By Jan Knikker
As an MVRDV partner, the Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen has had a significant presence in Jan Knikker’s life for over 7 years; even after all this time, as the moment to finally fulfil its potential nears, he found it had an unexpected capacity to surprise him. In this essay, he reflects on his own first experience of it performing its true function.
In architecture, there is always this magical moment in which a building, after a long planning and construction period, fills with life and finally fulfills its destiny. Architecture without use is literally useless, and the moment people populate the building and furniture is added, the life of the building starts.
Last week, thanks to an unexpected VIP visit, I had a wonderful sneak preview of the brand new and still hermetically closed Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen. I‘ve been in the building before – it’s a 15,000m2 public art depot, with countless depots for different sorts of art, objects, ceramics, furniture, and paintings, complete with specific spaces for art restoration, art packaging, exhibition spaces and a wonderful roof terrace with a restaurant and a small forest offering wide vistas over Rotterdam. During my previous visits, however, the round building with its reflective glass façade was still a bit of an empty shell. Now, suddenly, as the art was being moved in, the building became functional and the magic happened.
Outside the building, the life of an art depot is already visible: an astonishingly small gate swallowed a large truck transporting art. Inside, in the hallways surrounding the large atrium that, with its crisscrossing stairs, resembles a sketch by Escher, we had to make way for priceless paintings on the move. Two men carry what looks like an enormous Mondrian painting, safely wrapped in plastic. We wonder, was it even a Mondrian? “Oops, look behind you”, interjects our guide, “in this depot is a Nana by Niki de St Phalle… and here is a plushy Kusama with its signature red dots.”
At this moment the 151,000-object-strong municipal art collection, with a value of over 7 billion Euros, is being moved in and hence it is a moment in which normally no visitors are allowed inside. The man who overlooks the move today receives us in one of the depots, a semi-circular room filled with racks for paintings. He explains that all objects are moved in according to a parametric model that allows for efficient use of the space. The period or style of the art is not a consideration in finding the right storage space, but simply its size and its climatological requirements. Talking about it, he pulls a rack out and there is a Monet hanging on it, modestly placed below three other impressionist paintings. Just around the corner, placed seemingly at random all alone on a rack, is a painting by Hendrick Avercamp depicting an icy lake and the joyous activities of 17th-century ice-skating Dutch people. The painting is a popular theme in Dutch Christmas cards, and seeing it here in the depot is a slight sensation.
The art depot is a startling experience: walking 30 metres along the loaded racks is like a fast-track experience of the entire history of Western art. Classic paintings with golden frames and modern art with remarkable materialization passes by in such high numbers that it feels comparable to drowning, this effect in which your life passes before your eyes, or perhaps, it’s like being engulfed in a tsunami of Google Image search. A wonderful overload, a rich abundance of art hits you.
It makes me think of the painter Vasarely, who predicted our media generation’s fast art consumption by putting his work in rolling billboards. Just sitting in front and consuming, like watching TV, was enough. The art Depot however is this experience on steroids; it’s more active, its better, faster, richer, and more diverse. And there is simply a lot to see.
When browsing the racks with art pieces from centuries apart, something strange happens. The rational yet seemingly random way in which the art is stored makes for a very unusual experience. There are many famous art pieces I recognise from exhibitions in the museum next door, and they add a strong feeling of value. Some modern art in contrast – objects like bed springs on a white background, a blackboard with some chalk writing, or a beige carpet – seem to lose their impact when presented in this way. Taken out of the museum context of the white box, which normally gives them status, suddenly they seem desecrated. To me, this modern art is almost violently outdone by the power of Monet, Toorop, and even a copy of Breughel. It’s challenging to me to notice how much the sacred halls of the museum normally steer my art intake and how – left to my own devices – my art taste becomes more conservative. I wonder, is this simply my real taste, normally shamefully hidden behind a layer of aspiration and now revealed by the massive display in front of me?
Not quite, because I also see a lot of modern, strange, poetic, and remarkable pieces I don’t know and that I enjoy without knowing what they are. There is no explanation (yet?) and therefore my reaction to the art is spontaneous and imminent. It is every art piece for itself. I found it incredibly impressive, for example, how a black dress with its simple elegance survives right next to an object that is best described as a mix between a non-binary manga version of Jesus on a cross and a pink shiny aeroplane with tits and testicles. To the great amusement of my fellow visitors, the piece includes a penis, which here is unscrewed and separately wrapped. The unexpected meeting between these two objects in a steel rack gives both objects a strong value. It’s heartening to see how the elegant black dress persists in the presence of its loud neighbour who encouraged us to walk over. The elegance might even be underlined by the garish neighbour, compared to if it had been on show in a museum hall with more tasteful objects surrounding it.
The visitor’s experience might be comparable to London’s Soane Museum because of the mass of objects that are, by a quirk of their particular properties, also sometimes sorted: here is a rack filled with half a dozen wooden versions of Virgin Mary, there a rack filled with tiny 17th-century paintings. But at the same time it all is mixed, more so than in the London Museum, and there are many more unexpected, highly challenging, and sometimes perhaps even unwanted meetings between the many art objects.
The storage space for large objects, especially, feels like a treasury. Wonderful objects in large shelves, there is so much to discover. While walking between the shelves, I can hear distant enthusiastic outcries; my car-loving fellow visitors have discovered a car under a plastic cover. To their great bewilderment the curator removes a corner of the protection and there is not just a car, but a merger between a car and a leather couch. One of the visitors tries to touch it, but the curator stops them before it happens. This might prove a challenge here. Everything that is normally presented monumentally, on pedestals and behind fences or glass, seems so tactile in these mundane surroundings of rough concrete walls and utilitarian steel shelves. How will the public behave in such an environment? I hope the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen will not have to put up red velvet ropes to protect the art from the people, but as everything about this building and concept is experimental, they will amend as they go along and no doubt find solutions to maintain the raw and direct encounter with art – and avoid turning it into a museum.
To me the most impressive part of the visit was the experience and the challenging encounter with the art, which is very different from a normal art display. The building aims to open the municipal art collection to the people of Rotterdam and visitors to the city, and it is also designed as an art depot with its rough finishes. That, too, is part of the experience. The whole package is unique: the building’s roughness, the incredible density of important art works, the practical efficiency of the storage, and the lack of explanation or curation made this experience for me a bit of an emotional, incredibly liberating, and simply wonderful journey.