WITBOEK / THE WHITE ALBUM
Museum Beelden Aan Zee - Scheveningen, The Netherlands
2019 - 2020
Emma v. Proosdij
head of artistic department
Beelden aan Zee, 2019
In 2012 museum Beelden aan Zee acquired the male torso Body Piece, in porcelain, covered in celadon glaze, created by sculptor Adriaan Rees (Amsterdam, 1957). The work usually stands with its back to the public. The back of the sculpture is ‘tattooed’ with an elegant
ornamentation of roses and skulls, a reference to the vulnerability of human existence.
Now, seven years after the purchase of the sculpture, Museum Beelden aan Zee presents a major exhibition of Rees’ work, divided between three spaces. On the North Patio can be found portraits, in the Zeezaal the torsos. In the Kabinet a sacral white space has been set up in which the fine porcelain sculptures are enveloped in sound and dimmed light.
Rees is an adventurer, a traveller who wanted to master the technique of manufacturing ceramics and porcelain. Through his traditional craftsmanship in combination with the human figure as the central theme, his work links in perfectly with the origins of museum Beelden aan Zee’s collection, and the 'Witboek / The White Album' exhibition is the fitting closure to the jubilee year in which Beelden aan Zee is celebrating its 25-year existence.
Torso's in the Zeezaal (overview)
Torso's in the Zeezaal (overview)
Torso's in the Zeezaal (overview)
Torso's in the Zeezaal (overview)
Torso's in the Zeezaal (detail)
Torso's in the Zeezaal (detail)
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White coloured sculptures on white socles in a white room, the floor of which is covered by a white carpet. The columns, walls and ceilings are also finished in white plaster. And, of course, the entrance is to be found behind a white curtain. Together, this makes up the installation Sitting on a Silent Wave.
The room in question is the ‘Kabinet’, that is as regards size quite modest, and its location is also not really in keeping with the style of the museum’s architect Wim Quist. This is because it is to be found beneath the pavilion that King Willem I had built for his wife in 1826, sited on top of the dune, in which De Nieuwe or Literaire Sociëteit (new or literary society) De Witte is located. (The similarity between its name and that of the exhibition is purely coincidental).
The two rows of three columns each are the foundations of the pavilion and give the space a classically church-like layout. Together with vaulted arches and several shallow niches, this room breathes a sacral ambience of a chapel or crypt. The cabinet may only be entered on stockinged feet.
Especially for the exhibition, two of the three entrances at the side have been closed off, creating extra niches and increasing the feeling of intimacy. It does not however create an impression of sterility, but rather invites contemplation or meditation.
Within 'the Kabinet’ there are thirteen sculptures displayed symmetrically. They are all expressive, figurative works, each of them telling their own story. Adriaan Rees is an artist with a broad orientation, and his work is multi-facetted. His interests vary from literature,
poetry, travel, James Bond, Batman, pop music (David Bowie) to religion and nature. He is also an avid lover of the films of director Stanley Kubrick. The well-known opening scene of his 2001: A Space Odyssey was the inspiration for a sculpture that Rees has made especially for this exhibition. It relates to the first part, ‘Dawn of Man’, in which, on awakening, a group of apemen are confronted by a black, rectangular monolith that appears from nowhere. Apart from heralding the beginning of human intelligence and creativity, it is also the start of the use of tools and weapons, resulting in death and destruction. Rees used the monolith only as the ‘basic motive’, as Cornelius Rogge, his teacher at the Rietveld Academie called it in his lessons. He then decided to create more or less the opposite to a monolith, namely a white-painted sculptural form of MDF with rounded sides. It is the monumental work that is placed centrally at the back of the room.
Six larger sculptures stand on socles close to the columns. These are references to physical elements such as porcelain torsos and arms. The backs of the torsos are decorated with scored-in images of a large pine cone that stands for immortality or the Chinese characters for ‘Double Happiness’. White hands and arms form the figures Hairy Monster, Nothing to hold, with fragile petals on the open hand and the bee-covered Sweet thing. A wide, low-placed work also has a bone structure and bears a covering of feathers and peacock’s eyes, such as The Wing. All these pieces are again executed very precisely in porcelain, and encourages meditation and contemplation. Vanitas? Is it a reference to the term ‘broken-winged’? Is it a fallen angel? Rees leaves things very unclear. His work is never unambiguous. For the application of delicate details such as hairs and insects, in China, where he has an atelier, Rees calls in the help of artisans in China, who on his instructions can work very precisely with porcelain clay. To be seen on consoles along the walls are six smaller, more landscape-oriented works. Two bone-shaped, elongated sculptures bear the contradictory inscription ‘Tomorrow I will be younger’, and are placed in beautiful glazed display cases on wooden feet that he had made in China. Presented in this way, they look like valuable relics that are shown at their very best in this room.
