This is part two of my commentary on Art Stations of the Cross: Troubled Waters, a multisite exhibition in Amsterdam running from March 6 to April 22. (Read part one.) Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org.
STATION 4. Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich is a whimsical coral reef assemblage made out of everyday household cleaning supplies—sponges, scrubbers, scouring pads, mop heads, brushes, plastic gloves, and plungers, a rich biodiversity. Sea urchins, sea anemones, starfish, and snails are among the animals evoked.
Playful though it is, this bricolage of commercial products, arranged to represent an underwater ecosystem, creates a crass juxtaposition of natural and unnatural that makes the piece tragicomic. The subtext is ecological concern—in particular, for the endangerment of coral reefs. Let’s clean up our oceans, the work seems to say. The assignment of Ocean Eden to station 4, “Jesus meets his mother,” reinforces the traditional conception of nature as mother. Here we meet Mother Nature, who grieves our mistreatment of her.
Station 4 is sited at the Keizersgrachtkerk, a church built under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper just two years after the 1886 schism of the Dutch Reformed Church. (Kuyper led the conservative offshoot, the Doleantie.) Aldrich’s assemblage is visible from the street through the main glass entrance doors and so can be viewed even when the church is locked. Luckily, a staff member was there to let us in after hours through a side entrance, so we could see the work closer up. It’s located in a small lobby that dips between stairwells on either side.
STATION 5. Next on the route is the Amsterdam Museum, whose building complex served from 1580 to 1960 as Burgerweeshuis, the city orphanage. Before that it was a monastery. To mark this change of function, a large entrance gate was built in 1581 off the Kalverstraat, which, as Marleen pointed out to me, features a relief sculpture of a group of orphans gathered around the Holy Spirit, entreating passersby for help:
Wy groeien vast in tal en last. Ons tweede vaders klagen
Ay ga niet voort door dese poort, of help een luttel dragen.
We grow steadily in number and burden. Our second fathers ask with heavy hearts:
“Do not go forth through this gate without helping us a little in our care.”
Their “second fathers” are, of course, their new caretakers, who run the orphanage. These children are asking for someone to help them carry their burden (poverty, hunger, sickness, lack of education, lack of prospects for the future, feelings of abandonment, longing for love, etc.), which the fathers are helping to shoulder but who can do only so much with their limited power. This sixteenth-century sculpture and inscription resonate with the fifth station of the cross, “Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry his cross.”
But this is only supplementary to the main artwork we’ve come to see: Out of History by Iris Kensmil, located in the Schuttersgalerij (Civic Guards Gallery). Part of the Amsterdam Museum, this gallery is a covered passageway that visitors can enter for free, featuring portraits of Dutch citizens through the centuries. (Admission to the rest of the museum is €15.)
An artist of Surinamese descent committed to highlighting black contributions to Dutch history, Iris Kensmil was commissioned by the Amsterdam Museum in 2013 to create a new work to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands. (The Netherlands was a major player in the transatlantic slave trade from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.) She chose to depict three strong black figures from eighteenth-century Surinam (a former Dutch colony in the Guianas) who rose above colonial oppression to secure a position and a future for themselves.
The left panel of this triptych shows Elisabeth Samson (1715–1777), who, through her business acumen, became one of the richest women in Surinam. After this socioeconomic rise, she then successfully petitioned the Dutch government to be allowed to marry a white man, and became the first black woman in Surinam to do so; this consolidated her power. But despite overcoming huge obstacles, Elisabeth’s legacy is somewhat controversial because she amassed and maintained her wealth the same way the rest of the Dutch of Surinam did at that time—through slavery. (She owned a coffee plantation and some forty slaves.) Hear Cynthia McLeod’s super-entertaining TedX talk about Elisabeth Samson, which is just fifteen minutes long. (I could listen to this woman teach me history all day long!)
The central panel of Out of History shows Wilhelmina Kelderman (1734–1836), about whom less is known. What we do know is that she was an enslaved woman from Surinam who purchased her own freedom and that of her son. I think that’s a moneybag she’s holding.
