Renie Spoelstra (1974, Drachten) lives and works in Rotterdam, The Netherlands

(Past) NL Pop-up London
2010-12-16 until 2011-01-30

NL The Dutch Cultural Pop-up space in London
Ansuya Blom, Martin Effert, Risk Hazekamp, Renie Spoelstra, Willem Weismann, Bas Zoontjens .

‘You Are Here’ is an exhibition of Dutch contemporary visual art at the intersection –one might even say coordinates given the context- of two agendas.

On one hand the show is drawn from artists who have (previously) been nominated for the Sovereign European Art Prize, underscoring NL’s collaboration with the Sovereign Art Foundation.

However, rather than being a simple review or listing, the second agenda has been to draw on specific work from the eclectic group of nominees in order to elaborate a cohesive curatorial thematic. In this case it is one that fits aptly with the mission of NL – The Dutch Cultural Pop-Up Space in London.

There is an old traditional saying that goes, “God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.” Embedded within this piece of folklore, uttered as often by the Dutch as others, are a number of complex ideas of beliefs; residues of thinking that reflect the larger cultural consciousness. One, quite rightly, is a kind of pride in a nation that has a unique history, that literally reclaimed much of its land from the sea. But another, intrinsic within this saying, is also the notion of a relationship with the land, with landscape and nature that is very different from the popular notions of other European cultures.

For example, in the Romanticism arising in Germany or the Impressionist schools arising in France, nature and land is almost an independent and found thing, the long lineage of the medieval church’s notion that man was merely a tenant on what God had put in place. Nature as represented by the land is something beyond humankind’s real control other than occasionally thwarted attempts at agriculture. One could marvel at it, be in awe of it or even fear it.

In art from the Netherlands, by contrast, the relationship with the land is different. Intentionally or unintentionally, artists documented how the Dutch landscape was literally pulled out from beneath the sea starting at the point that such feats began. Land engineering, rolled out in a systematic way, produced a whole range of phenomena that have naturally become emblematic of the Netherlands, from the geometric stripes of well-ordered flat polder fields to the image of the multifaceted windmill, as able to pump water to where it needed to be as to mill grain.

No surprise then that from such a manmade landscape, the built environment would develop accordingly. In the Netherlands, after all, ‘the built environment’ actually includes what is considered ‘nature’ elsewhere. Neat cities of houses responding to the engineering requirements of being located on deltas – the large windows reducing the overall weight of buildings built along canals- would become rationalized places in which the modern domestic home was invented.

All of these things are, of course, well-known and evident in the most famous of Dutch art: the Golden Age’s paintings of homes as the direct subject or as backdrops to those depicted; the soaring churches of proud mercantile cities sitting atop neat flat farmland; the still lives with an ambivalent relationship to the great wealth brought into homes through trade…

Save for certain traditions of landscape painting itself which saw painters import the less uniform landscapes of Italy into their work, somehow and somewhere, almost every other genre of Dutch painting shows us a red thread that can be traced back to a unique relationship with a unique landscape. Water readily accessed through a system of clever canals could be used for domestic laundry or by proud ships to sail into the hearts of cities hundreds of miles from the formal coastline. All ultimately speak of a particular relationship with the land and its subjugation through engineering.

Within this vast history of art, there are often the concomitant aspects of pride and anxiety: understandable pride that the water has been tamed to make land and cities; anxiety that the sea may want to take it back. In effect, in Dutch art, the dynamic between the land and the people that live on it is a rather human one. The land, far from being a neutral entity passively awaiting exploitation or admiration is something that has been born, like one’s own child, and requires careful consideration, even suspicion or parental control at times. The landscape is something that requires interpersonal negotiation. Taken as a whole, one might even postulate that the Humanism of Erasmus could never really have arisen elsewhere.

It is therefore no surprise that even when considering the contemporary art practice of completely different artists with completely different preoccupations, the land, landscape and its tangential iconography such as architecture or cartography occur with remarkable frequency. In some cases, this is immediate, direct and even the subject of the work. In others, it lurks at the edge of the frame, an almost subliminal player in constructing the overall discourse offered to us by the artist.

In ‘You Are Here’, each of the selected artists consciously or incidentally uses imagery referring to landscape, maps, terrains or the product of the Dutch landscape – specific artistic traditions relating to architecture, both exterior and interior- to make his or her unique statement; his or her individual artistic research. In some cases, the landscape stands central and it is how the artist frames, juxtaposes or contextualises an identifiable landscape that moves the works into areas way beyond the purely documentary or representational. By contrast, certain artists included offer up painterly images of landscapes that do not really exist. Strange outsider wildernesses or disheveled terrains; the dreamy alien landscapes of other planets veering closely towards the airbrushed aesthetics of sci-fi art. Yet, they become vehicles for other discussions ranging from formal discussions about painting to something akin to the hubris of inserting disorder into the neat and well-ordered nature of what landscape is in the mass psyche of the Netherlands.

In yet other artists’ work, the landscape is barely visible at the periphery of the frame. But it plays a fundamental part in defining the latent or potential identity of the people depicted. And in the work of others still, the two-dimensional representation of a landscape or terrain – maps or microscopic diagrams- are the formal motif that unfolds, almost metaphorically, to offer up narratives or interiority or emotional states.

The Sovereign Art Foundation is a key partner in NL- The Dutch Cultural Pop-Up Space in London. The foundation has annually awarded The Sovereign European Art Prize since 2005, following on from the success of the Sovereign Asian Art Prize. The prize is awarded to a European artist for two-dimensional work, selected by a panel of judges who choose the recipient from a short list of nominees. Artists are nominated by a diverse group of relevant nominators, each focussing on artists in a particular European state.