Eating Cake at de Appel: an interview with one of the curators of Bourgeouis Leftovers, Amsterdam

What does one eat in times of crisis? Leftovers. Of the bourgeoisie. Or, but that depends on your political stance, and the degree of hunger, perhaps the bourgeoisie itself. The current exhibition at de Appel Arts Centre in Amsterdam, which concludes this year’s curatorial program, was conceived after the six student curators encountered a bundle of paintings during a visit to the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. The paintings were labelled ‘Bourgeois Leftovers’ and the students, as it turned out, were hungry. So they took the paintings, and used them as a starting point.

I met with one of the curators, Srajana Kaikini, to talk about the show.

Georgia Haagsma: These works came here under quite random circumstances. What attracted you to the leftovers?

Srajana Kaikini: During our visit to the Van Abbe Museum and the tutorial with Charles Esche [Director of the Van Abbe Museum], he told us about his policy to be a transparent museum. The museum’s collection is open to the public so visitors can see how it operates. This is how we were able to see the Mondriaans and Picassos up on the wall but how we also encountered this pile of works labelled ‘Bourgeois Leftovers’ on the floor. The works kind of came to us, but with a very definite meaning already attached to them.

GH: So, the Van Abbe Museum wasn’t planning to do anything with these works?

SK: No, because there were other things that were more important for the museum’s narrative at the time. There were other factors they wanted to address in their exhibition, regarding the Museum’s context and the current Dutch context in general.

Bourgeois Leftovers - exhibition overview

GH: Do you know how they came up with ‘Bourgeois Leftovers’?

SK: The pile we originally found was bigger, it consisted of 73 works, mainly portraits and landscapes. For the museum, to call them ‘leftovers’ wasn’t a conscious decision of rejection. It was more to suggest that they could wait. Charles Esche, who came up with the name on the label, doesn’t seem to give any judgement to the word bourgeois, but it was certainly that word which attracted us to the works. If it wasn’t for that word, we probably wouldn’t have noticed them.

GH: Wasn’t Charles Esche surprised that you showed this interest?

SK: No, he was actually very happy and encouraging of the gesture.

GH: Even though the works are completely taken out of context?

SK: Yes, I think that in itself adds a layer, which gives the works more value. I mean, the crux of the exhibition was to displace these works by showing them in a contemporary art context, and to see what the status of these paintings would be in a contemporary scenario. We wanted to see how the specific academic language in these paintings corresponds with the contemporary art language today.

GH: Contemporary artists, also the ones in this show, often use their environment as their paint and this, in a way, becomes part of their language. When these paintings were painted, people understood the symbolic language probably much better than we do now.

SK: Yes, but you could argue that these paintings weren’t so ambitious in terms of being symbolic. There is a certain tendency among the painters to belong to a certain stylistic movement and therefore generate contentment. The condition of production of these paintings was generally more for the artists to survive.

The thing I really like about the exhibition is that it was built around a found object. We had an encounter with the paintings and went on to unravel the stories. It’s not like we’re proving anything with this exhibition, because there is nothing to prove.

Jota Castro, Polvo y Ceniza (2013) Albert Servaes, Portrait of Henri van Abbe (1937)

GH: It’s true that not all the paintings in the exhibition are of the same aesthetic quality, and that they differ largely in emotional and financial value. How did you deal with the issue of subjectivity?

SK: We tried to stay away from subjective decision-making. Even when we had to make a selection due to budget constraints we let the budget constraints affect our decisions but not any personal liking.

GH: So you’ve deliberately tried not to have an opinion about the value of these works?

SK: I think the opinion is strongly underlined in our gesture of getting these paintings in this place and opening them up to conversation and that’s what we thought was the most important driving force behind the exhibition. We took the risk that some people could read the title as an offensive or snide remark, but there is a certain factuality to it that we really liked.

Gabriel Lester, Cookie 1 & 2 (2013)

GH: I guess with a title like ‘Bourgeois Leftovers’ it is pretty much impossible to make a very subjective show.

SK: Exactly. The viewing already happens through this framework.

GH: It’s quite unnatural to have a group of six curators working together on a show of this scale. Did you and your colleagues differ in opinion much during the process?

SK: Each of us is very different in our take on things. Two of us are art historians, we have a psychoanalyst and myself, and architect. One of us studied art theory and is an artist herself. There were very little overlaps in what we found compelling, but that challenged us to question these and to hammer out our arguments very carefully. The artists’ works also reflect the differences in the group. Some of the artists responded conceptually [like Barbara Visser or Marlene Dumas] and others responded very specifically to one painting [like Dina Danish].

GH: What was the most important aspect of making this exhibition?

SK: For me, what it comes down to, and what is very apparent in this show, is that, however small, marginalized or peripheral something is, when you look at it with a magnifying glass, a story always surfaces.

‘Bourgeois Leftovers’ is at de Appel Arts Centre until June 16, 2013