Thursday, May 28, 2015

Amsterdam - Off the Beaten Path

Often our most memorable experiences in a new city come from exploring areas off the beaten path, where the typical tourist usually doesn’t venture.  Because we tend to spend much longer in one place than most people, we have the luxury of time to visit all the “must-see” attractions and still have the chance to wander farther afield.

During our stay in Amsterdam, multiple locals recommended that we take the free ferry from behind Central Station for a 5 minute ride to get to Eye, a film museum, exhibition space and cinema for art house movies with a mandate that seems similar to that of Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.  It was a bit of a challenge navigating our way through the enormous Central Station terminal in order to find the ferry, but once we did, it was merely a matter of joining the queue and boarding the boat which can hold pedestrians, bicycles (of course!) and even cars.  The ferry was a bit smaller than the ones that traverse to Toronto’s Islands but had a similar feel.  We were told that the Eye café had a nice view of the harbour and was that ever an understatement.  The view was amazing and the food was good too.  Looking around, I would say that there were at least as many locals enjoying the atmosphere in the café as there were tourists.

While we were there, we figured we might as well check out the exhibits and the film museum.  The main exhibit featured a fascinating video installation by South African artist William Kentridge, who is known for his animated films which incorporate charcoal drawn backgrounds with sculptural objects, sound and music.  The film “More Sweetly Play the Dance”, which he created specifically for the Eye’s large viewing space, consists of a never-ending procession of the silhouettes of men and women carrying cardboard and wooden cut-outs of various shapes including baskets, telephones, musical instruments, a typewriter, and sticks attached to the faces of historic political figures. They are walking, marching and dancing across eight connected screens 45 meter-long, to the beats an African brass band playing what sounds like New Orleans Jazz funeral music. He achieves his effects by placing his figures just in front of an illuminated screen that is projecting his charcoal-drawn backgrounds of terrain typical of Johannesburg.  Every once in a while, the lighting changes to reveal the actual people behind the silhouettes.

Prior to entering the video display, we were shown some of the cut-out props that the people were carrying, but we did not really understand what it was that we were looking at until we saw the film.  While Kentridge’s work never directly addresses Apartheid, it usually refers to the “inadequacies of the human race” and hints at his country's turbulent past.  He describes this procession as a dance of death but also a dance of hope.  This was one of the coolest film experiences that I have ever encountered.  You can see an excerpt of it on YouTube, but you really don’t get the full effect unless you are sitting in that long, dark room literally watching the procession go by from one end to the other.  Kentridge had a few other animated films showing as part of this exhibit, but this one was the most powerful and visually stimulating by far.

A small museum on the history of film resides in the basement of Eye.  There was a mutoscope, patented in 1894 by Herman Casler, that acts like a flip book or a rolodex, showing individual black and white photographic pictures one at a time.  The one in this museum was showing images from Charlie Chaplin’s movie “The Waiter”.  We saw an example of a zoetrope, a wheel with a sequence of drawings, giving the illusion of motion by showing progressive phases of movement when you spin it. An old reel projector was showing Orson Well’s Citizen Kane on the wall.

On the ground floor, leading up to the cinemas was a long row of old movie posters.  English titles included West Side Story and An Anatomy of Murder but most of the posters were of foreign movies like Les Amants, or were Dutch translations of English movies.  Currently screening at Eye were documentaries like Citizenfour, foreign films like Tokyo Story, and special versions of classic movies like The Blade Runner – The Final Cut.  The gift shop contained movie memorabilia including books, posters, DVDs, but my favourite was the rack of cardboard masks of iconic TV and movie characters.  Don’t you think I make a good Heisenburg from Breaking Bad? This turned out to be a great excursion.  The ferry ride and cafe stop would have already made it worth the trip, but the excellent exhibits took it over the top.

