Unfortunately, it did not rain. During a holiday in Italy this June, my girlfriend and I were able to try out our new tent for the first time. It is a spacious one, with several compartments. You can stand upright in it. But no matter how good the tent was, I was still dreaming of heavy rain shower. The best way to experience the greatness of a home is when the conditions outside are a little less pleasant.
That the tent really became our home was also evident from our language. When we decided to head back from day trips, we did not speak about “going back to the campsite”, we spoke about “going home”. The thoughtless language gave away the sense of belonging we felt.
The beauty of camping is that it makes you realize that all the places you can call a “home” ultimately consist of a collection of physical objects. While setting up and breaking down our tent – when the steel tent pegs, fibreglass poles and polyester fabric passed through our hands – it became clear that the sense of belonging we normally only feel at home could actually be created by ourselves, on the go.
What we felt might actually be the “Ikea effect”, the tendency to appreciate something more if you have constructed it yourself. The furniture multinational it is named after makes billions out of this sentiment, by giving you the illusion that you have made your Billy yourself. The idea that constructing something is a way of acquiring a sense of belonging is a strong one.
Everywhere we broke down our tent, we left yellow stains in the grass. A subtle reminder that staying somewhere always leaves a lasting trace.
Someone who did have the luck of a little rain is artist Younwon Sohn (born 1990 in South Korea). In the soft spring sun, the puddles of water glittered beautifully on the large vinyl mat that is her graduation artwork, Floor. The flat sculpture consists of nothing more than a factory-made floor, which for the largest part is laid outside on the grass, with only a small corner inside The Glass House in Amsterdam’s Amstelpark, the location at which a group of graduates of the Department of Fine Arts of the Sandberg Institute held its graduation show this year. The vinyl with parquet print is the kind of floor you find in houses all over the world: affordable and easy to maintain.
By laying this floor – something we generally experience as a stable base – as a thin film on the green grass, with only a small part in the “safe” inner space, her work acquires existential meaning: Sohn presents the floor as a thin skin on which we live, in all its simplicity a striking reminder of the vulnerability of the place we occupy. It is as if she is saying: we live our lives on a thin film, laid down on a vast planet. When Floor was taken away at the end of the graduation show, it probably left the same yellow patch in the grass as our tent did.
The fragility of the place we occupy on earth is further emphasized in Sohn’s sculpture Pixel as a Table. This work consists of a traditional hand-made table, a second-hand object that the artist ordered online. She took the table apart and laid the individual pieces on the floor, in the shape of a square or a pixel. A little nod to the former existence of the hand-made table as a “flat” virtual object on the web page of an online marketplace.
In conversation about this work, Sohn told me that during her time in Amsterdam she used to sit at a table like this when she had contact with her friends in Seoul via Skype. During these video chat sessions, she actually felt that she was with her friends. This raised a question for her: what will remain of my time in Amsterdam? Something merely virtual? Something just as virtual as a table in an online marketplace?
By presenting the table as a pixel, Sohn has started to zoom out on the places we occupy on earth. Seen from the moon, Multatuli wrote, we are all the same size. As large as a pixel, we can add to that in the age of satellite photographs and Google Maps.
To divide the space where non-binary feminist artist Rowena Buur presented their two video works, the artist asked their brother, a professional bricklayer, to build a small brick wall. The true craftsmanship with which this is done is moving: in an era in which artists outdo each other in conceptuality, a skilfully made brick wall – the solid mortar keeping the bricks neatly in place – can suddenly speak straight to the heart.
The story behind the wall makes it even more touching. Eight years ago, Buur broke contact with their father, who had no stable place to live and was struggling with alcohol addiction. Buur made an intimate film about this broken family bond: Zonder hoop heb ik geen dromen (Without hope I have no dreams), which is now part of this graduation exhibition by the Design Department. When Buur lost contact with their father, the relationship with their brother also became troubled. By now asking him to make a brick wall, and involving him in their graduation project, Buur has turned a wall – normally a piece of technology that divides people – into a means of connection.
