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September 24, 2022

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Envisioning a Netherlands that is more than windmills and tulips

A photography exhibition now on display at the Shanghai Center of Photography attempts to debunk the notion of the Netherlands as merely a nation of tulips and windmills.

“NL Imagined,” an exhibition of works by 11 Dutch photographers and artists, provides a kaleidoscope view of Dutch society, culture and, most importantly, people.

The exhibition’s aim is “to shake things up,” according to curator He Yining, “to challenge what we assume about Dutch photography art or Dutch society.”

He collaborated with Dutch photographer and curator Ruben Lundgren to present modern Dutch photography art from the last 50 years.

Photographic archives

An archive is a format that is frequently used throughout the exhibition.

Erik Kessels’ chronological series “In almost every picture #7” tells a Dutch woman’s lifelong affair with a gun. The series starts in 1936, when Rita von Dijk, then 16, first picked up a gun and fired a shot at a shooting range. It almost became an annual ritual, with Kessels labeling her “Airgun Rita.”

The series offers a unique viewpoint on the evolution of Dutch society over time.

Dana Lixenberg spent a year going to every Dutch city to photograph mayors, their workspaces and their daily routines for a commissioned work by the Rijksmuseum in 2011.

Hans Eijkelboom spent five weeks wandering around the streets of Amsterdam, photographing people with numbers on their clothes. He later put them all together in numerical order — from 1 to 100 — into an “artistic anthropological” series and titled it, “Amsterdam by Numbers.” Only the number 49, displayed at the heart of the whole series, is vacant.

“It is a teasing concept of how photography works, and how the fashion industry works,” Lundgren explained. “It’s a very simple idea that can really capture the time very well.”

His co-curator described this approach to the archive as “a sense of humor.” It has surfaced frequently in contemporary Dutch photography, publications, and exhibitions over the last decade.

“To me, it is a way of reviewing history and loosening up history,” He explained. “Photography art, in the view of many of us, is a way of documenting. When we review the photos, they are the proof of history. However, archiving gives it a shake, to play, to reproduce this sense of humor.”

The archive is “a means to collect, narrate, and tell a whole new tale, a story that even appears out of thin air,” she added.

It is prevalent not only in the Netherlands but throughout the current photographic world. “It reflects how we look at history, how to get back into a certain period of time, and recount it to others.”

Apart from the exhibited series, there are a dozen award-winning picture books on display, published by some of the best Dutch publishing firms and agencies. They provide an enhanced view into various areas of Dutch life and society, as well as demonstrate how Dutch contemporary photographers play with unique, often inconspicuous, perspectives.

In “Typical Dutch,” Jan Dirk van der Burg captures all those little oddities of the southwestern European country, such as the camouflaged wheel bins. Another photo book by van der Burg features “elephant paths,” which appear gradually when people try to take shortcuts.

The retrospective book “Nowhere” looks back on photographer Frank van der Salm’s 25-year career, spent largely concentrating on the urban environment.

Today, the distinction between different kinds of photography art is becoming increasingly blurred in the Netherlands and other Western societies.

“Life — For Mom” is a stop-motion animation work by Erwin Olaf. Featuring black-and-white images of tulips, it is dedicated to his late mother.

“Is this photography? Of course it is. Every frame in this piece features a photo. However, it’s different from those framed photos we usually see,” He said.

Instead of Olaf’s signature and more well-known fashion shoots, the curator chose the stop-motion piece deliberately to recognize Olaf and other Dutch photographers’ efforts to challenge the stereotypes of photography art and the stereotypes imposed on themselves by fame and vanity, to keep pushing the boundaries, and to constantly review the use of media in their creation.

“We don’t want to simply impose our ideas on the audience but to create a space and a chance for them to feel for themselves,” He said. “Everyone has his/her own experience, and through these works, they can either defy their old-time imagination of the Netherlands, or build their whole new image of the Netherlands.”


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