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Other Criteria: Wendelien van Oldenborgh, Zachary Formwalt

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On April 3, Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s book Amateur will be launched at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, with a screening of her films Bete & Deise and From Left to Night, aswell as a talk by David Dibosa. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend this launch myself.

Published by Sternberg Press with If I Can’t Dance, Amateur is the first major monograph on the artist. I contributed an introductory essay; there’s also an interview and many shorter but substantial pieces on individual works by a range of authors, including Eric de Bruyn, Tom Holert, Denise Ferreira da Silva and Grant Watson. The text pages alternate with horizontally cut pages with film still and various kinds of documentation; by browsing these half-pages, one makes a continuously changing montage. My text is titled “Production Notes” and deals with Wendelien’s work as consisting not just of a series of films, but as an engagement with film production; her cinematic practice involves the use of highly particular sets and stage of encounters and the creation of situations that can never be fully scripted, and provide material that is then edited into highly musical time-images, which in turn are often presented in spaces which in turn function as sets for the viewers.

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Timing and place of this launch are somewhat curious. The Stedelijk is a key actor in an ongoing effort to marginalize art practices such as Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s in favour of more object-based and collector-friendly practices such as that of Magali Reus or Saskia Noor van Imhoff. Neo-formalism, at times with a hint of half-remembered institutional critique taken through a post-internet blender: the perfect cocktail to serve at exclusive openings. I don’t mean to suggest that selling works to collectors is Bad, or that the work in question does not deserve to be shown, or that it is devoid of qualities. But which qualities, exactly, are these? And by which criteria are they perceived as qualities?

With the exception of the Van Abbemuseum, Wendelien van Oldenborgh has depended on smaller institutions for contemporary art, in the Netherlands and elsewhere. Though the Stedelijk now supposedly “shares” the piece Maurits Script from the Van Abbe’s collection, it passed on the opportunity to purchase Après la reprise via the Municipal Art Acquisitions (Gemeenteaankopen), and ultimately only acquired La Javanaise, which was produced for the Hollandaise exhibition in the Stedelijk’s semi-autonomous project space Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam,— which is one of the aforementioned small institutions that have sustained Van Oldenborgh’s work. This summer the Stedelijk will close down SMBA for good. The museum has announced that SMBA is to be replaced by a vaguely defined successor, which will probably enforce the unilaterally imposed New Normality even more stringently. It is doubtful whether something the current exhibition at SMBA—the brilliant, Vivian Ziherl-curated BELL invites—would be allowed in this future space, if it ever materializes. Preventing such exhibitions seems to be the whole point of this exercise. Meenwhile De Appel, a venerable art space that has recently imploded in a spectacular manner, and that is being held hostage by a disastrous board that refuses to step down, seems to have become another Stedelijk minion.

Zachary Formwalt is another Holland-based artists who, while certainly profiting from the artistic infrastructure and arts funding mechanisms that are still in place, has never been given the extent of institutional support and industrial-scale hype that is now bestowed on the likes of Reus or Van Imhoff. SMBA was particularly important for the development of his practice, and hence the project space acts as co-publisher of Formwalt’s recent book Three Exchanges. I did not contribute to this publication, but I can recommend it. Eric de Bruyn and Joshua Simon provided insightful essays—and Zachary and the designer have developed rather successful strategies for transposing each of the three videos into print. While the EYE museum is currently showing one of his older works in a roundup of “young film and video art from the Netherlands” that is cringeworthy even by its own low standards, it is to be hoped that less dysfunctional institutions will actually enable him, and others, to continue to do meaningful work.

When Stedelijk director Beatrix Ruf proclaims that Magali Reus is an important artist and that “every important Dutch artist must get an exhibition at the Stedelijk,” this suggests that there is a certain degree of consensus about who counts as an important Dutch artist, or an important artists working in Holland, or indeed about what matters in art today. In fact, there is no such consensus. To make up for this lack, a concerted effort is made to impose a hegemonic view of art and culture through repetition. In the resulting New Normality, it will be clear to all what good art is and where it belongs.

This goes beyond the Stedelijk picking artist X over artist Y; it has to do with fundamental considerations concerning the type of subjectivity, practice and collaboration that are desired. In the context of her plea for the “devaluing” financialized contemporary art, Andrea Phillips has argued that “the process of educating artists to aspire to forms of autonomous individuality – in procedures that mark their artworks apart from others – would need to be dismantled. There are many important ways in which artistic skills can be used in different ways to develop projects that do not necessitate individualized value as a form of capital expansion, but at the same time artists need to be able to eat.”

Whether one agrees with her in every respect or not, under present circumstances it is difficult to even begin to have this conversation. Because of course we all know that the Stedelijk will always show Important Art.

Edit: A Dutch translation (by Vincent van Velsen) of a slightly reworked version of the above text has now been published online by Platform BK under the rite “Belangrijke Kunst” (“Important Art”).. On this occasion I’ve made one or two corrections in the English version here.

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