When sightseeing, there’s nothing I like more than spotting whimsical sculptures.  So imagine my excitement when I saw the advertisement for the ARTZUID International Sculpture Exhibition that was happening while we were in Amsterdam.  After some investigation, we found out that ARTZUID is a free outdoors art show held every other summer in the Berlage district in the southern part of Amsterdam (zuid meaning south).  It is situated on long strips of parkland that run on for blocks, forming a “T” along the streets Apollolaan and Minervalaan.  Artists from around the world are invited to participate in this prestigious exhibition and the art is chosen in order to mesh with its intended surroundings.  According to the curator, former Stedelijk Museum director Rudi Fuchs, he wanted to “select ones that create a dialogue while being proportionate in both size and scale to the surrounding architecture and landscape”.  The works selected are mostly large monumental sculptures, epic in character and vertical in orientation to blend in with the beautiful tall trees of the parks. 

The giant Mickey Mouse sculptures by American graffiti artist KAWS seem to be the featured attraction, as they are situated in prime spots on the sculpture route, two positioned right near the ARTZUID pavilion with an extra sculpture placed dramatically in the fountain of the Rijks Museum.  The choice makes sense, since the Mickey sculptures are fun, easily recognizable and accessible to all ages, while some of the other sculptures needed some expert interpretation.  We learned that “Better Knowing”, the seated Mickey sculpture looking morosely down at what looks like Pinocchio’s nose, was spray painted with graffiti the day before the exhibition’s opening day.  Staff spent all night madly working to clean off the tags.  While this must have been heartbreaking for those who worked so hard to put this show together, it is just a bit ironic that a graffiti artist’s work was targeted for graffiti.  Although the sculptures look like they are made of bronze or hard plastic, they are actually made out of painted wood over a steel frame.  If you look closely, you can see the grooves of the wood and if you knock on the works, they are hollow inside.

We decided that in order to get the most out of the sculpture route, we should take a fee-based guided tour led by an art historian.  We were lucky enough to get ARTZUID director Cintha van Heeswijck-Veeger to show us around and her insights paid off immediately.  A work by Israel artist Tal R which I had quickly walked by earlier and dismissed as an unintelligible blob suddenly came to life as we were told to look closely to see how random, found or recycled objects are incorporated.  Magically, we began to see an old shoe, a bottle, a hat, a child’s toy, pine cones, sticks and more.  Tal uses wire and glue to hold the objects together and then covers the work with lacquered bronze. In another of his pieces, we thought we saw dentures–at least we hope they were dentures and there wasn’t a dead body in there!

Dutch sculptor Georg Herold’s vibrant, female figures with elongated cubic edges are made of wood covered with canvas, cast in bronze, then spray painted.  They are posed like lanky, exaggerated versions of pinup models or ballet dancers.  Looking at British sculptor Tony Cragg’s bronze sculpture “Runner” from the side, you can see the figure and actually feel like it is moving.  But looking at it straight on and from afar, it rather looks like a Japanese topiary.  When I spotted the vertically stretched and compressed head of a girl, I immediately thought of South-African born Canadian Evan Penny who created similarly shaped works.  However this turned out to be the sculpture “Duna” by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, whose female head’s eyes are closed in a relaxed and meditative state.  Like Tony Cragg’s Runner, Duna changes in appearance as you walk around her, and as the light reflects off of each surface.

Continuing with our tour, we saw American John Chamberlain’s sculptures made of molded steel wrapped with a shimmering aluminum covering to produce a sparkling effect in the sun.  He first made miniature models out of aluminum foil which he twisted by hand.  Fellow American Michael Craig-Martin combines the 1960s styles of Pop Art and Conceptual Art to create the outlines of common household utensils out of thin strips of steel painted in bright Pop Art colours.  Depending on what angle you view the works, they look either 2 or 3 dimensional.  By contrast, Dutch artist Klaas Gubbels also creates outlines of his preferred objects, teapots and coffee pots, but fills them in to give them volume.  German artist Thomas Schutte is known for his “Grosse Geister” (Big Spirits) sculpture series which features 2-5 meter tall, larger than life sized grotesque figures usually in pairs.  His “Public Enemies” shows a pair of grimacing ghouls, bound together with ropes while straining to get apart.  The sculpture seems to personify the saying “Can’t Live With Them; Can’t Live Without Them”.  Another German artist, the controversial Georg Baselitz (who said in an interview that women can’t paint and are not marketable), created a politically charged sculpture called BDM Gruppe, which reflects his childhood memory of his sister and her friends dancing while they were part of the BDM, the girls’ branch of the Nazi youth movement.  The figures are made out of sawn wood, painted black and covered with bronze, with the deep wood cuts still prominently visible, possibly representing ongoing emotional scars from that time.

