composed by Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the Labour Party (PvdA) proved how populist oriented and, eventually, intolerant the Dutch can be. Of course, the selection for this year’s Dutch Pavilion occurred when the fears of the unstoppable ‘Dutch Trump’ threatened Holland’s membership in the European Union and, of course, tolerance in Europe. From that point of view, it is a political statement from the Cultural Ministry for the world to see conveyed in the most refined way. J A T