AQ12 Spring 2015 Exhibition Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte

Ed Atkins, Recent Ouija Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 21 February to 31 May 2015
Rembrandt van Rijn, Late Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam  12 February to 17 May 2015

Is Anyone There?

“Is anyone there?” was usually the first question asked at the beginning of a Ouija board game, played during adolescent sleepovers just before bed. Ouija is a game which requires the suspension of disbelief that one or more persons whose hands are resting on the planchette are not actually pushing it around the board to produce answers rather than supernatural powers. Recent Ouija is the name of Ed Atkins’(1982) has chosen for his one man, multi-media show held at Amsterdam’s Stedelijke Museum until 31 May 2015. The show in the museum’s basement is divided into nine spaces: #1 Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths, 2013; #2 Counting 1, 2, 3,; 2014 #3 Bastard, 2014, #4 Ribbons, 2014; #5 Happy Birthday!!, 2014; #6 Untitled, 2015, #7 ‘No-one is more work than me’ flextime redux, 2014; #8 Even Pricks, 2013 and #9 Material Witness OR A Liquid Cop, 2012.

Gallery #1 features a computer generated model, one of Atkins’ avatars, which recites poety as its hair grows longer. One of the poems it recites (and one of the high points of this exhibition for me) is Gilbert Sorentino’s “The Morning Roundup” from his book, Corrosive Sublimate. Sorrentino’s meta-poetry and meta-fiction is intended to stand for itself with images that come fast and change quickly so that one must (at least partially) construct one’s own narrative to make sense of what is going on. (I was introduced to Sorentino’s work when I published my literary magazine, No Apologies, in San Francisco in the ’80s). Borrowing on Sorrentino’s modus operendi, Atkins offers meta-poetry and meta-imagery in his Recent Ouija paintings, video and audio pieces in which the visitor is to construct his/her own narrative. The Ouija effect, however of these installations (where meanings are to arise spontaneously as if created by the incorporeal other and not from the self as in when someone “consults” a Ouija board to find answers to questions) is not all that apparent to me nor was I surprised, perplexed, challenged, etc. by what I saw, heard or felt. In fact, the only image from Atkin’s work that momentarily startled me was on the cover of his Zürich/Mainz Kunsthallen/Julia Stoscheck Collection exhibition catalogue—that of a small hand grasping a much larger than scale thumb which momentarily appeared to me as another body appendage.

Perhaps it’s because I am aware of some of the sources of Atkins spoken or sung texts and visual iconography—classical music, advertising, postmodern poetry, gay culture, world events—that I readily made associations from my own experience or world events for his images and avatars so that this installation didn’t seem magical or its meanings did’t seem to come from unknown sources.

For example, the video of the male avatar in gallery #4 (Ribbons, 2014), naked and hiding under a café tables or shirtless with his head resting top of the café table, a cigarette burning to ash in his hand reminds me of Warmostraat backrooms from the 1990s and the Straight to Hell videos of a decade later, in which various straight-identified, young men were subjected to various sorts of gay sexual bondage and humiliating words for various bodily orifices or appendages were written on their heads. (Although the Internet is full of images and videos of many straight lager lads have also had some of written some of the same phrases on their foreheads of their inebriated, unconscious friends). However, I can’t remember too many of these young men with their heads on café tables singing “Erbarme dich, Mein Gott” (Have mercy upon me, My God) from J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion where Peter begs God tearfully for forgiveness for denying he knew Jesus thrice to save his own life. (Although this pairing of high-brow music with low-brow culture has also been used before in the film, Clockwork Orange, for example). Even the disembodied head in gallery #5 (Happy Birthday!!, 2014) with a bit of blood below its nose emploring: “Look at me, look at me!” and reassuring with: “It’s just a bit of blood” didn’t make me look or feel squeamish as I am of real blood. Thus, this technology and installation did not suspend my disbelief.

Perhaps for less literate, apolitical, twenty-something, virtual-native, X-box, thumb jockeys, these installations blur the distinction between fantasy and reality. But for this literate, political, 55+, virtual émigré (computer mainframe and personal computer user from 1984 onward), X-box virgin, I found Atkin’s Recent Ouija exhibition unsurprising and disappointing. I was always aware I was watching simulations, not reality. My senses were not tricked and delighted as they are when I viewed Rembrandt’s “The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis” with its mysterious, phosphoric-yellow light that seems to radiate from the canvas itself or saw Stanley Kubrick’s ride through time in 2001, A Space Odyssey during which the double planes of speeding lights on the screen made my theatre seat seem to move. Perhaps if Mr Atkins had tried harder to merger high- and low-art as did Kubrick in Clockwork Orange, then his work would be more interesting to me and accessible to older audiences. In addition, if it were possible to talk or interact with the avatars and installations and not know if their answers were computer or human generated (someone behind a screen somewhere) then they would blur the barrier between physical and virtual reality which is the goal of Ouija. Instead, I feel Recent Ouija is a poor example of what a combination of more conventional art and music and modern virtual art and technology can offer.

The Old Man’s Still Got It

From a completely different era, another one man show, not more than a few hundred metres away, the Rijksmuseum’s Late Rembrandt tries to unlock the secrets of the great man’s last years by bringing back together prints, etchings, pen and ink and drypoint drawings and paintings from all around world (but mostly from the UK). These media help demonstrate Rembrandt’s virtuosity and inventiveness even in the last decade of his life including some exceptional portraits he painted in those years.

These different media have been hung together into galleries with the following themes: “From Life,” “Conventions,” “Emulation,” “Light,” “Experimental Technique,” “Intimacy,” “Contemplation,” “Inner Conflict” and “Reconciliation.” The temporarily assembled collection (this exhibition will hang for only 100 days) includes the addition of the life-size Portrait of Frederik Rihel on Horseback, 1663 two versions of Lucretia from 1664 and 1666, The Jewish Bride, (which according to Vincent Van Gogh, was Rembrandt’s masterpiece) and which hangs next to the Portrait of a Family, both from 1665 and sharing some of the same poses and hand gestures and, of course as previously mentioned, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, 1661-1662 with its mysterious yellow light which seems to radiate from the canvas itself. With so many media and paintings from the same decade, this once-in-lifetime exhibit should have something for everyone interested in Rembrandt’s later life. A good guide for making your way through the galleries is the Rijksmuseum’s own pamphlet, Late Rembrandt, which individually names and describes all 105 items in the exhibition. This pamphlet can be found in a rack in the stairway beyond the lift in the “entrance” hall and is available for a free-will donation.

Despite the richness of this collection however, it’s shame that the galleries are so filled with people that it is difficult to see many of these masterworks, let alone move about. (Note: De Telegraaf, a Dutch national newspaper reported on 25 February, five days after my visit, that the number of visitors per two hour slot would be reduced from 1,500 to 1,000).

Hopefully, by reducing the number of people present by one-third, visitors will have more of a chance to view the masterworks and perhaps even sit down to contemplate some of them occasionally. Another problem, however, is that the etchings, drawings and prints, are hung at eye-level for visitors standing up. Those in wheelchairs have difficult viewing them even though the usual metal curbs have been removed in most places so it is possible to roll up right under them.

It’s unfortunate there wasn’t room available in the middle of the galleries to put these prints in glass cases, but of course, with the great number of visitors and the necessary safety precautions, this probably wasn’t feasible. Even with all the overcrowding, I’m sure visitors will see things they will remember and enjoy for years to come. However, they should also consider booking twice to come back and see what they’ve missed before this exhibition closes on 17 May 2015.