Last month I undertook a contemporary art pilgrimage through Amsterdam, curated by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker and Anikó Ouweneel-Tóth under the aegis of Art Stations of the Cross, a project founded in 2016 by Dr. Aaron Rosen and the Rev. Dr. Catriona Laing. (Previous city-specific editions have been in London; Washington, DC; and New York.)
Inspired by the traditional Stations of the Cross, the pilgrimage comprises fifteen stops at thirteen locations across the city, where participants are invited to spend time before a specially chosen contemporary artwork that addresses some form of human or environmental suffering. The route starts at the Basilica of Saint Nicholas (Amsterdam’s patron saint) just across from the train station and weaves through, among other places, a park, the old Jewish quarter, a former orphanage, a church-cum–rock concert hall, a hidden house church where persecuted Catholics used to worship, and the red-light district, ending inside the Oude Kerk (Old Church), the city’s oldest extant building, located right in the heart. Not only the art but also the sites themselves were selected with intention, each one a part of the journey down this via dolorosa, “way of sorrows.”
This was my first time to Amsterdam, and it was such a good way to see the city, learn about the city, and pray for the city—all through the agent of art, which functions in this experience as a series of visual laments. When I encounter suffering or read about it in the news, I am often at a loss for how to bring it before God in prayer. I feel its heaviness but lack the words to express that feeling or to intercede in any concrete way. That’s why I’m so appreciative of artists, whose work so often becomes, for me, a nonverbal prayer addressed to my Maker, as I behold and internalize what the artist has first beheld and internalized and has then shared with me through whatever their medium. This is a gift that artists offer the church: vision, long and deep, that’s sensitive to the glories but also the woes of the world and that invites others in, through the skillful crafting of materials, to see right along with them. That act of seeing—of noticing, of giving attention to—can itself be prayer.
Amsterdam was founded as a fishing village at the end of the twelfth century with the building of a dam on the Amstel River. (The name Amstelledamme later evolved into Amsterdam.) Its sixty-plus miles of interconnected canals have earned it the nickname “Venice of the North” and make it the most watery city in the world. These navigable waterways led to Amsterdam becoming, in the seventeenth century, the foremost maritime and economic power in the world, and the wealth that came through international trade also enabled the arts and sciences to flourish throughout the country; that’s why the seventeenth century is known as the Dutch Golden Age. (Think Rembrandt and Vermeer.)
The exhibition’s subtitle, Troubled Waters, alludes to the fraught nature of Amsterdam’s identity as a historic port city into which both goods and people travel. The pioneering Dutch East India Company, an amalgamation of trading companies that is now defunct, is important in global business history as the forerunner of modern corporations, but it also cannot be separated from its involvement in the slave trade. Although slavery was formally abolished in the Netherlands in 1863, it continues in Amsterdam’s sex industry, in which a percentage of workers are victims of human trafficking; girls and women sometimes arrive in shipping containers, enslaved by pimps and even further by ignorant customers.
Other residents of Amsterdam arrive as refugees, and for many of them, water is a formidable danger that must be traversed on the way to safety.
“Troubled waters” also references the acidification, pollution, and rising temperatures of the world’s oceans, which endanger the many marine species that live there. So even the water itself bears wounds.
Although the overall tone of the pilgrimage is one of sorrow, pockets of hope are dispersed throughout, as in the empowered Surinamese painted by Iris Kensmil (station 5), Paul van Dongen’s Rising drawing that counterbalances his Judgment (station 7), Janpeter Muilwijk’s afterlife vision of his dead daughter victoriously bounding over the earth (station 9), the soothing “streams of mercy, never ceasing” that provide an auditory accompaniment to Anjet van Linge’s chiseled “Kyrie eleison” (station 12), and, of course, the inclusion of a resurrection station (station 15).
Though modeled loosely after a medieval devotional practice, Art Stations of the Cross: Troubled Waters is thoroughly modern, incorporating audio and video components, 3-D technologies, and the distinctively contemporary genre of installation art. Figurative art is still present and in some cases interacts with the traditional religious images in its environs, but it often does so transgressively—for example, the photorealistic Madonna and Child wrapped in emergency blankets in station 1 and the decapitated corpus of Christ in station 13.
For more information about Art Stations, which runs through April 22, visit http://www.artstations.org/. There you can find a map, opening times, descriptions, tie-in events, and information on where you can purchase a catalog (available in Dutch or English). Most stops along the route host a stack of brochures that condense this info and that contain a stamp card on the back, where you can mark off the stations you’ve visited. All the exhibition sites are freely accessible. (Oude Kerk waives its admission fee if you present your Art Stations brochure at the entrance desk.)
Below and in two subsequent posts, I will share some of my photos and impressions of each station. Unless otherwise specified, all photos are by my husband, Eric James Jones, and are the property of ArtandTheology.org. Feel free to use them noncommercially, with credit to the artists and a link back to this webpage.
