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nieuws  10-01-2023 

Resetting The Stedelijk Museum

Much to the delight of Nook’s editor Thierry Somers, the layout of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam as it was conceived in 2012 has been restored. Talking with Vincent van Velsen, co-curator of the current Anne Imhof exhibition, YOUTH, he discusses how the artist transformed the museum’s subterranean space into a labyrinthine architectonic installation, Imhof’s knack for spatial design, and why the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions are brought more to the fore in the building’s recalibrated layout.


[food for thought] Anne Imhof’s dystopian installation in the basement of the Stedelijk may arouse some unease among visitors, but I’m happy to experience it. It’s fascinating to wander around in the large rectangular space of the museum, that is now used again as it was intended: a platform for artists to make their own. “Every artist can do something completely different within the space,” says Van Velsen. “Anne’s transformation of the basement is a bold move. She shows what is possible in the space in terms of creating a dense experience and environment.”


Imhof has built a reputation of radically transforming the spaces in which she exhibits in a way that attracts a popular following. YOUTH conjures associations with the interiors of underground nightclubs in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District in the 1980s, an industrial warehouse, or an Orwellian scene, accompanied by a soundtrack mainly composed in collaboration with Eliza Douglas (also Imhof’s muse and life partner) playing through speakers moving along a rail mounted on the ceiling. YOUTH is a disorienting and oppressive experience at times, but it engages a young international audience, who flock to see the show.


On its head

When the new expansion of the Stedelijk by Benthem Crouwel opened in 2012, there was a clear plan of what to do with the museum space: temporary exhibitions in the new building, the permanent collection in the old building. Memorable and critically acclaimed shows by Mike Kelley, Aernout Mik, Seth Siegelaub, and Ed Atkins were programmed in the basement, showcasing various possibilities of what could be done in the 1,100-square-metre space.


In 2017, Beatrix Ruf turned the layout of the museum on its head. She had a radical plan to “revitalise the interior of the museum.” The first floor of the historic building would be devoted to temporary exhibitions. The entire new building would be devoted to a display comprising the 750-plus works from the Stedelijk’s holdings, grouped around iconic pieces in the collection and featuring a mix of disciplines. The basement space was dubbed Stedelijk BASE.


The concept for the new collection presentation was developed by AMO architects Rem Koolhaas and Federico Martelli. The idea was for visitors to experience the collection in an open-ended parcours, so the works were displayed on free-standing steel walls produced by Tata Steel Nederland that were positioned diagonally in the space. They considered the walls ‘lightweight’ and ‘ultra-thin’, but to me they looked clunky, supported by firm standards that were sometimes annoyingly visible.



When standing in front of The Human Figure in Motion by Francis Bacon, on the right side the support structure of the partition walls could be seen. It was like looking at the rear of a scenery flat encountered during a backstage tour at a theatre.


The idea behind the observation tower atop the bedroom designed by Gerrit Rietveld, where visitors could overlook the entire space, seemed sympathetic. But when I stood on the platform the view reminded me of how works in a commercial art fair are displayed, or the popular item of 1970s Dutch TV show Wie-kent-kwis in which a guinea pig had to run a course through a maze of planks in a large wooden box. It appeared to me that the concept of the new collection presentation was more important than the works of the collection themselves.


More intimate

The current director of the Stedelijk, Rein Wolfs, has meanwhile restored the 2012 layout of the museum. His vision of how to exhibit artworks and deal with the space in the museum is more logical. Showing the artworks again in separate rooms helps visitors to better comprehend them. When standing in the room dedicated to colour field painting, featuring key works by Barnett Numan, Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland and Yves Klein, insight into the various directions within the movement emerges and a ‘dialogue’ between the works ensues. With the free-standing walls the curators tried to create thematic zones of related artworks. Yet the various pieces were positioned close to each other and unable to ‘breathe’ as they can now, displayed in separate rooms.


As a curator, Van Velsen also embraces the new layout. “The old rooms are more suitable for me to make collection exhibitions or small displays, as it is more intimate and you can create relationships between the works. It’s harder to achieve this in a large open space like the basement which, I think, is very suitable for shows like Anne’s.”


Times of uncertainty

For architecture lovers it is inspiring to observe how Imhof and Sub, her long-time architect collaborators, handle space and how to navigate it. They work with the stark, unfinished nature of the exhibition spaces and utilise the concrete walls, pipes, and steel structure of the building to create a raw, urban feeling. “Anne is interested in architecture and how it functions,” Van Velsen explains. “She likes to work with the given circumstances of each location. The free-standing walls are very heavy and difficult to move, so she built the installation around them to create a compact, claustrophobic environment. In the exhibition you hardly see the walls because they are hidden behind so many objects, including 1,995 car tires, 240 water containers, 470 lockers, and 900 plastic stacking containers.” (After the exhibition, the art collective General Idea will be the last artists who will work with the walls; a spokesperson for the museum told me OMA’s architecture is scheduled to be permanently removed in 2023.)



Imhof erected a chain-link mesh of several metres high around the observation tower, adding to the eerie atmosphere of the show. I watched visitors following the speakers moving on the rails and children running through the space playing tag, while others were dancing to the music and filming each other with their phones. Freedom of movement is limited within the installation’s architectural straitjacket, yet the exhibition also lacks a designated route, allowing each visitor to encounter the paintings, videos, and various objects in a different sequence. “Compared with Anne’s other exhibitions, YOUTH focuses more on the individual experience of the visitor,” says Van Velsen. “In Anne’s previous shows the live performances played an important part and the audience experienced them as a collective moment. In this show there are no live performances, but the audio coming from the speakers moving on the rails throughout the space could be considered to be the ‘performers’ that visitors can relate to on their own, in their own way, wherever they are in the space.”


With the architectural structure Imhof tries to evoke feelings of current social and political unrest that affect us all. The COVID pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis, and soaring inflation make for uncertain times. One of the wall texts explains how Imhof generates feelings that relate to this state of uncertainty through the unexplained stockpiles of objects. Have they already been used, or are they yet to have a purpose? It is a visual metaphor referring to the pandemic, the uncertainty about whether things will occur, be postponed, or cancelled altogether. The confined layout of the labyrinth parallels the experience of being kept in line that we experienced with the governmental restrictions imposed during the past years.



Imhof was also forced to deal with the consequences of the pandemic, which seriously disrupted her shows and live performances. YOUTH presented yet another unforeseen circumstance. Originally, the exhibition would premiere in the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow but the museum suspended its exhibition programme with immediate effect due to Russia’s war against Ukraine. In his position as director of the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Wolfs had already been talking with Imhof since 2017 about planning an exhibition with her. When he was appointed director in Amsterdam in mid-2019, he took with him the idea of doing an Imhof show at the Stedelijk.


An old friend of the museum, Beatrix Ruf, initiated a project with Imhof at Garage in early 2019. During the turbulence of the pandemic, everyone involved decided to join forces to create an exhibition for both museums. In collaboration with the respective curators, Imhof developed a concept from 2021 that could function separately for Garage and the Stedelijk, adaptive to the different spatial and architectural possibilities. It is ironic, though, that Ruf collaborated on a captivating show which would have been impossible to organise at the Stedelijk if her vision of the museum’s layout was still intact.


Architectural plan of the exhibition: Sub architects

Anne Imhof – YOUTH, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Until 29 January 2023.




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