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3/11/2020 / Issue #033 / Text: Morgane Billuart

Hide and Seek in the Stedelijk

In the Presence of Absence
After months of unseen and unlived experiences, the Stedelijk re-opened with a promising programme that has the ambition to put the audience In the Presence of Absence. This is a curious and somewhat poetic title for a show that attempts to exhibit “a selection of artworks that challenge the idea of collective knowledge and public consciousness through stories that remain unseen, have been ignored or maybe told more often within large public institutions.”

The exhibition consists of a variety of works from a great diversity of artists that address all kinds of challenges. The pieces elaborate on historical processes as well as their repression, investigate mechanisms of power and hegemony and raise questions whose significance goes far beyond the white cube. The decision to host such an ambitious show invites us to wonder: what can museums really do to influence the public debate?
Is it sufficient in 2020 for artists to simply “raise a controversial issue”? What does that actually mean and what does such an attempt factually do if it is comfortably located within an institution such as the Stedelijk?
Who is its audience? Notwithstanding its good intentions, this show perhaps manifests its own paradoxes, demonstrating the complexities established art institutions inevitably face when trying to curate critical content.

If museums attempt to fight for diversity and for social causes, perhaps it would be helpful to approach this less in terms of seeing and more in terms of acting. It is great and should be a matter of course for a museum to showcase a diversity of artists. However, museums also need to address the issue of how forms of knowledge and aesthetic expression can be made accessible beyond their usual audience. How genuine is the gesture of illuminating unseen, unknown discourses if so many paradoxes and dilemmas that flow from the museum’s own hegemonic cultural position remain unacknowledged?

RaRa, Art & Politics
While it is going to take time to find practical answers to these questions, it seems sensible to explore the complexity of the challenges ahead. A good place to start could be the work by Pieter Paul Pothoven which is also part of In the Presence of Absence. His piece about the RaRa (Revolutionaire Anti-Racistische Actie) bombing of the Makro warehouse in Amsterdam represents an interesting gesture with regard to the exhibition’s title. Pothoven’s work consists of two main elements: an audio piece that reproduces interviews with RaRa-members and a visual/tangible piece that is a replica of the storefront of Overtoom 274 where the group supposedly met to plan the bombing. In the exhibition room, we find ourselves thus confronted with a presence of absence, i.e., the absence of the original elements: neither are we listening to the voices of RaRa members nor are we looking at the original storefront. What is it that the artist intends to evoke in this presence of absence? Why is there a takeaway poster of the stove around which RaRa may or may not have assembled in order to plan their actions? We are experiencing his apparent difficulty to take a stand on the issue of violent anti-racist action. What is there that the artist wants us to see? Why is it urgent today? If a political message was intended by Pothoven, it somehow fizzles out in the museum. In an ambiguous way, the exhibition title, In the Presence of Absence, begins to acquire a meaning that goes beyond the institutional intentions: is the presence of art in a museum context damned to a structural absence of political efficacy?