Culture, Interview|

Compiling the art programme for the Netherlands Pavilion

It all started with V8’s design for the Dutch World Expo pavilion. The concept and its execution imbued the pavilion with a spirit of circularity and sustainability in water management, energy production and food production. By employing exclusively re-usable materials, the architects have created a temporary, closed ecosystem in Dubai’s desert climate. For the production of ample, clean, drinking water they relied on artist Ap Verheggen, who came up with a device that uses a small battery, solar panels and a pump to create condensation and capture the droplets.

Monique Ruhe
Photo credits: Frieda Mellema

‘I wanted the art programme to mirror and amplify the pavilion’s message,’ says Monique Ruhe, who was responsible for defining the underlying concept, selecting the artists involved, organising logics and securing the necessary funds from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture, Education and Science. ‘I started out with a few prerequisites, for example a good range of artists who represented various generations. But the programme developed quite intuitively and organically. The most wonderful thing was that everyone was immediately enthusiastic, even if commitments were still uncertain.’

The artists

The first artist Ruhe selected was Birthe Leemeijer. ‘I was at the opening of her Ice Fountain in the Friesian town of Dokkum (NL). That work blew me away, and I immediately imagined how great it would be to present a similar work in the desert of Dubai. However, Birthe advised against it because the fountain’s mechanics have trouble working at temperatures over 28º C. She then suggested using glass tubes ‘mysteriously connected’ to Mastenbroek that transport the polder’s scent from the source to the pavilion.’

Ruhe calls Leemeijer’s L’Essence de Mastenbroek the pavilion’s piece de résistance. ‘The scent evaporates, leaving only an imprint on our memory, like the disappearing landscape of Mastenbroek itself. At the same time, the work is about preservation, but in a very immaterial way. I was searching for art of an ephemeral nature that could coexist with the rather dominant architectural design and not be overwhelmed by it. Berndnaut Smilde’s clouds have that same quality. He works a kind of magic, but his method is very much akin to V8’s brand of engineering.’

Joep van Lieshout of Atelier Van Lieshout has been mixing art, architecture, industry and imagination for over 35 years. Ruhe has been working with him almost since the beginning of his career, opening his first German exhibition in the early 1990s and inviting him for a solo show in Rome in 2006. ‘His clocks explicitly add the element of time to the programme. They are classic vanitas symbols, reminding us of the transience of life. All of Joep’s work poses the question: “How do we – as humanity – move on?”.’

This theme is highly relevant at a time of climate change, overpopulation and inequality, and it is very much present in Kadir van Lohuizen’s work. Ruhe had seen his Rising Tide at the National Maritime Museum (NL) and asked him to combine it with his new series on contemporary food production. The photographs combine wonderfully with Eef de Graaf’s documentary that showcases Dutch efforts to make food and energy production more sustainable.

Last, but not least, Theo Jansen had been on Ruhe’s wish list for many years before she was finally able to ask him for the World Expo pavilion. ‘His Strandbeesten require a lot of space, and in that sense they differ from the rest of the presentation. However, they require nothing but space. All their movements are powered by renewable sources which makes them a stepping stone for thinking about the future.’

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