In addition to the excellent sculpture tour, it was interesting to visit a new neighbourhood.  The Berlage district of southern Amsterdam was a planned community designed by Hendrick Petrus Berlage in the early 1900s.  Called “Plan Zuid”, it resulted in long, wide streets with planned areas for public art.  Unlike the narrow houses closer to the center of the city, some of the houses here are massive mansions.  The area is bordered by Vondelpark in the northwest, the Westlandgracht canal in the west, the Amstel river in the east and the Kalfijeslaan in the south.  Looking at the boats on these canals, it is obvious that this is where the locals enjoy the waterways.  Unlike the Central canal rings, there was not a single tourist site-seeing boat anywhere in the vicinity.

It is nice to stay in a peaceful residential area that is not overrun with tourists or crowds, but is still easily accessible to the downtown core.  Our home swap neighbourhood, just north of Vondelpark, fits this criteria perfectly and is quite interesting to explore in its own right.  There are some very beautiful buildings and homes in the area. The Atlas Hotel and its unidentified next door neighbour, are both gorgeously adorned in the Art Nouveau style.  The Dutch Riding School (Hollandse Manage) is an active horse riding school and museum, housed in a lovely early 19th Century neoclassical building modelled after the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.  The front entrance of the riding school has on display what looks like a horse Hall of Fame, or perhaps is a lineup of the current horses available for lessons?  Nearby, there is the late 19th century former school for girls that has now been turned into a youth hostel.  It is built in “chalet-style” with wooden balconies and overhanging roofs with decorative trimmings.  We spotted some enormous mansions overlooking Vondelpark that must have amazing views from their upper balconies and windows.

Staying so close to Vondelpark gave us many opportunities to traverse the grounds, either for the express purpose of exploring it, or when using it as the access path to get us to the heart of the city.  Spanning 120 acres, Vondelpark is a picturesquely designed and landscaped public park with expansive walking, hiking and biking paths, green space for picnics and gatherings, ponds, flower gardens, sports fields, children’s play areas, open-air theatre, several outdoor cafés, restaurants, and more.  It is named after 17th-century author Joost van den Vondel.  Herons, ducks and other birds can often be seen around the park, especially by the ponds and marshes.

After weeks of dodging the innumerable cyclists in Amsterdam, we decided we wanted to get in on the action.  Riding around in Vondelpark seemed like the perfect plan since it had been too big for us to cover by foot, and its wide bike paths would give us more room to navigate without getting in the way of the more experienced local cyclists.  The bicycles that we rented from OttoBikes were some of the most comfortable and easy riding rental bikes that we have ever ridden.  The wide, soft seat seemed to mould to my rear end and the upright handle bars and smooth gears made for an easy ride.  I’ve decided that I need to get a new bicycle seat once I return home.   After watching several other cycling groups do the same, Rich wanted to attempt the “bicycle selfie”. It was hilarious watching him try and I was weaving from side to side to try to get into the shots.  You can see the results … Rich must have liked them since he seems quite pleased with himself in one of them.

Riding around, we were able to cover much more ground and saw parts of the park that we did not get to previously.  We spotted many cool sculptures including a wood carving of a man (Atlas?) holding up a tree trunk that had naturally toppled over.  Someone had wrapped a jaunty scarf around the neck of a female nude sculpture, and we finally found the sculpture that we were actually looking for–the giant Fish by Pablo Picasso.

We found a tennis club with a thatched-roof clubhouse and multiple clay courts nestled in behind tall hedges at one end of the park.  We rode by the Blue Tearoom, a white and blue 1930s Modernist structure, shaped like The Great Gazoo’s flying saucer from the Jetsons cartoon.  The day we went for our bike ride, Vondelpark was hosting some sort of festival that featured food, drinks, a flea market and live music.  It was too crowded for us to stay by the bandstand with our bikes, so we found a bench across the pond and listened for a while. 

While we quite enjoy doing all the typical touristy activities in a new city, we also like trying to live like the locals and find out what they might do in their spare time.  I think we succeeded quite well on this trip and had a great time doing it.

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