Although having lived in Amsterdam for two years, I do not immediately associate the city with cutting-edge contemporary art. Admittedly both the Stedelijk Museum and the Rijksmuseum were closed for nearly ten years. But they have since re-opened in beautiful splendour. In the Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt is shown face to face with Anish Kapoor, Kapoor himself by now somewhat of an old master (in many different ways). But what I am here for is Isa Genzken.
Having had a successful retrospective at MOMA in 2013/1014, German-born Genzken is slowly being discovered by a broader audience. This is her largest show to date, and it blew me away. So prolific, so wild is this 68-year old artist, embracing life in all its wonderful facets.
Entering the space we see an installation of her ‘totems’: long rectangular poles that shoot skywards like the scyscrapers of a buzzing city. Berlin, maybe, where the artist spends most of her time, or New York, her other big inspiration. The exterior of the poles is made up of patches of aluminium, fluorescent paints, and snippets of photographs, mostly views of the sky. Interestingly, Genzken once said that by including a view of the outside world through photographs, her sculptures open up to a space outside their own physical presence. In another room, her ‘ellipsoids’, spear-shaped wooden objects, are positioned on the floor like ultra-thin, floating canoes: light but surprisingly present, evoking a spiritual world between earth and sky.
Such sculptural inventions alternate with other works: photographs, drawings, paintings, collages, film and what the curator has called ‘assemblage-tableaux’: little scenes of ready-made objects such as toys and army equipment placed on high plinths, so we have a feeling of ‘peeking’ at some wonderfully weird cinematic scene. There are even two sofas hanging in a corner of the room, held up by a wildly painted canvas in the middle.
You cannot begin to imagine what goes on in this artist’s mind. But what is probably most striking is how her rich and colourful imagination gets translated in work that is so divergent. Silent, imposing and abstract sculptural works, where the artist’s wildness is beautifully contained in geometric shapes such as poles and ellipses. And then in a next room, loud, attention-seeking installations of people dressed-up and vandalised clothes on a row of hangers. Genzken clearly defies definition and categorisation.
There is time for some reflection in her film work, shown in a large auditorium in a side room. We see a conversation between Genzken and a young android character against a dark, suffocating café ambience. Is there such a thing as political art, Genzken asks. Through its selective receiving audience, can art ever aspire to changing the world? Has any artwork ever done this? In my opinion this is one of the most pressing questions in contemporary art today. In fact, it was one of the leading threads at this year’s Venice Biennale, which divided reactions between the hopeful (yes art can change things! At least it can try) and the sceptical (the institutionalised platform of an international art exhibition is too pretentious and too glamourous to be able to reflect our current issues).
An answer to the political conundrum seemed to be forthcoming at the EYE Museum, Amsterdam’s museum solely dedicated to film, (re)opened in 2012. Close Up is an inspiring display of recent film/video works by young artists working in the Netherlands today. We find some documentary style film making but mainly more abstract, fictional work where film is used inventively, as a medium for a spatial installation consisting of various screens or against the backdrop of sculpture.
The most powerful work is saved for last. In Full Contact, Dutch-born David Verbeek shows us two screens. On the first, we see a drone pilot sitting in an American Air Force unit carrying out a distant bombing mission in Afghanistan. The second screen shows us the same figure, this time in a boxing match. So shaken by his actions, the pilot has thrown himself into the dark and destructive scene of wrestling, trying to get redemption for his wrongdoing by getting physically hurt and violated himself.
Computer- generated bombing versus the raw and direct impact of touch. At one point, we hear a voice say the life-destroying words ‘Contact!’ The bomb is placed and explodes, whilst simultaneously at the next screen the boxer receives his last devastating blow. But even more powerful than this were the moments that followed. The expression on the face of the bomber, a mix of shock, disbelief and sadness, stayed with me for a long time. How does it feel to kill from thousands of miles away, by touching a button on a computer screen? Has in our modern digital society the person somehow become removed from the deed? The two boxers embrace, a gesture that is at the same time tense and very tender.
Will this film change American policy in the Middle East? Most probably not. But the artwork connects with us, it shows us the deep and primal ripples on the human soul as well as a sad disjunction from human contact present in our times. As long as art keeps trying to do this, showing us a different human angle, a different perspective of the world around us, I am hopeful. Isa Genzken would surely approve.
Isa Genzken, Mach Dich Hübsch! Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, until 6th March 2016
Close-Up, EYE Film Museum, until 22nd May 2016