Studio Nathan Coley

The Ballast Project 2011

Shrewd Architectonic Imperialism - the history of a brick, the end of an era

Tanja Karreman

The Dutch trading settlements that sprang up on foreign soil at the beginning of the 17th century, will always stick in the mind of any world traveller. When encountered now, they trigger an unexpected jolt of recognition: they are characterised by their use of brick and typical Dutch brickwork, restrained in their Calvinistic aesthetic, with an aura of solidity. With a global Google Earth consciousness, a Dutch traveller experiences them as brick-red coloured patches spread around the world, identifiable and ineradicable traces of Dutch hegemony. From India to St. Eustatius, from old Batavia to Japan, from Suriname to Cape Town, the houses, forts and churches function today as historic beacons. The Dutch ambition to conquer a place for themselves in the world (and its trade networks) is evident, and started somewhat over 400 years ago.

It is this history that Nathan Coley interrogates with the work that he made for Het Scheepvaartmuseum. A complex set of historical connections running from the historic VOC East-Indiamen to modern sea container shipping lies hidden in the wall that he had built in the northern entrance hall of their new building. The work gives no answers and pronounces no judgements. Coley's concern is solely with the process of historic interpretation and experience in relation to architecture and economy.

Despite the positive gloss that still adheres to this history today – witness the admonition a couple of years ago by the then Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, that the Dutch must resurrect the old VOC mentality – we have long known that it is a story the connotations of which are not wholly pleasant. In the mid-17th century the Dutch heavy-handedly appropriated the monopoly in cloves, mace and cinnamon for themselves. Not only the inhabitants of the islands, but also the merchants and crews of ships belonging to competing nations like Portugal, Spain and England, were forced to accept Dutch terms, willingly or unwillingly. Nutmeg plantations were laid out on the Banda Islands, managed and worked by colonists and slaves. The whole harvest had to be turned over to the VOC at a set price. When around 1621 it was discovered that the Banda Islanders were also cutting deals with other countries, Jan Pieterz. Coen, one of the most famous and infamous heroes of the VOC had the vast majority of the population slaughtered. This genocide made such an impression that from that day on the whole region around the Banda Islands came under Dutch control. Holland had made a name for itself.

The brick trading settlements were the first tangible signs of a world that was moving toward an integrated, centralised economy. But this continuing presence of Dutch architecture in these other cultures is also a symbol of an ambiguous imperialism that still provokes questions.

For instance, this last summer the statue of Jan Pieterz. Coen on De Rode Steen in Hoorn was accidentally knocked off its pedestal by a hydraulic crane while a fun fair was being set up. This ‘accident’ sparked off a fierce debate about whether the statue ought to be restored to its place at all. As their part of the protest, artists immediately appropriated the pedestal as a temporary exhibition space, because one could also do other, nicer things with such a prominent spot, on a square in the middle of the city. Voices were raised insisting that the statue should not be put back there, but go somewhere else, in a park, perhaps no longer standing upright but fallen. Emotions ran high. Presently the pedestal is used – quite appropriately – to display Dutch cheeses during the cheese market.

Nathan Coley's work is about the discrepancy between the built world of architecture and the city as it is actually experienced. He raises this issue for his viewers by dismantling situations – that is to say, buildings, areas and stories – or, on the contrary, reconstructing them in a different way. This is often not without fascinating effects, as in the work ‘There Will Be No Miracles Here’ (2006), or his maquette – almost closer to an installation – 'Lamp of Sacrifice’ (2004), of scale models of all the religious buildings in the city of Edinburgh, brought together with one another in one vast collection. What is striking about his work is that in each situation he focuses on one detail, one word, one story, a missing link. In his work, sensitive to its context, he goes in search of that one element around which the rest of the process, and the realisation of the work, is developed.