The right panel shows Fabi Labi Dikan, a tribal leader who negotiated a treaty with the Dutch government in 1760 that declared the Maroon communities in eastern Surinam free and independent.
It’s fitting that the triptych hangs in the shadow of a giant wooden Goliath sculpture—over seventeen feet tall! (It was made in the seventeenth century by Albert Jansz Vinckenbrinck for display in one of Amsterdam’s pleasure gardens.) The giant of colonialism was an oppressive presence in the life of so many for so long, but these three Afro-Surinamese, like some others, were able to beat it. So self-assured are these portraits, and so beautifully rendered in an impressionistic style with cool colors, that they are easily the most compelling piece in the gallery.
One might say that Wilhelmina Kelderman and Fabi Labi Dikan are types of Simon of Cyrene (who was also African), as they shifted the heavy cross of slavery and colonial rule off of others.
STATION 6. Like station 2, station 6 consists of a site-specific installation commissioned specially for the Art Stations project, in the canal room of a church that’s used by both Roman Catholic and Syriac Orthodox communities. (The former call it the Church of Our Lady; the latter, Mother of God Church.) Thematically connected to the refugee Madonna and Child painting we saw at the first station, the installation is called Water no longer dances with light by Güler Ates, and it corresponds to the story of Veronica’s veil.
This small room, whose window overlooks a canal, is completely wallpapered—and floor-papered—with text in Turkish, Arabic, English, and other languages. They are snippets from the personal stories and reflections of displaced persons, which Ates collected over the course of several months as she sat down with various individuals and asked them to share their journeys with her. Reproduced in a dignified Gothic typeface, these impressions, as represented visually by Ates, are densely packed and unbalanced, with some words crashing up against others, simulating the disorienting experience of being on a small boat at sea.
The act of looking, of discernment, of exerting effort to see and to hear, is part of the experience of this installation, so I am hesitant to transcribe excerpts into clean, bulleted lines, but I do want to highlight just a few of these comments, which range from memories of family and of home and gratitude for the sacrifices of loved ones to descriptions of deprivations and prejudices and expressions of loneliness, pain, and fear, from pointed questions to hopes and dreams and resolves:
- “Wish you could see my thoughts; like you see my appearance.”
- “I end up feeling the life I am given does not fit.”
- “I always love to travel. But in these days, I afraid of passing through.”
- “The sun’s chaos, and the storm of waves of the sea took me away from myself.”
- “Your memories will keep me warm through the cold and dark times.”
- “He used to tell me, ‘I live for you and no one else.’”
- “He carried me when I couldn’t walk.”
- “I promise you I will carry on.”
- “I don’t know where tomorrow will take me or what will happen to me after a week.”
- “I like to make discussions about our situation we Calaisian refugee we crossed Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean . . .”
- “Why don’t you try to look from my perspective?”
- “If I told you the truth would it be false?”
- “Who knows maybe your eyes are the ones that are blind, you are afraid to ask.”
- “. . . walking with people you have loved and now there is no one with you. You are with them just in your dreams.”
- “No something to eat no blanket to cover your feet.”
- “We are living in a dark hell.”
- “I’ve been tagged by my destiny and now I am it.”
- “So now everywhere is home and at the same time nowhere is.”
- “Immigrant is a person who fell in this horrible pain . . .”
- “. . . need someone to talk to when you’re sad and you are alone in the world.”
- “Your eyes provide a lot of meaning.”
- “All the kindhearted people I’ve come across have left big marks.”
- “Dark place where I come from.”
- “I know it’s hard to understand.”
This text installation is accompanied by four framed photographs of an enigmatic veiled woman standing inside the church’s sanctuary. (The work also consisted of a performance at the exhibition’s opening, similar to that captured in the photos.) These are among the most multiplicitous images of the entire exhibition, inviting diverse readings. What is the identity of this woman? What is her story? Does she belong here? What is she feeling? What does her veil conceal, and what does it reveal? She could be Veronica (literally “true icon”), the compassionate woman who wiped Jesus’s brow on his harrowing journey to Golgotha. Or Mary, the church’s dedicatee, whom the Old Masters almost always painted as wearing a veil. Or she could be a Muslim, newly arrived in Amsterdam, encountering this vast Christian worship space for the first time.