The perfectly intertwined bricks remind me of a line of poetry by Judith Herzberg, carved out in a stone that has been incorporated into a wall of the Theatre School on Jodenbreestraat in Amsterdam: “Als ik een mens was en geen steen / dan wenste ik jullie om mij heen.” (“If I were a person and not a stone / then I would want you around me.”)
Buur has a great talent for turning things inside out, with great consequences. Their second graduation work, on the other side of the wall, is a video entitled When Did You Become a Heterosexual?. In this film, Buur politely confronts heterosexual people on the street with the normative questions that homosexual people regularly encounter: “When did you find out you were heterosexual?”, “How did your family react to this?” and, to a woman, “Maybe you haven’t found the right woman yet?”.
The reaction of one of the interviewees is telling: “This is about being heterosexual, right?” He tries to correct the interviewer: the questions you are asking cannot be about me, you are probably mistaken. “I didn’t have to tell my parents,” he continues. “It was just normal”. With these interviews, Rowena Buur makes the sometimes elusive, but still all-pervasive, social structures as tangible as a brick wall. The artist turns these structures inside out, in the same way as they changed a brick wall from a means of dividing into a means of connecting.
Sometimes the true meaning of something only becomes clear in its absence. That certainly is the case with the work Heterogeneous Waters by Elizaveta Strakhova (born 1993 in Russia), and in fact it goes for the entire presentation of the Studio for Immediate Spaces. In the public space of Van Ostadestraat in Amsterdam, all the graduates of this Sandberg Department jointly presented a “time piece” over the course of three days.
In the presentation, a festival-like exhibition with performances, sculptures, interventions and also more classical video works, boundaries between art and the regular life of the street were not always clear, leading to a striking number of questions and remarks by casual passers-by: “Why are you here?”, “What exactly can you do here?”, “Oh, you’re an artist!”. A successful way of reaching out to a new audience.
Most interesting were some of the works that almost unnoticed became part of city life. Strakhova’s Heterogeneous Waters is one such piece, consisting of a large, publicly accessible foot bath placed on a parking space in Van Ostadestraat. The power of the work lies in its surprising self-evidence. As expressed by the young girl who, only after she had stepped out of the foot bath, started to wonder out loud, “But why is this actually here?” Only once her feet were slowly cooling down from the warm water in which she had bathed them did the questions begin to arise: this is nice, but what is it doing here?
That is what a place you can call home and a successful work of art have in common: they consist of concrete objects that gain a different meaning in a new context. In some of the best cases, the new structure becomes so self-evident that you forget to question it.
Davide-Christelle Sanvee (born 1993 in Togo) however, made a great work by doing exactly the opposite. She has a great strategy to make you question things you might normally take for granted. Everything Around, Including You (2019) is a series of performances that integrate themselves into the daily routine of Van Ostadestraat. To be honest, I am not absolutely sure whether I have seen Sanvee’s work at all. But I suspect I have: at one end of the street was a small memorial altar, standing against a tree – a little monument to a dead dog that was so beautiful that it attracted the attention. The flowers were so fresh, the card so well cared for, that I suspected this might in fact be a work of art. (That was later confirmed.)
The elusiveness of this intervention, the “suspicion of art” it raised, causes you to look intently for other forms of human interaction in the public space. So just to be sure, I took a photo of a wooden bookcase on the street. This was probably not an intervention by a Sandberg graduate, but a public bookcase that the residents of Van Ostadestraat use to exchange books – an element of street life that can be found all around Amsterdam. By placing slightly strange elements in the street like that monument for a dead dog, Sanvee makes you aware of what was already there before any artist became involved.
This is something else that tents and works of art have in common: only when you start to disassemble them, only when you start to dissect them element by element, is their meaning understood. But both homes and artworks are at their best when they also speak to you directly, giving you a sense of belonging that precedes all analysis.
Thomas van Huut is a freelance journalist and critic. He writes about art for daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad and has a monthly column on Brainwash.nl, an online philosophy magazine published by broadcaster Omroep Human and The School of Life. In 2018 he won de Basisprijs in the Essay category of the Prize for Young Art Criticism (Prijs voor de Jonge Kunstkritiek). He studied at the School of Journalism in Utrecht and holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Amsterdam, awarded in 2016.