Colonizing the Exhibition Space
Willem de Rooij and Anna-Sophie Springer
Before sitting down for an interview in his near empty living room, artist Willem de Rooij steps out onto the balcony of his Gründerzeit residence in Berlin-Schöneberg. At –10°C it is one of the first truly sunny days of winter, the cloudless afternoon sky a radiant blue, and de Rooij quickly points out how important he finds an undisturbed view of the open sky. As a Dutchman he comes from a country famous for a tradition of landscape painting with prominent skies. Early films such as I’m coming home in forty days (1997) or Of three men (1998)—made in collaboration with his former partner, Jeroen de Rijke1—in part offer slow meditations on the shifting of colours and light. But what at first might appear as a largely formalist film rests upon a critical foundation. For instance, the romantic impression of the rising sun in Bantar Gebang (2000) dissolves as soon as the location of the scene emerges from the dawn: a slum within a dump on the outskirts of Jakarta. Such tensions have remained a distinctive feature throughout de Rooij’s later works, which eventually exceeded the cinematic frame in favour of complex installations implicating not only exhibition architecture but also objects from museum collections and artworks by other artists. In the following interview, de Rooij himself refers to this expansive strategy as a technique to increasingly “colonize” the exhibition space—a phrase that refers, by extension, to a putative power struggle between artist and curator or artist and institution, among others.
With large-scale installations or “three-dimensional collages” such as Intolerance (2010/11) at the Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, today de Rooij is acclaimed for addressing territorial conflict as a phenomenon of global politics and the art institution alike. In this particular work, de Rooij carefully staged an exhibition by installing a series of bird paintings from seventeenth-century Dutch painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter alongside a number of eighteenth-century Hawaiian feather-covered objects on loan from several ethnological museums around the world. The title of Intolerance is a reference to D. W. Griffith’s silent film of the same name from 1916, which is itself an avant-garde montage examining ideological feuds throughout history. A palimpsest-like endeavour of referentiality and a challenging gesture towards the traditions of museology, Intolerance interwove conceptual, visual, (art) historical, and ethnographic narratives into a complex story. Below, we discuss the problematics of curating as a medium of artistic practice and look at the transformation of notions such as the “readymade” and “collaboration” in the context of non-consensual participation and appropriation—i.e., situations in which objects or artworks from individuals who have been dead for a century or more are subject to appropriation and arrangement into a new artwork. While maintaining that the roles of artist and curator are distinct, de Rooij has claimed the exhibition as one of his primary artistic mediums.
Anna-Sophie Springer – Given that you were originally enrolled as a student in graphic design at the Rietveld Academy and then switched to the art department, how did you start making films?
Willem de Rooij – I started making all sorts of things. I like flatness. The two-dimensional image inspires me. I like depictions because I see them as conceptual constructs, as translations. So I really wanted to be a painter, but I found out that I don’t like to paint. Then for some years I thought the only logical conclusion any artist can come to after some time is to not make any work at all. I first got out of this mode of thought when I discovered collaborating with friends and colleagues. Jeroen de Rijke was my closest friend at the time, and when we started working together it felt like we had never done anything else. We started to make films, which was a great discovery for me because it enabled me to produce flat images, which could also be absent. I loved that if you don’t project a film, it’s simply not there. I am often much more comfortable with the memory of something than with the actual presence of it.
Springer – Is this why you decided to alternate between half-hour screenings and half-hour breaks as an element of the exhibition Mandarin Ducks, which you and de Rijke originally produced for the Dutch Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005? Showing it again at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam later that year, you displayed it alongside several objects that you had selected from the museum’s collection. Both times you designed a particular setting for the film element to be screened in, but from time to time the film itself remained absent.
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About the Authors
Willem de Rooij lives and works in Berlin. In his work he engages processes of selection and combination of images in a variety of different media, ranging from sculpture to photography, film, and texts. De Rooij analyzes conventions of presentation and representation and constructs tensions between sociopolitical and autonomous productions of meaning. While already his earlier film installations had a sculptural character, his recent exhibitions, which often employ found materials and works of other artists, assert through the gesture of appropriation itself their specific artistic character. De Rooij studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Akademie and at the Rijksakademie, both in Amsterdam. Recent solo shows include Farafra at Bergen Kunsthall (2013), Untilted at Kunstverein München (2012), Crazy Repelled Firefight at Fredrich Petzel Gallery, New York (2011), and Intolerance at Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (2010). De Rooij is a tutor at De Ateliers, Amsterdam, and Professor of Fine Art at Staatliche Hochschule fuur Bildende Künste, Städelschule, Frankfurt am Main.
Anna-Sophie Springer co-directs K. Verlag, Berlin, an independent press exploring the book as a site for exhibitions. Holding an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmiths College London, she has worked for several years as an editor at the pioneering German theory publisher Merve Verlag, where she is editing a forthcoming collection of texts on art by Hélène Cixous. She also works as an independent curator and is a 2013 member of SYNAPSE, the International Curators’ Network at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Besides many contracts as editor and translator in the art field, her essays and interviews have appeared in C Magazine, Rheinsprung11, and Scapegoat.