Güler Ates is a Turkish artist living in London, and the faceless veiled woman is a signature of her work, which centers on cultural displacement and particularly the meeting of East and West. She often photographs this model inside lush, historic European interiors, such as Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk and the Museum Van Loon, the residence of the founder of the Dutch East India Company (for photos, see here). The veil conjures notions of mystery, reverence, invisibility.
The title of this installation, Water no longer dances with light, challenges the romantic, Instagrammable image of a serene ocean reflecting back the gorgeous colors of a sunset—which is many Westerners’ primary experience of the ocean: a relaxing getaway from the pressures of life, usually admired safely from the shore. Ates’s work begs us to consider how others experience the ocean: as violent, dark, and dangerous. Sadly, those are sometimes the characteristics that are prejudicially ascribed to the journeyers themselves. Refugees and other immigrants are often misperceived as violent and threatening by those who would bar them entry. I wonder how that perception might change if we were to give ear to their stories of actual danger and, as one interviewee for the installation requested, attempt to see their rich mental and emotional lives and not just their outer appearances.
I lingered here the longest of all the other locations on the tour. The stories are all-enveloping: they’re under your feet, and on all four sides. You can stand anywhere in the room and reach out your hand and touch a memory, an emotion, a prayer for the future. It was a very moving experience. I am glad to see a church giving space to such an installation, which makes current political debates over immigration more personal and gives the so-called “voiceless” ones a platform from which to speak—and Amsterdammers (and out-of-town pilgrims like me) a starting point from which to engage.
I was struck by how the turbulent, crowded arrangement of the words contrasts with the stillness and spaciousness of the photographs.
STATION 7. Next up are two ink drawings by Paul van Dongen: Judgment and Rising. One depicts the fall of man, “an existence without solid ground.” “In an ornate whirling, the men turn, fall, and tumble over one another,” the artist says. As a counterpoint to this image, Rising shows a similar heap of naked men, climbing and clawing and trying to work their way up out of their hellish existence. But here, one rises up effortlessly above the fray, arms outspread in full surrender. He’s clearly a Christ figure, the Second Adam through whom we rise, just as in the first Adam, we all fell.
I was introduced to van Dongen years ago through his watercolor portraits of Christ in his passion—two of which are on display as “extras” at station 12—and his beautiful crown of thorns etchings. He is also the creator of one of my all-time favorite Resurrection images, so glorious in its simplicity and allusiveness. But this is the first time I’ve seen his work in person.
The exhibition venue, located in a busy center for nightlife, is very unique. Wittily named The Small Museum, it’s simply a shallow recess, covered with glass, in the front facade of Paradiso! So it’s accessible to sidewalk passersby at any time. The premier rock concert hall of Amsterdam, Paradiso opened in 1968 and became synonymous with the hippie counterculture of that era and, later, the punk and new wave scenes. The long list of acclaimed acts who have performed there include Pink Floyd, Nirvana, the Sex Pistols, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, David Bowie, Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, U2, Pearl Jam, and Metallica.
The name Paradiso is a reference to the building’s religious history, as it was originally built in the nineteenth century as a church for the Vrije Gemeente (Free Congregation), a liberal Dutch religious group. The exterior recess where Rising hangs is where the congregation used to post its announcement bulletin. In 2016, Paradiso dubbed it “The Small Museum” and has since used that space to display Christian-themed art, which rotates throughout the year, thereby maintaining a link with the building’s Christian past—which I just think is so cool. Two wooden stairs have been placed directly beneath for you to step up to get an eye-level view of the art, and at night, the art is lit from inside the box.
van Dongen’s other drawing is located at the opposite (left) end of the front facade in a similar display case.
