‘This is where everything comes together’

It is the warmest month of May in three hundred years and the Oude Kerk (Old Church) in Amsterdam is bathed in a red glow. For the spatial installation Anastasis, artist Giorgio Andreotta Calò (Venice 1979, living and working in The Netherlands and Italy) has covered all the windows with transparent red foil, more than 1600 square meters. As if the world is on fire. It is awe-inspiring, but also strangely intimate, this light that blazes up to the top of the monumental interior. What will happen in the event of a thunderstorm, such as the storm that seems to be coming up any moment now; what if the thunder will turn it into a landscape of sound; if lightning lights up red?

Jacqueline Grandjean, director and curator, has not yet experienced such a thing. We are walking through the glowing interior where shapes emerge from the choir aisle or the side chapel, and, talking in muffled voices, we head towards the cafe that is attached to the church, facing the red-light district. We agree to head back as soon as the storm hits. That is, however, not going to happen during our conversation, even though in the streets the temperature is rising noticeably. Tourists vehemently waving their city maps; beer drinking bachelors on their canal trip, almost completely naked, start singing loudly once the lukewarm drops hit the canal.

‘Almost all of the stained glass went to pieces’

The only flashes she has seen thus far, Grandjean tells us, come from visitors wishing to photograph Anastasis. This afternoon, the Church’s own photographer will also visit, because the gathering clouds enhance the atmosphere of restraint preferred by the artist, and also prevent the shots from turning out too fluorescent. This work is difficult to capture. Grandjean: ‘It is a physical experience. You are immersed in the work. It gives you a lot to think about, but it has an emotional impact as well. Bathing in the red light, she had already said: ‘In this work, everything comes together.’ What does she mean by that?

‘The Oude Kerk is full of meanings in itself, just by being the oldest building of Amsterdam. It is quite something to get a grip on that. On Sundays, church services are held here, which was a surprise to Giorgio, who had initially thought this was a defunct church, because of its empty interior. That immediately brought us to one of the most important stories of this place: the story of the Iconoclastic Fury (Beeldenstorm) of 1566 and the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism. The church windows play a major role in this story. Almost all of the stained-glass windows were ruined. The stained-glass panels were replaced with plain, blue-grey glass, with a cool effect. It is the atmosphere that Saenredam captured in his paintings: puny figures in an empty and light interior; silent rather than exalted. This influence of the iconoclastic attacks is, much more than I had realised, specifically Northern European. Italy doesn’t have a history of iconoclasm. Even in Europe, where we think we know each other, with our related cultures, we may still need to explain things to one another sometimes, as Giorgio and I discovered.’

The church as darkroom, sundial and refuge

Through Calò’s intervention, the Iconoclastic Fury flares up as a historic turning point in memory, but the focus on the light also gives a major role to the sun. The word Anastasis, the title of the work, refers to destruction, departure and expulsion. But it also means: resurrection of Christ. And: the rising of the sun. The smouldering church breathes a scattered, almost mystical pairing of destruction and renewal. A coupling of light and life.

‘Just like in a darkroom a photograph develops in red light,’ Grandjean explains, ‘a development takes place here; a development owing to the meanings hidden in the work alone, which you can increasingly get to the heart of, but also a development in the literal sense. In the Lady Chapel, a number of stained-glass panels survived the iconoclasm. That place still tingles with a lively wealth of colours, with the life story of Maria: from the angel Gabriel who announces to her that she will give birth to Jesus, up until her deathbed. This depiction has, however, been adapted to Protestantism. God the Father and all the holy halos have been replaced by natural symbols of light: especially the sun. Later this summer, Giorgio will make life-sized imprints of these windows, one-on-one, on sensitive paper sheets, directly onto the window, while the church itself, with its red, preserving lighting, works as a darkroom – a slow process of development.’

History, old and new art forms such as stained glass and photography, an appreciation of religious stories and symbols: everything is interlinked. As Grandjean says: ‘With this single, grand intervention, Giorgio affects the entire architecture. With most assignments that we have so far carried out with artists, the relation between art and religion has been delicate, but in this case they seem to go together as a matter of course. The filtering of the light follows the orbit of the sun from east to west, from the high altar to the Holy Sepulchre Chapel, as in a flashback to Roman Catholicism with all of its rituals, which Giorgio, as an Italian, doesn’t shirk from. The play with the light, the windows and the sun changes the church into a monumental sundial, but also into an apocalyptic vision. In a world that seems on fire, the church is the refuge. This visionary suggestion is reminiscent of ‘The Decline of the West’, the book in which Oswald Spengler placed Western society in the light of the four seasons. His cultural criticism about the demise of religious awareness and a world full of congesting cities, from 1918 no less, exactly a century ago, resonates in this.