Four wall objects can be grouped under the mediaeval notion of From the Book of Nature,
to be read as the relationship between mankind and all God’s creations and From the Book
of Man, which have a more religious connotation. These works too have glazed display cases, and form sorts of dioramas, small white landscapes kneaded from single basic forms, including a remarkable pine cone moulded in porcelain. In some instances are added a human figure, a sensual allusion or a religious symbol such as a cross. One of these, with a portrait of Christ, is completely covered in gold. Outside, one on each side of the entrance, stand two horse-like sculptures. The sculptures have no heads, ending at the neck. Around the bodies they carry small skulls and can be seen as two white temple guards.
To the left and right against the outside of 'the Kabinet’ stand the grey polyester sculptures Screaming in a bucket and The Acrobat – the first is a bowed female figure with her head in a bucket, the second a man positioned in a handstand against the wall. The bare arms in combination with the bones also appear to refer to the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which an apeman is using a bone as a demolition tool before throwing it into the air. At that moment, by means of a much-praised so-called ‘match cut’ the bone is transformed into a shot of a spaceship orbiting the earth, thus bridging time and space in a split second.
The feeling that Rees wants to create with this installation is strengthened by a special soundtrack made by Rob Daenen with the same poetic title: Sitting on a Silent Wave. Rees had used this title earlier for an exhibition in Seoul in 2010, but he also believed this to be appropriate for this exhibition. For the sound recording Rees asked four of his acquaintances from Germany, Japan, Korea and Sweden to talk about something personal in their own languages and in words of their own choice. The voices were then mixed with music that he had composed, with the sound of the sea in the background. This produced a thirty-minute piece that is played in a continuous loop. It is in this way that 'the Kabinet’ offers a meditative moment of reflection in the very popular museum Beelden aan Zee.
Shoes off first!
Entrance of the Kabinet
Sitting on a silent wave (overview)
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Beelden Aan Zee, 2019
A Dutch ‘gaper’ is a giant-sized man’s head, usually that of a Moor, with an open mouth and in some instances with his tongue sticking out. His description: tinted complexion; large moustache or ring beard; turban. The heads are of carved wood, and were brightly painted by artisans whose names we do not know. These figures are a form of folk art, and have been a feature of the Netherlands since the 17th century, exclusively in the northern and southern regions. Amsterdam has by far the most gapers. A gaper served as a signboard for apothecaries and druggists. The mouth is open in order to swallow medicine. The grimace shows how disagreeable the experience is. The exotic origins of the gaper are directly related to the origins of medicinal ingredients. Western Europe was engaged in intensive trade with the far-flung countries visited by trading ships. Spices were discovered, brought home and subsequently dried by apothecaries, who made pills of them that they sold them to the public. The apothecaries made use of the gaper in their marketing. The majority of gapers depicted a Mussulman. Less popular was the head of a sick person, a jester, a figure of authority or a Roman. Gapers of so-called eccentrics were also to be found. Apparently, they served as a warning to those who did not believe in apothecaries. Women did not play a role in this commercial iconography. There is just one known example of a female gaper. Or was this a Mussulwoman?
One could be tempted to think that, as a small boy, Adriaan Rees was inspired subconsciously by the gapers in Amsterdam, the city of his birth. However, the fact is that he has brought this historical phenomenon back to life. The dozens of ceramic heads that he has created serve as the gapers of his sculptural universe. Because in chorus they make such a deafening visual uproar, it was decided to place them in the open-air area of museum Beelden aan Zee during the winter of 2019 - 2020. Precisely 33 in number – everything has a meaning for Rees – they are spread out over the walls of the North patio from where they cheekily gape at us. In their exuberant form, colour and expression these gapers ebulliently announce the multi-facetted sculptural endeavours of Adriaan Rees.
Whilst the writer Nescio discovered his world within the confines of the ‘Stelling van Amsterdam’ (the defensive ring of forts and batteries encircling Amsterdam), his fellow citizen Adriaan Rees had the untameable urge to flee from his Turkish palace and to drink in the unknown, the exotic. That has resulted in an oeuvre that dazzles the unsuspecting beholder. Not only because of the different media and techniques that Rees has tried, but equally as the result of the abundance of spiritual and material sources of inspiration that he drew upon. Fortunately there is the clay as the important element.
Rees appears to have been a businessman, and thereafter a physiotherapist, finally when
he was 28 exchanging kneading human flesh for that of malleable clay. At the Rietveld Academie he came into contact with Henk Trumpie, together with Jacques van Gaalen the patriarchs of modern sculptural ceramics in the Netherlands, whose atelier Struktuur ‘68 still draws the great and good of this world – in terms of sculpture – to The Hague. From about the year 2000 Rees became entirely captivated by the craftsmanship, finesse and wisdom of the millennia-old Chinese and Japanese ceramics, and since then he has become an artistic commuter between worlds that scarcely have the capacity to gain mutual understanding. In the Chinese capital of porcelain Jingdezhen, Rees found his Mecca and the infrastructure for his art. At the same time he has continued to keep both feet firmly in the clay of the polder. Inwardly, Rees’ sculptural oeuvre is at least as multicoloured as its outside would suggest. What are now the basic themes of this oeuvre, the foundation on which it built, the characteristics and intentions that are hidden behind the sculptural and artisanal spectacle?