From its very inception, his response to the commission from Het Scheepvaartmuseum has focused on the logistics of goods, in relation to architecture. The building on the Oosterdok itself, dating from 1656, was his point of departure: it was from this former warehouse, ’s Lands Zeemagazijn, that the ships of the West and East India Companies sailed. The warehouse was the depot for goods, where the ballast (ballast is the weight necessary to stabilise a vessel, especially one not carrying the full cargo for which it was designed) was loaded before departure, and where the ‘booty’ was unloaded on their return. The replica of the East-Indiaman Amsterdam (1749) is a visual reminder of the building's original function. The dynamic of loading and unloading is a process that evokes images of distant places and possible destinations, and deeply appeals to the imagination. Amsterdam in the 17th century is comparable with the Rotterdam Harbour today, with its towering container storage – a contemporary variant of the Zeemagazijn.

That, as the result of his research, Coley should have used bricks as the peg on which to hang his work is as surprising as it is obvious, and testifies to the originality of the outsider's gaze. To date, no Dutchman has ever associated the history of the VOC with bricks. What in Dutch are called IJsselsteentjes – unpretentious, irregular, yellowish bricks produced along the Ijssel, in no way comparable with today's industrially produced bricks – were used for ballast in the VOC ships. This practical solution also proved ingenious, because once unloaded and replaced in the ship's hold by other goods, the bricks could be used for durable structures which afforded protection. In a previous interview Coley remarks on this: ‘Initially the bricks were intended for building, as useful components in a larger architectonic structure. But they were carried along on the 17th century voyages because of their weight. They meant nothing, were merely ballast for the ships which would have been too light without them. Out at the other end of the world this functional cargo was unloaded. In Suriname, Indonesia, people used them to build houses and Christian churches, in short, made structures with them again. The bricks went from ‘something’ to ‘nothing’, in order to once more become ‘something’. It is impossible to look at the bricks in isolation.’ From the beginning of his research, Coley upgraded bricks to a simple but pregnant symbol of a clever historical trade system: a triple metaphor for the ambiguity of the VOC's history, Dutch colonial architecture and the irrepressible drive to become a major player in the world economy.

The process
It was early in 2008. I can still see us – the members of the ‘NSA art team’, as we were dubbed by the project leader from the Government Buildings Agency when we were formed in late 2006, to inspire us with the suggestion that we were on a mission – sitting there: the architect, the project manager and the directors of the Museum. We sat there, in equal parts disbelieving and delighted, spellbound by the rhetoric of Nathan Coley's presentation, when he laid out his plan for the first time. ‘We're going to ship back the IJsselstenen that served as ballast, enough of them to build a wall with.’

That the plan created euphoria is an understatement; our thoughts were going in every direction. Is this feasible? Can we get permission? Can we get away with commissioning this, as a government agency? From a practical standpoint, how do you organise something like this? And last but not least, what are the ethical implications of an action like this? Wasn't this terribly arrogant, and didn't the plan have at least a whiff of a new imperialism about it, to think that we could turn back the clock of history all by ourselves, even if that was only symbolically? Might we not end up unnecessarily stirring up a lot of emotions, and not just bricks?

It took Coley two years of planning, in close cooperation with Joost ten Bruggencate of Mothership, in Rotterdam, to sketch out the logistics of acquiring and shipping the bricks. Appeals were put up on the internet, discussions held with embassies, long-term loan agreements drawn up. Letters of support from the burgomaster of Amsterdam, the director of the Maritime Museum and the Government Architect's advisor on monuments were needed to tip the scales. Then there were discussions with potential shippers. For a long time we cherished the dream that somewhere there must still be a desolate, unclaimed ruin, the removal of which would pass unnoticed.

In the meantime, in a parallel course with the development of the logistics, Nathan Coley moved forward with conversations with the architect of the new building, Liesbeth van der Pol, who, during the building process, also succeeded Mels Crouwel as Government Architect. Earlier, in 1997, she had already designed the depot for the Museum a bit farther up on the same site. Broadly, the design that Van der Pol did for the alterations to the ’s Lands Zeemagazijn involved roofing over the inner courtyard, a new routing through the museum, and a new climate control system. The original robust character of the building had to be preserved as much as possible.

