Last week at Rotterdam's Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, artists, collectors, curators and a handful of dealers celebrated the opening of "Melanchotopia," a group exhibition organized by the institution at public and commercial locations across the city. The show comes on the eve of severe national budget cuts that will affect the Netherland's cultural sector (although the structure of Witte de With, which is in part privately financed, will remain largely intact). Belgian collector Wilfried Cooreman remarked, "with this exhibition Witte de With is taking to the streets to show that art can still connect with the public." Although the exhibition doesn't overtly address the economy or the politics of austerity, some of the artists have chosen to show works that critique these issues. On the outside of the Witte de With building, Alex Morrison has installed a gas lamp resembling the official UNESCO heritage label designed to protect monuments or objects of cultural value in times of conflict.
The artists made a strong showing of support. "Of the 42 participating artists, I counted 38 here tonight," Berlin-based architect Roger Bundschuh told A.i.A. They included Pierre Bismuth, Thea Djordjadze, Saâdane Afif and Lawrence Weiner. It was a largely BeNeLux-crowd. Brussels-collector Frédéric de Goldschmidt noted, "I was surprised that half of Brussels was in Rotterdam, at least half of the downtown artsy crowd." The exhibition is one of the last overseen by Nicolaus Schafhausen as director of the Witte de With, who will concentrate on writing projects before taking a new position.
On opening day, a crowd gathered around the Witte de With before dispersing into the city as if on an egg hunt. Indeed, works turned up in unusual locations. Highlights included Monica Bonvicini's Tears (2011), a life-size, hollow strap-on made from Murano glass, installed on a pedestal in a sex shop. Sven Augustijnen's film School for Pickpockets (2000), featured two pickpockets teaching their tricks to a young man, installed in a "night shop," open only after 5 p.m. Guillaume Bijl's Five Historical Hats (2011) consists of five found hats, labeled with the names of five historical figures, such a Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplain in museum-like vitrines, placed on the first floor of an old-fashioned milliner's.
In the evening, Brussels-based violinist George Van Dam premiered his Music for Melanchotopia, an hour-long set of musical pieces for strings and a soprano at the city's municipal theatre. On the way back from the theater to the museum, the art crowd stumbled upon the highpoint of the opening evening: the hoisting by a crane of Filip Gilissen's light sculpture, measuring roughly 30 by 40 feet that flashed intermittently and read It's All Downhill From Here On-a fitting slogan in these days of economic turmoil. It remained suspended about 40 feet high, flashing on the corner of Karel Doormanstraat and Crispijnstraat for the duration of opening night, and will be remembered by performances of a key-chain vendor selling golden trinkets of the sign for $7 a pop.
The next day, the pilgrimage home brought visitors past a re-located version of Lawrence Weiner's AS LONG AS IT LASTS in the passenger tunnel of Rotterdam Central Station. Originally inscribed on the country's tallest tower, the Euromast, in 1993, its message about acquisition, labor, waste and humanity is more fitting than ever.