Each of Rees’ sculptures stands in its own right, nevertheless there is something that makes it part of the oeuvre of just one artist. In every case there are different meanings, different cultures, and the titles are only a guide. In a Frisian-language catalogue, Rees’ ceramic heads are jocularly referred to as ‘hot heads’, and they are indeed the work of a hothead who launches himself completely into the fray, tackling the clay, firing the kiln and adding the final colour. The heads are extremely powerful and direct in their expression, little bastions of significance with their own handwriting. Each head produces another experience, another surprise. They are pronouncements of supreme expression, direct and highly emotional, the opposite to sculpture that is produced digitally. Rees is the king of the so-called taille directe (direct carving), a sensitive subject in artistic circles where authenticity is the highest possible level but which is also determined by the purse. With Rees, taille directe is the order of the day. The surface of his sculptures is sometimes coarse, brittle and fragile, sometimes smooth, glossy and mercilessly hard. His visual idiom is elegant or ungainly, the head’s expression is introvert or exuberant, dynamic or tranquil, pious or pagan, sensual or brutal. His use of colours is worldly and sometimes sublime, the heads bring to mind memories of heroes of mythology, of art history and science fiction films. They are hybrid creatures that Rees brings to life: animal-like people and animals with human characteristics. Rees’ Ahnengalerie (ancestral portrait gallery) is ambiguous to the core, and contemplating it sets the sculpture historian’s visual archive into action. The ancient Greeks and Romans made burlesque masks for the theatre and gigantic ‘gapers’ of their rulers. In 1573 Johan Gregor van der Schardt (ca. 1530 - 1581) modelled the unique head and shoulders self-portrait with the head turned to one side (Rijksmuseum), sensitive in its colour and calm and acquiescent in its expression. In the 18th century it was sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736 - 1783) who gained fame with his 50 or so caricatural heads – not portraits, which create a strikingly direct and contemporary impression. Faces with very pronounced expressions of disdain, enjoyment and pleasure. Later it was the Frenchman Honoré Daumier (1808 – 1879) who satirically portrayed the Parisian bourgeoisie, the ‘hot air’ of the July Monarchy, in a portrait gallery of illustrious dwarves that he, as painter, sneeringly created in pastel colours. Jean-
Joseph Carriès (1855 – 1894) was another French sculptural wonder. A virtuoso in creating absolute ‘horror-heads’, he was mainly inspired by the Japanese art that revealed itself to him at a world exhibition in Paris. Carriès is seen by some as the grandfather of the Jugendstil and, furthermore, a ceramics sculptor in heart and soul. The same applies to the father of modern Dutch sculpture, Joseph Mendes da Costa (1863 – 1939), who was a regular visitor of the museums of ethnology in Amsterdam and Leiden. In Artis, the zoo in Amsterdam, Mendes studied not only the animals but also the ethnographic collections that were later given to the Koloniaal Instituut, which now bears the rather feeble name of the Tropenmuseum. Rees’ artistic forefathers belong to the extremely small group of sculptors that permitted emotion to be shown in the representation of the human face, giving their preference to modelling rather than carving, and to colour rather than monochrome. Self-portraits of Mendes and his disciple Jaap Kaas (1898 – 1972) show the smiling face, the mask that grins tranquilly. References have been made in western art history that allowing emotion to be shown in a sculpted head is found mainly in the work of Jewish artists.
Ethnic profiling happens in the best of circles.
There is one self-portrait by Rees to be seen at this exhibition; he made no more than two. His heads are the summing-up of many things, and all at the same time too. The heads are small monuments full of significance, the result of physical strife, expertise in craftsmanship and unbridled imagination. Rees’ oeuvre has been described as ‘a dialogue between the cultural traditions of Europe and Asia’. That sounds ‘rather nice’, but isn’t it rather the eruption of a constant ferocious struggle? The manifestation of disunity, detachment and
the irreconcilability of different cultures? Adriaan Rees’ oeuvre is ambiguous to the core. Fantasy and reality, alternating story and allegory, tradition and innovation, humour and
seriousness, monumentality and intimacy. Rees’ heads remain unpredictable. They are the ‘gapers’ of the three-dimensional world of a cosmopolite and adventurer, of a symbolist and narrator, of an Amsterdam-Chinese animal trainer who attacks his artistic struggle by fanatically attacking the clay. Come and see!
Entrance of the Kabinet2
Entrance of the Kabinet3
Entrance of the Kabinet4
Entrance of the Kabinet5
Entrance of the Kabinet6
Entrance of the Kabinet7
Entrance of the Kabinet8
Entrance of the Kabinet9
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© Adriaan Rees, 2016-2020. All rights reserved.