ADJUSTING AS THE KEY TO CARRYING ON
Graduates mentioned: Alice Dos Reis, Loidys Carnero
In order to function as a group, it is essential to have the ability to adjust. On the one hand a group is very mutable; on the other it offers a very stable fundament. With this in mind, it was interesting to hear Maxine Kopsa, head of the main department Fine Arts at the Sandberg Instituut, mention the special collaboration between her students during her short introduction to the exhibition.
In the past few years, her graduates have presented their graduation projects in one or two-person shows at galleries throughout Amsterdam. This year, however, they decided to organise a group exhibition together, at one venue. Kopsa added that they wrote a joint press release as well. The very personal perspective of this document evokes a feeling of nostalgia; it would seem the writers are looking back on two fruitful years. The text also emphasises how pragmatic their collaboration was. “Could I borrow your hammer?” is one of the very practical yet collegial sentences it contains. It has a romantic feeling to it, too, at one point stating, “Now we’re all sitting in a field, the grass has grown up to our chins.” There is a certain sadness to it as well. Time has passed and the graduates realise that they are now responsible for their own destinies after having been part of a group. This is emphasised at the end of the press release, where the authors describe it as “one body of text by nine individuals”.
Although the collaborative element is much more about doing things together prior to creating the work itself, it is still striking that the exhibition does not feel like it has been formed by a group. In fact, it consists of individual presentations. Graduate Alice Dos Reis (born 1995, Portugal) explains that it is perhaps going too far to call it a collaboration at all. “The collaboration was much more about enjoying working alongside each other,” she says. Although the collaborative element, and hence the notion of adjusting, is not very clear in the exhibition, some of the projects presented certainly are concerned with the idea of adjusting. Take the thesis by Loidys Carnero (born 1982, Cuba), for example, for which he used “the story of a box posted to Cuba” as a case study. That box can be seen as a metaphor for a person in exile, and the consequences this situation has: in what way will exile change a person? And what role does language play in that?
Carnero’s graduation project can be seen as an extension of his thesis. Seven wooden crates are placed in a row. Because they are all partly open, you can glimpse the contents: a very bright blue liquid in glass bottles. Every box is different in size and its use of wood. Carnero is fascinated by trade: its history, which is very dark, but also its current status in a country like Cuba where an embargo imposed by the United States still applies. It is in this context that Carnero has examined the history of Blue Curaçao, a bright blue liqueur that originated in the sixteenth century when Spaniards brought seeds to the island of Curaçao in order to plant orange trees there. Although this transplantation succeeded, the oranges had a totally different taste from the ones in Spain because of the different composition of the soil. This resulted in very bitter fruit, which the Spanish did not want to eat. So they dried the peels and distilled a liqueur from them, although this was transparent rather than blue.
When the Dutch took Curaçao from Spain, they also took over the orange liqueur. But while they kept the taste the same, they changed its colour to bright blue. Carnero explains that this was very much about selling: by making the drink more exotic, it would probably be more popular in the Netherlands. There are still manufacturers producing Blue Curaçao. For his project, Carnero ordered six bottles from every active distillery, all containing the exact same liquid. By putting them in crates, he emphasises the history of the trade in this particular drink but also touches upon the more general notion of trade and how it has influenced so many aspects of culture and history – often through oppression. In the case of Carnero’s Blue Curaçao crates, this is very much about the specificity of a location: the taste of oranges depends upon where they grow and emphasising the exoticness of Curaçao influenced the way the liqueur looks because a Dutch distillery decided to turn it blue. Probably unintendedly, they also created a sort of pun, says Carnero. “The liquor is blue, but it tastes orange.” The colour seems to underline the artificiality of the whole creation of Blue Curaçao.
It is interesting to see how Carnero turns the history of trade into a poetic gesture about colours, while at the same time referring to the current state of trade. Although using a very specific example, it is clear that the essence of his project touches upon a much broader issue. Consider, for example, the continuous trade war we are in and the recent tensions between China, the United States and Europe. On the one hand, changing relationships demand revision; on the other we can wonder how much change is desirable?
Alice Dos Reis touches upon similar questions regarding change. In particular, the question of who decides what will change. In her film Mood Keep, she focuses on the axolotl – a type of salamander that was shipped from Mexico to Europe from the seventeenth century onwards. This transposition might seem an innocent fact, but it is closely linked to the colonisation of Mexico by the Spanish who exterminated the Aztecs and so brought an end to their empire. Today the axolotl is almost extinct, too, but so far has been saved because of specimens held in captivity. This means that the animals constantly have to adjust to environments which are not natural to them. In Dos Reis’ film you see people scrolling on their phones, referencing the popularity of the axolotl in cartoons, like Pokémon, because of its cuteness. The axolotl is a fascinating animal because it apparently never grows to adulthood, but always looks innocent and cute. It is bizarre to realise that this cuteness and the exoticism associated with the species are actually what have saved it from extinction. Dos Reis has found a way of fusing real, but surreal, facts with fictional science. Her video is set in the future and tells the story of axolotls communicating with each other, from aquarium to aquarium. By making them seem aware of each other, Dos Reis offers a counterpoint to their loneliness. You even start to identify with the axolotl, developing empathy rather than seeing the animal purely as an object of entertainment. It seems paradoxical, though, that there appears to be more and more loneliness in human society due to our seclusion with our phones as we watch lonely axolotls for our own entertainment.
Although Dos Reis’ project might seem very different from Carnero’s, they both engage with big and urgent questions concerning our current world order. Both are based on the transposition of a natural element that took place in the sixteenth century, and both of those cases are closely linked to colonisation. The elements are appropriated for human culture and become prized for their exoticism. And their transposition causes both to act differently in their new surroundings: the oranges become bitter while the axolotl becomes a captive species, almost extinct in the wild. Carnero’s and Dos Reis’ projects thus respond to topical issues concerning cultural property. Are our current ideas about cultural phenomena correct? Or are people, animals and other natural elements being excluded, intentionally or otherwise? It is this contemporary social context, in which everyone seems afraid of each other, which makes it interesting to see the students of the Fine Arts department preferring to exhibit together instead of alone, and thus offering a counterweight.
Julia Mullié is an art historian. She is currently researching the oeuvre of Stanley Brouwn, having previously written essays for the Prix de Rome catalogue and reports of the Cinema Olanda Platform at Witte de With. She is an adviser to the Dutch Council for Culture and curated the exhibition Making Money For My Friends at the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht.