Willem de Rooij ‘Intolerance’
‘Intolerance’ is a new work conceived by the Dutch artist Willem de Rooij (*1969). Developed especially for the Neue Nationalgalerie, it consists of a large, temporary installation and a three-part publication. Together, the installation and publication form an entity that is the result of artistic and scholarly research carried out over four years. ‘Intolerance’ confronts 17th century Dutch representations of birds, painted by Melchior ‘Hondecoeter, with 18th and 19th century feather objects from Hawaii. Through this juxtaposition, the artist steers our view toward the connections between non-European objects and European painting. The exhibition focuses on the triangular relationship between early global trade, intercultural conflicts and mutual attraction. Open to various interpretations, ‘Intolerance’ can be read as a three-dimensional collage, but also as a visual study, as well as a trenchant reflection on the conditions of the exhibition space and institutional practice.
Two works in the collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin form the starting point for ‘Intolerance’: a feathered head depicting the war god Kuka’ilimoku from the Ethnologisches Museum in Dahlem and a painting belonging to the Gemäldegalerie, Pelikan und andere Wasservögel in einem Park (Pelican and Other Waterfowl in a Park) by Melchior d’Hondecoeter. By bringing both works together at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Willem de Rooij consciously exceeds art historical classifications and disciplinary boundaries. At a time in which the cultural climate is increasingly subordinated to private interests, ‘Intolerance’ reflects on the relevance and benefit of public collections.
The large glass hall at the Neue Nationalgalerie is the ideal location to thematise such questions raised by contemporary art. Mies van der Rohe’s architecture stands out due to its great formal severity, offering a gigantic open space, which both requires and allows new combinations of form with each and every display. By conceiving a single monumental, 36-meter long temporary wall, and by darkening the window surfaces all around it, Willem de Rooij is explicitly dealing with the magnificent interior, an attempt that can be aligned with prior interventions by Imi Knoebel, Thomas Demand and Rudolf Stingel, that allows for a further, independent artistic position.
Willem de Rooij’s work is determined by the selection and combination of images in diverse media, such as sculpture, film and text. His work analyzes the conventions of presentation and representation and assesses the tension between socio-political and autonomous image production. Where early film installations already possessed a sculptural quality his most recent exhibitions became works of art in their own right, often incorporating found materials or appropriated works of art. In ‘Intolerance’, Willem de Rooij examines the limits of referentiality, authenticity and authorship by introducing works of other artists as autonomous materials within his own installation.
Both groups of objects were originally produced to represent power and establishment and to decorate those in power. Through their high material and (in the case of the feather objects) religious value, these objects confirmed the financial and territorial power-structures existing at that time. Tolerance and intolerance form the outer limits of these power structures. Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-1695)
The Dutch painter Mechior d’Hondecoeter exclusively painted images of birds. These ‘group portraits’ were praised for their realistic portrayals and were very popular among the commercial and political elite of that time. These paintings served as status symbols, and also depicted them: Exotic birds, which had been imported on Dutch merchant ships from newly discovered territories in Asia, Africa and South America. Melchior d’Hondecoeter’s birds come together in dynamic compositions, often shown in conflict or threatened by one another. They seem to display human character traits, suggesting hidden commentary on Dutch society of the 17th century; a society rapidly gaining socio-demographic and economical complexity through its colonial ambitions in an increasingly global market.
Approximately 200 paintings could be attributed to Melchior d’Hondecoeter’s workshop. A variety of painting styles suggests the involvement of a number of assistants and several motifs can be repeatedly found in an unaltered form in many of his paintings. Melchior d’Hondecoeter’s oeuvre consequently appears as a conglomeration of decorative collages, produced in an almost mechanical seriality on the basis of successful formulas. Although Melchior d’Hondecoeter was very successful both during his lifetime and afterward, and his paintings can be found in important collections worldwide (Rijksmuseum, Louvre, The Hermitage, Metropolitan Museum of Art, etc.), there has never been a comprehensive catalogue or solo exhibition dedicated to this artist’s work.
Hawaiian Feather Objects (18th and 19th century)
In pre-Christian Hawai’i, the god of war was named Kuka’ilimoku. Three-dimensional representations of his head were carried along during processions, as were helmets, capes and cloaks. All of these objects are covered with feathers, which served functions of adornment and protection. The base of these objects is a basket-like structure covered with a net material, which holds thousands of red and yellow feathers (hundreds of ‘i’iwi birds had to be captured, killed and plucked for every object). The fear provoking facial features of the feathered god are produced by seashells, dog’s teeth and human hair. The significance of these headdresses, helmets, capes and cloaks made from feathers were to convey individual strength and to fight off external dangers.
Construction of these complex sculptures involved various specialized skills, enabling entire villages to collaborate in pre-industrial production processes. Only 19 feathered images remain known today, most of which were brought to Europe following James Cook’s final voyage through the Pacific in 1779. Approximately 80 helmets and 180 cloaks or capes are now in collections in Europe and abroad. While Cook mainly aimed to collect materials for scientific research, he also brought back trophies and souvenirs with him to cover the costs of his travels. By their dislocation from the Pacific to Western Europe the function and meaning of the objects changed dramatically - ritual objects, which had to do with war, status and hierarchy, were turned into examples of the ‘exotic.’