This Song, A City – A Conversation with Petra Noordkamp and Laura van Rijs
The city has long been a prime hunting ground for photographers. Weegee roamed the streets in search of crime scenes. Walker Evans captured people unawares on their way to and from work. Helen Levitt depicted street urchins fooling around. William Klein ventured anywhere and everywhere in New York, rudely busting the American Dream with the resulting images. Alexander Rodchenko explored urban architecture using odd angles and unconventional perspectives. He strongly believed he could thus usher in the new socialist age. Atget showed us a rapidly disappearing Paris, whereas Michael Wolf captured the same city by trawling through Google Street View. Stephen Shore not only showed us the different hues of city life as one of the first colour photographers, but also caught the banality and beauty of American intersections. W. Eugene Smith tried and beautifully failed to photograph Pittsburgh in its entirety. Large numbers of photographers have tried to do the same with Detroit ever since.
The list with photographers fascinated by the city goes on and on. It could very well be argued that the birth of photography coincided with the rise of the modern industrial city and that the medium was extremely well-equipped to capture it. However, all the photographers mentioned above have in common that they captured parts and inhabitants of the city pretty much as they encountered them. True, Rodchenko might have climbed onto fire escapes and balconies to get his offbeat perspectives, Shore might have made grateful use of developments in colour film, Weegee might have chased police cars, but none of them really intervened in what happened in front of the camera.
The city, whichever city, thus turned into a living and breathing personality. It became the main character of a film, the protagonist of a novel, the muse inspiring a poem, the beat to a song.
Earlier this year a fascinating and really well thought out exhibition called Staged City opened at Arti et Amicitiae in Amsterdam, putting together a number of visual artists who have dealt with the city on an entirely different level. The show presented a contemporary view on the city as an entity in and of itself. The city, whichever city, thus turned into a living and breathing personality. It became the main character of a film, the protagonist of a novel, the muse inspiring a poem, the beat to a song. And whilst photography nearly always formed the starting point for the artists in the exhibition, the resulting works took various forms.
Batia Suter for example worked her way through photo archives to compile a beautiful site-specific installation consisting of pictures of shelters. Ripped from their original context, the images become re-contextualised simply by formal and aesthetic considerations. Pablo Pijnappel gathered classic views of Paris shot by various photographers in a slide show. In the accompanying sound scape he ruminates on his personal past growing up in the city. At least, that is what is the visitor is led to believe. Just like other artists before him, Pijnappel questions how we can picture one of the most-photographed cities in the world, whilst simultaneously touching upon the difficulty of visualising one’s memories. 1
It is about the space of the city, about the tangibility and materiality of the city, about the forms to be found in the city. If visitors are expecting nice street views, they are not going to find it here.
Elisabeth Tonnard covered the floor with numerous photographs, constituting the work One Swimming Pool. It is a homage to Ed Ruscha’s seminal book Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, another visual artist who dealt with the city on a metaphorical level. Whilst Tonnard’s swimming pool has pictures as its building blocks, it also refers visually to the pixels to which photographs these days can be broken down to. The exhibition also contained a number of paintings that take elements of photographs as their point of departure, for example the works by Rogier Taminiau. Other works in the exhibition were by Jan Adriaans, Maria Barnas, Robbie Cornelissen, Pawel Jaszczuk, Lucas Lenglet, Petra Noordkamp, Paulien Oltheten, Diana Scherer, Arjan van Helmond, and Sarah van Sonsbeeck. They took a multitude of forms, ranging from film to drawings to sound scapes to installations consisting of bird cages.
Intrigued by the works on show, the concept of the exhibition, and the fruitful collaboration between the two curators Petra Noordkamp and Laura van Rijs, I approached them for an interview.
KB: Petra, you exhibited your work La Madre at Foam, the photography museum in Amsterdam, in 2012. Laura, you were responsible for the production of the exhibition at the time. Having just met each other, you had to immediately work very closely during that period. Could you both tell me something about that experience?
LvR: For me, it was really exciting. It was the first time I was given so much freedom, and it was exciting and terrifying to make use of that freedom and to talk with Petra about the exhibition. I really enjoyed it and we had a good connection from the start. I believe we were seeing eye to eye on a lot of things.
PN: I tend to be a perfectionist and when you end up working with someone who operates in the same vein, who is just as precise and meticulous, and aims to get the best out of the artist, well, it is a blessing. Laura was there for me the whole time and she thought of every little detail. She reminded me of everything that needed to be taken care of, or that needed to be organised still. That is such an excellent quality of Laura, and I noticed it again during the production of Staged City. Also, when we first met, we immediately started talking about various artists and artworks that we both liked and enjoyed. So at some point I told Laura that I had an idea for an exhibition and asked her whether she would be interested in pursuing that project together.
KB: Can you tell me something about the original concept for the exhibition and how it was developed into the final show?