Red lantern int the red light area

But in the meantime, the red blazing church still forms the heart of the red light area in Amsterdam. Can we take this as a critical form of rhyme or as a token of solidarity? ‘It alternates; it is possible to be both’, according to Grandjean, ‘in keeping with the rhythm of day and night. By day the sun makes the red light glow up in the interior, and as soon as it gets dark the Oude Kerk emerges as a lantern lighting up red in the red light district. As a tribute to the oldest profession in the world. The oldest building of Amsterdam is a participant in its own surroundings. You just saw the wooden statue of Saint Nicholas near our offices: he is the patron saint of the city and also the patron saint of prostitutes.’

Grandjean talks about the specific task she set herself in the Oude Kerk, as director and as exhibition maker, a task that she has recently honed during a residency in America, at the Getty Institute for Executive Leadership. In the Oude Kerk church cafe she reinforces her words by taking a single napkin and placing a sugar bowl on it, together with a glass and a coffee cup right next to each other. It barely fits. ‘The Oude Kerk is a church as well as a monument, a museum as well as an institute for contemporary art. The objective is: reinforcing one thing by making it join the other,’ she says, sliding and arranging the tableware. ‘That inevitably causes some aggravation at times. A churchgoer may now sometimes complain that in red light, the bible is illegible. And the bell-ringer said: you are turning it into a whorehouse. Meaningful interventions sometimes have prickly edges. That arouses fierce emotions. But mostly in a positive sense as well: there are people that are so deeply touched by the unity of church and art, that they come over and talk about it at the desk with tears in their eyes – tourists and art viewers, but also churchgoers. I regularly confer with minister Jessa van der Vaart, the first female clergywoman of the Oude Kerk. She is a daughter of Jan van der Vaart, the artist and ceramist. She sees the joining of art and religion as a strong possibility to give the Oude Kerk more visibility; and as a valuable unity in itself.’

The face of commissioning in church and art – an ideal from centuries ago

What is exceptional about the art in the Oude Kerk is that in each case it involves new spatial work, commissioned and created especially for this location. Due to the monumental dimensions of the church, it also involves big budgets. The Mondriaan Fund extended a Grant for Commissioning Contemporary Art for the development of Anastasis. In addition, it awarded an Experimental Regulations Grant to compensate for Giorgio Andreotta Calò’s artist’s wage. Since he completed the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam, he has lived and worked both in the Netherlands and Italy. In 2014 he was one of four nominees for the Volkskrant Beeldende Kunstprijs (Volkskrant Prize for Visual Art). At the previous Venice Biennale, he used an enormous suspended water mirror to divide a room in two at the Italian Pavilion at the Arsenale, resulting in an upper world and an underworld wrapped in a deep black shimmering. The production of Calò’s work is large-scale and labour-intensive. This summer, in order to print-off the stained-glass windows in the Lady Chapel, he works together with the teams of the Oude Kerk and the Rijksacademie.

‘It is simply like this: the Oude Kerk cannot possibly realize this without the involvement of the Mondriaan Fund, given the extraordinary scale, size and complexity of such site-specific work’, Grandjean explains. ‘The filtering of the light in the interior, but also these monumental photographic imprints: it is important but barely marketable artwork; a topical reflection on cultural heritage with a societal and existential impact, but because of its experimental nature, big companies won’t jump at the chance to invest in it. That makes it difficult. You need a public fund like the Mondriaan Fund to embrace this risk, this artistic scope and ambition. From our point of view, the Oude Kerk is a museum, but because of its combined function, it is not necessarily seen that way. The grant of the Mondriaan Fund is of great value, both financially and as a quality mark.’

‘What is special in this respect is that, in our windows from the 16th century, the good custom of the public commissioning of art becomes visible. The stained-glass panels in the Lady Chapel were a gift to the church by the Amsterdam mayor Jan Claesz van Hoopen II, who, together with his wife and daughters, was portrayed in person on the stained-glass depictions at the bottom of the first panel, in a mixture of private and public, religious and artistic interests. He provided the assignment to the painter Lambert van Noort, who lived from 1520 to 1571. It may also have involved vanity, but commissioned portraits such as these also set an example and represent the ideal of publicly shared cultural and religious heritage and publicly shared art.’