STATION 1. The route starts at the neo-Baroque Church of St. Nicholas, which temporarily houses one of my favorite and arguably the most confrontational of all the works on the tour: Hans Versteeg’s Madonna del Mare Nostrum: Of, Mantel der Liefde (Our Lady of the Mediterranean Sea: Or, Cloak of Love). A young dark-skinned mother holds her toddler son, both of them wrapped in a thermal blanket like the ones given to refugees to prevent hypothermia. Replacing Mary’s traditional ultramarine robe with a “robe” of metallized polyethylene terephthalate, whose gold surface glints in the sun, emphasizes how she and her boy are clothed not only in holiness but also in need. Because of how the artist chose to frame the composition, we don’t know if the figures are standing in a boat that’s still at sea or on the shore. Regardless, their strongly frontal positioning and their direct stares seem to ask the viewer, “Will you receive us?”
It was clever of the curators to match the first station of the cross, “Jesus is condemned,” with an image that references the infancy narrative of Christ, which involves overcrowding in Bethlehem and then rapid flight from violence. In today’s age, Europe is the new Bethlehem inn, and not everyone is willing to make room for new arrivals. This lack of hospitality, often motivated by a fear of the dangerous “other,” can effectively condemn some of these travelers to death, sending them back to their war-torn homelands.
Madonna del Mare Nostrum, an oil painting, is so realistically rendered that I initially thought it was a photograph. It was commissioned in 2017 for the first “Kunst in de Heilige Driehoek” (Art in the Holy Triangle) biennale in Oosterhout. Here it’s been placed in the Mary Chapel, which is located to the left of the church’s main altar. A nineteenth-century marble sculpture of Mary holding the baby Jesus presides over Hansa’s reinterpretation from a platform. A kneeler is situated before the painting to invite prayerful engagement.
STATION 2. Moving away from the bustle of Prins Hendrikkade, I came to the Corvershof, the inner garden of the diaconal offices of the Protestant Church Amsterdam, responsible for carrying out welfare initiatives for the city’s most vulnerable. (It’s just behind the Hermitage Museum.) This is where I found the site-specific installation by G. Roland Biermann, Stations II, comprising thirty-three oil barrels sprawled out over the lawn (painted in various shades of red), and guardrails that form three X-shaped crosses.
Oil has provided enormous prosperity for the Netherlands; it’s one of the country’s top exports. But oil drilling and transport carry environmental risks, and in other parts of the world, greed over oil has led to full-out wars. This station laments the suffering caused by oil. The disruption of this usually idyllic spot with unsightly metal drums and rails is part of the work’s intended impact, as an overdependence on oil can have ugly consequences. The traffic barriers, whose arrangement evokes the three crosses of Golgotha but also the three crosses on Amsterdam’s coat of arms, urge us away from that pitfall.
I was amused by a curious little mallard who seemed to join me in contemplating the significance of Biermann’s installation. After all, he has a vested interest: ducks are a frequent casualty of oil spills.
Stations II shares space with a permanent sculpture installation, Acts of Mercy by Tineke Smith. I saw artistic interpretations of this traditional list of seven moral prescriptions for neighborly treatment all over the Netherlands, ranging from church door carvings and altarpieces (previously) to photograph series and easel paintings. The ones that are easily identifiable below are “visit the prisoner” and “bury the dead.”
STATION 3. The next stop was an arts academy in Amsterdam’s old Jewish neighborhood that from 1926 to 1976 served as the J. C. Amman School for deaf children, many of whom were deported to concentration camps during World War II. Down the hall in a small gallery space are two multimedia paintings, a collaboration between Yona Verwer and Katarzyna Kozera, with augmented-reality videos by Francesca Giovannetti and soundscapes by Dan Schwartz and Alon Nechushtan. Specially created for the Art Stations project, the paintings are hung like a diptych and are collectively titled Troubled Waters.
The left panel features a digitally manipulated photograph, overlaid with acrylic paint, of Jewish women being expelled en masse from Amsterdam, to be taken to Nazi death camps. An iPad is provided nearby, and as you hover it over the painting, it triggers a looped slideshow of further images of Nazi anti-Semitism in the Netherlands during the Holocaust, accompanied by ambient sounds recorded in 2017 at locations where the famous Februaristaking (February strike) of 1941 against the German occupation took place.
The forcible seizing of women for transport to some unknown destination is still practiced—in the sex trade, depicted in the right panel. Two young women stand with their heads down in a red-lit brothel window, trying to avoid eye contact with the potential client walking by. The panel is accompanied by Nechushtan’s electro-acoustic composition Dark Forces.
This was the most revealing image of the tour for me. Of course I’m aware of the global scale of sex trafficking, and it deeply grieves me, but I had always assumed that because prostitution is legal in the Netherlands and therefore government-regulated, the country’s sex workers would be largely protected from human rights violations, which, if any did occur, would be easily caught, reported, and tried. I had heard that the sex workers there are independent contractors (not managed by men) and proud of their work, which they find empowering—you know, the “happy hooker” image, one perpetuated by the confident-looking Belle monument to sex workers on the Oudekerksplein. While they do have their own union, heavy police patrols, alarm buttons, and free and regular mandatory health testing, and most do enter and remain in the profession of their own free will, a 2017 report found that approximately 2,640 females in the Dutch sex industry are victims of trafficking, with at least half of these victims being underage girls (ages twelve to seventeen). Abuse by pimps and criminal gangs is not uncommon. This is heartbreaking.
More on this topic at stations 12 and 14.