STATION 8. Doopsgezinde Singelkerk (Singel Mennonite Church), dating from 1639, is one of Amsterdam’s several “clandestine churches”—that is, a church not recognizable as such from the street. At the time, this was the rule for church buildings of denominations other than the Dutch Reformed; therefore, Mennonites, Lutherans, Catholics, and other religious minorities built their churches as freestanding buildings in rear courtyards, or they converted canal houses into communal worship spaces (as we will see in station 13), but only the interiors, of course—bells, towers, steeples, crosses, and the like would have been giveaways. The clandestinity was only a pretense, however. The Calvinists were aware of Amsterdam’s religious diversity; they just wanted any faith tradition that wasn’t Calvinist to be practiced discreetly, which enabled them “to accommodate dissent without confronting it directly, to tolerate knowingly what they could not bring themselves to accept fully,” as historian Benjamin J. Kaplan wrote.
The entrance to the Singelkerk leads down a long hall that was a stone-paved street until 1938, when it was replaced with a marble floor and roofed in. It’s here, in a dark, curtained area off to the side, that you’ll encounter the eighth station of the cross: the 3-D stereoscopic video installation Josephine’s Well by Arent Weevers. (Be sure to grab the 3-D glasses on the table before entering!) The screen is set into the floor, and this perspective is important, because you’re meant to be looking down into a well. In the three-and-a-half-minute video, three blonde-haired girls float slowly upward in a vast black space. Two drop off, disappearing into the abyss, while one remains before she, too, floats back down and out of sight. Then a young woman emerges, nude. She reaches her hand out to the viewer, meeting their gaze, and then she goes the way of the others: down into darkness. [Watch a non-3-D version of the full video on Vimeo.]
It’s possible that the title is meant to be a twist on “Joseph’s Well,” the name given to the pit where the biblical Joseph was cast by his brothers out of jealousy (see Genesis 37).
In a TEDx talk, Weevers played Josephine’s Well for the audience right after discussing his time as a child protective services worker in Amsterdam—how he regularly met with children from abusive homes who feared going back. I wonder if this piece might have something to do with child abuse (could be emotional or physical) or neglect. The girls look up with pleading eyes but remain trapped in the well. They can’t escape their home life. The middle girl grows into a woman but still bears the wounds of childhood, is still grasping for love.
More universally, I think, the work is about our need for human connection, no matter our background, and that feeling of deep loneliness that comes when we lack that connection.
Weevers, who is a pastor as well as an artist, has said that his body of work is about “strength and vulnerability” and how we can share it with one another. He believes the nude body can convey both extremely well.
When Eric saw the video, he thought for sure the figures must have been rendered using CGI, but no, they are actual humans. To create the floating effect, Weevers used a high-speed camera that shoots 1,000 frames per second. He describes the technical aspect of his work a little bit in his TEDx talk.
While you’re at the Singelkerk, be sure to take note of the permanent installation at the pulpit in the sanctuary. Commissioned in 2012, Flight by Lynne Leegte is a book whose pages are windswept up into the air—the Word come alive.
STATION 9. Also at the Singelkerk, at the end of a short hallway to the left of Weever’s installation, at the top of a stairwell, is the ninth station, Der Tod und Das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden) by Janpeter Muilwijk. The artist painted this work after the suicide of his daughter Mattia. It shows her as a free and naked soul, bounding over her burial plot on the bottom panel. Water and sky seem to merge into one behind her, conforming to her shape and bearing her up and over.
“Death and the Maiden” is a common motif in Renaissance art, showing a young woman being forcibly seized by a personification of death, usually a skeleton. But in Muilwijk’s reinterpretation, Death is not a terrorizer; he’s a gentle friend. Muilwijk said that although Mattia’s death came as a shock to him and he feels it as a great loss, he has come to affirm that “death is only a passage. My deceased daughter brings me into an endless space beyond my perception of finite life: the immortality of our souls.”
This painting works in counterpoise to the traditional station 9, “Jesus falls a third time.” Rather than showing a fall into death, it shows a rising into life, anticipating the denouement of Christ’s passion: his resurrection from the grave.