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Guard on art

The idea that existing notions of modern art have developed within an excessively western, euro-centric and thus neo-colonial perspective was the motive behind organising the meanwhile legendary 1989 Paris exhibition Les magiciens de la terre. This show gave rise to a number of others in which multi-culturality and multi-ethnicity were central themes. Thus, in the Fall of 1998, the Arnhem Museum of Modern Art organised the exhibition Power Up.
However optimistic the perspective on the future of multi-cultural exhibitions may be, they carry the burden of a colonial past which has to be coped with in retroaction, often in an atmosphere of ‘wiedergutmachung’. The multi-cultural exhibition rests on extremely delicate ground and can therefore become an artist’s pitfall. Before accepting the invitation for this exhibition, I therefore asked myself from which attitude I could and wished to participate.
The most promoted but at the same time most careless answer to this question is commonly found in the term ‘universal art’; art by the citizen of the world, free of racial or national profiles. But it is hard to accept that, in order to avoid exoticism, an African should have no ties with his roots, while a Brit, who stands for his youth culture, should.
That, obviously, was not the way to go. I also didn’t want to make a documentary about a subject which manifested itself somewhere else, outside the museum. I wanted to show what had been always on display in western art museums: a Dürer, a Warhol, a Picasso, a Pyke Koch, an Apple, a Constant, an Armando and a delicately painted Mary fleeing to Egypt on the back of a donkey. This time, however, this valuable Dutch cultural heritage was being protected by people who had fled to the Netherlands from elsewhere.
In 1998, it was forbidden to those who sought asylum in the Netherlands to work officially. My thought was that if the museum subscribes to the intentions underlying the exhibition, it not only should behave hospitable but also political and find a way to side-step the law and appoint a number of asylum-seekers as guards. Thus the title of my contribution: Guard on Art.
It was my intention to confront the museum with itself. I think the matter addressed by this exhibition should not be limited to the works on show, but should extend also, or perhaps even primarily, to the institutional role of the museum; in a broader perspective the role of all ‘western’ art museums. The museum accepted, did its best and succeeded. A number of people who had fled their own culture became guards of ours in the museum. They worked in a gallery filled with a collection of artworks addressing repression, war and exile, which was given on loan for this occasion by several Dutch museums. An illuminated news trailer was available for commentary by whomever wanted to use it.
Guard on Art merged into the concept of the exhibition and implicitly clarified its difficult, delicate but also paradoxical background. The aim of this artwork was not to spend charity, but to enable reflection; on the fact that not only art itself is up for discussion from the perspective of a new future, but its premises as well. Guard on Art was an art-political metaphor, which was at the same time its weakness; my reach stopped at the confines of the art exhibition. After the exhibition, everything returned to as it was before. The asylum seekers knew beforehand that they would be fired. I have regularly been criticised for misusing them.


Source: Hans van Houwelingen, lecture held at the Museum of Modern Art, Arnhem, November 12th 1998