In a time when saboteurs lurk at home and gossips snipe from afar, some reach for the shutters and draw them fast. Better to be kept in the dark, it’s presumed, than to risk the prying of the ill-intentioned. Britain pulls down the blinds. The Channel has rarely felt wider.
At Grand Union, where recent resident artists have directed attention out to the gallery’s environs (through Eric Moschopedis and Mia Rushton’s canal-side investigations and Laura Oldfield Ford’s dérives), the curtains are drawn. Digbeth is shut out. In lieu a screen has been installed: Seecum Cheung’s ‘The Dutch Window’, offering viewers a prospect of Britain’s neighbours on the Continent.
With the title of her film Cheung makes reference to the Dutch custom of forgoing curtains in favour of unobscured front windows. To offer one’s interiors to the inspection of passers-by is to live transparently, open to scrutiny. The argument – outlined by the first of Cheung’s six interviewees, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam – is that Dutch politics, with its system of proportional representation, also hides nothing from view. All positions, liberal and illiberal, can be aired; distrust and fear can dissipate.
Cheung conducted the interviews, mostly with representatives of fringe parties, in the run-up to national elections held earlier this year, so it is perhaps with hindsight, knowing that the right-wing populist party would lose, that this film seems to tentatively approach optimism. The issues raised – all-too-familiar concerns with immigration and Islam; reticence regarding the country’s colonial history – are by no means resolved, but the closing sequence of slo-mo panning over a sun-soaked street scene seems to end the film affirmatively. ‘I am 110% positive’, confirms the final speaker, a spokesperson for refugee activists in Amsterdam.
This may be a matter of contrast. ‘The Dutch Window’ is a discrete fragment of Cheung’s project, started in August 2015, to investigate the resurgence of nationalism across Europe. More often this has prompted conversations with far-right figures, as in her ‘Interview with Lennart’ (2016), a candidate for Germany’s NPD. Where the sole right-of-centre voice in ‘The Dutch Window’ seems willing to debate his prejudices, Lennart, suspicious of all media, has become dogmatic in his racism. To paraphrase the political scientist Cheung interviews, throwing a blanket over views we find distasteful doesn’t make them disappear. Instead they develop unregarded and unchallenged. Cheung and Lennart are left no common ground but enmity.
Little wonder, perhaps, that her camera seems to drift through the Netherlands with less urgency, peering through train windows, into apartment blocks and offices and car windshields. More often than not however, though un-curtained, we cannot see inside. Glare throws light back at us; a world refracted. Dutch windows may be gifts through which we witness honesty and openness. They are in the same glance mirrors, dark and distorting, by which we might learn to see ourselves.