Birgit Donker blogs

Forgotten voices in Venice and in the Netherlands

Wendelien van Oldenborgh, Cinema Olanda (film still), 2017. Curated by Lucy Cotter, commissioned by the Mondriaan Fund for the 57th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, 13 May – 26 November 2017. Courtesy the artist and Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam.

Historians used to think that you could completely retrieve history, as long as you described all the facts very precisely, and empathized well with bygone times. In doing so, following this 19th century tendency that originated in Germany, you reconstructed ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’. In the meantime, we have learned that this is impossible. That some pieces of the puzzle will always be missing. And that history is always coloured by the one who retrieves, interprets and preserves the facts.

Artist Wendelien van Oldenborgh sees that incompleteness very clearly, even in the history of the recent past, and complements the puzzle of the past with stories that run the risk of falling into oblivion. Like the story of the Indonesian nationalist Soewardi Soeryaningrat in No False Echoes from 2008. In this film, his 1913 literary pamphlet ‘If I were ever a Dutchman’ (‘Als ik eens Nederlander was’), is recited by the Dutch-Moroccan rapper Salah Edin. A voice of the present is connected to the past.

Similarly, the Cinema Olanda presentation, that Wendelien van Oldenborgh created in collaboration with curator Lucy Cotter for the Venice Biennale, and that will be opened on 10 May by Secretary Bussemaker, addresses neglected aspects of the recent post-colonial history of the Netherlands. And it links those aspects to voices of today. Such as the Surinamese and Antillean squatters who in the seventies moved into flats in the Bijlmer area of Amsterdam, as well as the squatters who recently occupied Tripolis, the empty office building designed by the socialist architect Aldo van Eyck.

Wendelien van Oldenborgh. Prologue: Squat/Anti-Squat, 2016 Film installation in two parts, 17 mins each. Wendelien van Oldenborgh is represented by Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam
Van Oldenborgh wants to demonstrate that history and our image of the Netherlands is more complex than we tend to think. ‘This is also who we are’, she recently commented about that in an interview with Vrij Nederland magazine. That is not to say that she pretends to offer solutions. But she does want to offer a different perspective, to show that you cannot reduce the past to something simple. ‘Art is the perfect field for that. It is the place where you may, or rather, where you must prepare us to be able to cope with all this complexity.’

Wendelien van Oldenborgh and Lucy Cotter received the assignment and budget for Cinema Olanda from the Mondriaan Fund, which, in doing so, contributes to the development of new work that is made visible on such an important international platform. Thanks to this budget, Van Oldenborgh was able to be more generous than before, at the film shooting in Tripolis in Amsterdam and in the St. Bavo Church in Rotterdam, with a larger production team and better equipment. It is exciting that we will soon be able to see an international audience watching these forgotten stories in the Dutch Pavilion.
Wendelien van Oldenborgh. Cinema Olanda (production image), 2017
Cinema Olanda will set up not only in Venice, but in the Netherlands too. This summer, the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art is to host ‘Cinema Olanda: Platform’, presenting work by Van Oldenborgh and a weekly changing programme showing the work of activists, musicians, artists and academics. The Stedelijk Museum and EYE film museum will also pay attention to Cinema Olanda. In this way, Wendelien van Oldenborgh and Lucy Cotter offer their presentation to a broader public than just the people attending the Biennale.

In all her films, Wendelien van Oldenborgh works without a script. Neither does she organise any rehearsals for the people that she invites to speak in her films, people from various generations and various parts of society. She creates what she calls a composition of several voices that are not in harmony with each other and that together form something new. And that is how she irrepressibly contributes to the image that we have of ourselves and of our history. Generous as art is.