The relation between architecture and art in Coley's work is obvious. His background as an artist shows through as he explores the boundaries of what is possible. He plays the game for all it's worth, and enters into discussion with the architect. What is at stake is the dilemma of functionality. In the discussions with Liesbeth van der Pol he sought a formulation for the point at which architecture can go no farther. Unhindered by peremptory limiting conditions, lists of requirements and functionality, he had the baton passed to him, precisely at the point where architecture stops, resulting in a functionless wall which connects to nothing, bears nothing and is unfinished – or, as he himself put it, ‘a stubborn wall’. A pure statement. How impudent can you be? He went as far as the architect permitted.

In June, 2009, Coley and Mothership presented the results to the art team. There were three promises of a minimal number of bricks from each location, and there were still more clandestine offers that we couldn't get involved with. We didn't have enough bricks to build a wall. This necessarily led to a radical change in the process, and in the thinking about the work: this practical disappointment also refined the question about its legitimacy. In the final plan the dilemma of historical imperialism resulted in the actual return trip with the promised bricks becoming part of a ‘re-enactment’ of the sea journey: containers full of original Vecht bricks, which are still available in abundance here in The Netherlands, would call in at four locations, sailing to Australia, Singapore, Suriname and St Eustatius – places where the chance of being able to bring back some of the original 'booty' too would be greatest. Coley had previously already done a re-enactment in Belem with the work ‘The Land Marked’ (2001), by building an historic tower anew, on the basis of a temporary projection. The shipping of the bricks and travelling the routes once again was a monumental gesture of almost unimaginable magnitude.

On 22 March, 2010, a special container 'designed' by Studio Leon&Loes in a typically Dutch make-over departed from Rotterdam, accompanied by a briefing with information about the project, in the eventuality that the shippers would receive questions about it. With several detours and delays for storm season, then making up time, it covered the following itinerary: Rotterdam - Singapore - Freemantle (Australia) - Rotterdam - Paramaribo (Suriname) - St. Eustatius - Paramaribo - Rotterdam. Because there is no direct ocean-going freight service from Australia to the Caribbean, the container first had to return to Rotterdam before it could go on through to St. Eustatius. Thus the container followed the current navigation routes. On 16 December the container ship with the Vecht bricks was again back in Rotterdam. All told, on the way it had picked up another 30 bricks that had made the sea journey over 300 years earlier.

The wall
In March, 2011, the wall was built in the northern entrance hall according to the plans. The difference in the origin of the bricks is invisible to the layman, but precise records were kept of which are which. The wall is a modest yet very prominent part of the northern entrance, which the visitor literally and figuratively can't get around. At first sight it appears to be a part of its context, a remnant of the original building, but on further inspection you see that the wall relates to the new building rather than the other way around. Parts of the new plastered walls are incomplete behind the wall. What's going on here? It is precisely this carelessness that focuses attention on the new construction as something new. The wall poses questions to the building, to its architecture, its history and the future, in relation to Amsterdam, The Netherlands, the world.

In its lack of function we see the wall as a basic architectonic element. A wall is a limit, a boundary, an end. Just as the bricks represent the history of the VOC, for those who can see its significance the wall refers to the limits of a world economy that began with historic imperialism. It is a proclamation of the end of an era of faith in economic growth, and of the exploitation of people and resources that has made that growth possible.

It is precisely this interweaving of social and economic forces, the ways in which we have constructed the world, and the way in which we subsequently experience that architecture, that is the subject of Nathan Coley's work. His work reveals the influence that that architecture has on us, the way in which it directs our thinking, in a vicious circle of influencing and being influenced. It is an attempt to disentangle that process. He moves the viewer with minimal means, with consequences that reach as far as you can and will think.

From 2006 to 2010 Tanja Karreman was the Visual Arts Advisor for the Atelier of the Government Architect, and in that capacity was responsible for overseeing the Maritime Museum's art commission to Nathan Coley.