PN: In 2003 I visited an exhibition at deSingel in Antwerp called Urban Dramas. I thought to myself: ‘That is such a good title’. It also fit very well with my own work. I like the idea of the city as a source of inspiration.
LvR: As Petra just mentioned, she approached me with this idea for an exhibition about the city. We both came up with suggestions, and talked about it. It somehow seemed to fit very closely and that is how it started. We had three or four artists in mind and bit-by-bit we started searching for more people and to fine tune the concept.
KB: Can you explain in a bit more detail why you took the city as a point of departure for this exhibition?
LvR: It was the result of a few things. There were those works that we both wanted to show and that were rooted in that topic. Then there was that exhibition Petra mentioned earlier and we both liked the theme of the city. We started thinking about the city in more detail. We thought of the city not necessarily from a realistic perspective, but more from a fictional one. We searched for narratives, forms of story telling and such.
PN: It is more about how to look differently at reality. Subjectivity is very important as well as the poetic aspect.
LvR: It is about the space of the city, about the tangibility and materiality of the city, about the forms to be found in the city. If visitors are expecting nice street views, they are not going to find it here.
PN: It is all about the different aspects to the city, but represented in a very subjective manner. I believe the end result is really surprising and enjoyable.
LvR: It is not necessarily a current topic, but it does not need to be one for me. But when you apply for funding you almost have to justify it in that way. However, I am convinced that sometimes you have to show certain things, because they are so good and you want to present them to a larger audience. Petra feels likewise. So for this exhibition we really just looked for the right kind of work and for what fit well together. If you take for example at Ed Ruscha, who photographed swimming pools in LA, and you have one of those swimming pools enlarged to that size in Elisabeth Tonnard’s work. For me, it represents the atmosphere of LA. It is hard to put my finger on it, but it has become a kind of massive symbol instead of a literal depiction of the city.
KB: You already briefly mentioned Elizabeth Tonnard, could you explain why she and the other artists are part of this exhibition?
PN: We both prefer photography that ventures off the beaten track. I really love artists that work with photography, someone like Batia Suter who uses archive material. There are many different media on show, but with the exception of Robbie Cornelissen, everybody uses photography as a starting point.
LvR: Exactly, there is a photographic image underlying almost each and every work.
PN: For example, Pablo Pijnappel uses really well-known pictures from Paris, usually taken by famous photographers, or occasionally by unknown photographers. At the beginning I looked at it and thought to myself: ‘I know that picture, and that picture!’ I really loved how he told his own story with them. Rogier Taminiau’s paintings are based on his own photo collages. Arjan van Helmond takes his own pictures, which he turns into paintings. Jan Adriaans works with film. Robbie Cornelissen is actually the only one who doesn’t start from photography and perhaps Lucas Lenglet’s work falls into that category as well. But the latter works a lot with archive material, and he makes installations of large photo works. He initially suggested to use his photo works, but for the exhibition we thought it would be better to use the birdcages, which also fit the theme better.
LvR: To some of the artists we said that we would really like to show new work. Actually the exhibition contains quite a few new works, for example the work by Paulien Oltheten and the work by Diana Scherer. Batia Suter created a new collection of photographs for on the wall. She designed it specifically for that space, even though it is based on an earlier series of images of shelters. For quite a few works, the exhibition is a unique chance to show it for the first time. For example, the swimming pool by Elisabeth Tonnard, she has never been able to show it like that before. It has been really surprising to see the end result in real life. Today, when the sunlight came through the skylight, it lit up the swimming pool on the floor and reflected it onto the wall. Throughout the day the light kept on changing and conjured up a magical atmosphere. It was beautiful to watch.
Petra Noordkamp (1967, Losser, the Netherlands) is a visual artist who moves fluidly between photography and film. She studied photography at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. Since then her work has been published in magazines such as The Purple Journal, San Rocco, Club Donny, Avenue, Mister Motley and NRC Handelsblad. In 2012 her first short film La Madre, il Figlio e l’Architetto [The Mother, the Son and the Architect] was shown for the first time in an exhibition of her work at Foam. It was was then selected for various Dutch and international film festivals and exhibitions. It won an award for best experimental documentary at the Arquiteturas Film Festival 2013 in Lisbon and was also long-listed for the Dutch Doc Award that year.
Laura van Rijs (1988) curated her first group exhibition All Things You Are during her documentary photography degree at the HKU in Utrecht. It contained works by Jaap Scheeren, Sara Blokland, Maria Dabrowski and Milou Able and was shown at the Academiegalerie in Utrecht in 2011. After graduating Laura decided to become a curator instead of a photographer and worked as an intern at the exhibitions department at Foam. Since 2013 she has been pursuing a masters degree in Film and Photographic Studies at Leiden University. Recently she interned for three months at the Stedelijk Museum, where she was involved in the Science4Arts research project ‘How to Save Photographic Works of Art for the Future?’ She currently also works as a freelance curator.
1 Read about Alice Quaresma’s attempt to do exactly that here.