This year, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen invited the conceptual artist Sarkis to create an installation at the submarine wharf in the port of Rotterdam. Two years ago, the 5000 square meter space inspired Atelier Van Lieshout to create Infernopolis, “a terrifying setting in which medical instruments, vacuum pumps, silos, skulls, skeletons, and giant sperm cells and bodily organs are the main protagonists” as the press release put it. I saw the photos and decided to give it a miss because I’m not good with disembowelment, even if it’s all polyester. Last year, Elmgreen & Dragset created another kind of inferno with The One & The Many, which I wrote about here.
Elmgreen & Dragset blocked out natural light and made the huge hangar seem constricting and suffocating, but with Ballads, Sarkis opens everything up, allowing the space to breathe and interact with the shifting daylight filtered through blue, red and yellow colored film affixed to the windows. Sarkis cites Pieter Saenredam, a 17th century specialist in architectural paintings, particularly church interiors, as one of his influences.
For more on Saenredam, see the Rijksmuseum website: Pieter Jansz. Saenredam – Rijksmuseum Amsterdam – Museum for Art and History.
Ballads is in many ways a reimagination of the interior of an unadorned Protestant church, but instead of offering a connection with a higher being, the artist uses video, books, film, music and even the rhythm of his own breath to offer us himself and everything that has inspired him.
In an interview on the Arttube channel (French with English subtitles), Sarkis talks about his shock on first seeing the submarine wharf. Entering the great hall, he found the floor covered in snow that had drifted in through some broken skylights during the cold spell last winter. Outside the ground was bare, but the building must have insulated the snow that fell in February and kept it from melting. The exhibition catalog features a photo of Sarkis walking through the empty space in the snow, an image that stayed with me as I explored Ballads.
A huge cylindrical pillar suspended from the ceiling, covered in white down and inside it, a spotlight that rises and falls in time with the artist’s breathing. Arranged in a circle underneath it, sixty white bicycles and one wheelchair, also covered with feathers, and all over the floor, white feather down.
On the other side of a partition in the middle of the hall, eighteen pine trunks, eighteen meters tall and arranged in a circle hold a carillon of forty-three bells suspended at a height of twelve meters. At the center of the circle, the keyboard for playing John Cage’s Litany for the Whale on the carillon.
On the other side of the hall, Martti Suuronen’s Futuro, originally built as a cabin for weekends away skiing, now used by Sarkis to share his short films about water.
The snow that fell in February was no longer here, but I saw it everywhere.