What was the reason for undertaking the Misericordia project, what does mercy mean in this day and age, and how can the Oude Kerk play a significant role in a modern-day interpretation of this concept? These are some of the questions that Non-fiction’s René Boer, guest curator of Misericordia, asked Jacqueline Grandjean, director of the Oude Kerk.
When did you feel the urgency to reflect upon the concept of ‘mercy’ and to do something with it?
There were in fact two reasons, one from the Oude Kerk and one personal. Furthermore, in recent times there have been many moments when you might want to be merciful and compassionate, but you don’t know how. The biggest dilemma in Europe right now is of course the stream of refugees, which makes you think that there should be sufficient space for everyone in this city and in this country. Yet it proves to be a stubborn problem that cannot be resolved by an individual.
The church was traditionally the place where caritas – charity – could be requested. Even now people ring the bell in order to ask whether the church can provide shelter, or food and drink. Jewish refugees were accommodated in the attic here during the Second World War and back in the fifteenth century this was also the place where people without a roof over their heads could spend the night. You might therefore wonder whether the Oude Kerk continues to possess that significance today.
The other reason is that my mother died last summer, precisely a year ago today. My mother was truly the most charitable person on this planet and when she was no longer there I realized that my contemporary being and individualistic existence could never match her concept of loving one’s neighbour. She constantly concerned herself with old, sick and needy people. Our house was always a place of refuge for all kinds of wretches who then headed back into the world revived. I think that’s something wonderful and I notice that my mother’s type is dying out somewhat. We’re mostly preoccupied with ourselves. Taking all this into consideration prompted the question of what the future of love of one’s neighbour actually is. Are there new ways and alternative places for mercy?
What you said about the different forms of mercy that the church has embodied is intriguing, but has the church been charitable throughout those 800 years? Have there also been times when the doors were closed?
The charitable function in the era when the Oude Kerk was exclusively a church was self-evidently greater than now. It’s not just our society that has lost touch with charitableness, but also the church building itself. Because of secularization and the church’s transformation into a more cultural purpose, the role of charitable work as an everyday activity gradually diminished. Nevertheless, the Oude Kerk congregation, which holds a service here every Sunday, holds a charitable collection every week.
If the situation required, would you then be able to open the doors of the church for people who need it?
In the past we’ve spoken with a retired judge, a specialist in refugee and asylum cases, about the potential legal paths to allow people to stay here temporarily. We then pondered what would happen if we were to open this church for three months. He said that what this entails in practical terms makes its impossible. You have to imagine people who stay here should be able to build up a comfortable existence, but there are hardly any facilities. And when are you going to tell people that enough is enough and that life carries on, for the refugee as well as for the Oude Kerk, and that everyone has to fend for themselves again? It’s a question that we felt obliged to ask, but the reality is that for a long time the Oude Kerk has been used as a cultural institution, so it’s only in that capacity that we can look into ‘charity’.
But surely it’s an interesting observation that container units set far away in Amsterdam’s harbour area are more suitable for shelter and relief efforts than the church?
It’s in particular its significance as a place of refuge that we can seize upon to think about what the Oude Kerk can mean at this specific moment of time.
The Oude Kerk as a cultural organization is focused on contemporary art. Why is that – rather than religion or academia – an interesting discourse for reflecting upon mercy? And why is it an interesting vehicle to develop that idea further?
We are having discussions with many artists about the world surrounding us and about the social issues we are currently facing. Artists are often highly politically engaged. An artist does not have to provide the actual solution to the problem, but can often offer an acute reflection. It’s about the mental exercise and the connections we establish, which can be interesting for art and our society. That’s why I think Misericordia is an intriguing exploration.
Is there still a place for religion in that discourse, or would you prefer to keep that out of the argument?
Religion is present in the background, certainly if you’re in a building like the Oude Kerk. We of course don’t approach the whole subject via religion alone, as that is not our realm, but what I was pleased to hear in the first reporters meeting that those connections had indeed been established here and there.
At the moment there is plenty of discussion about the idea of the ‘cultural archive’, as for example in the discussion on slavery. We’ve had generations of slavery and that’s part of our cultural archive, even if we deny it. Is mercy and charity part of our cultural archive too?
In our cultural memory, at the very least. But how mercy plays a role in our memory in a broader, more collective way is one of the reasons why Misericordia is such an intriguing study. It’s great that slavery is being discussed openly nowadays. Perhaps we should conduct the discussion about mercy much more as a collective, as a community.
Going beyond the discussion and reflection, what are the relevant methods of mercy today and is mercy still the appropriate form?
In the preliminary research we noticed that mercy often exacts a particular balance of power: as the needy person you’re always the receiving party and therefore you ‘must’ be grateful to whoever gives something. In that regard we can learn a lot from other cultures. In the Islamic faith receiving charity is a right, and giving is an obligation.
Therefore I often wonder whether mercy is really enough in our day and age? If you look at those streams of refugees, how much mercy must you be prepared to show? What reach does ‘mercy’ still possess?
If you look at it on a meta level it is difficult to estimate, but if you reduce it to a smaller scale, of what can I do or what can we do, or what can we do in this neighbourhood, then you can respond to the question in a more personal way. In this neighbourhood, with its image of criminality and prostitution, a great social cohesion prevails. The solidarity in this neighbourhood seems to be stronger than in other quarters of Amsterdam.
The neighbourhood scale is interesting, as we are situated in a neighbourhood that is under pressure and is undergoing a transformation. I wonder whether mercy can be an effective tool, a mechanism or otherwise a guiding principle in order to operate in such a neighbourhood?
That’s already the case. In 2014 we staged a project with artist Maria Pask, who in conjunction with a cultural anthropologist came to the conclusion that a huge number of denominations and religious organizations are to be found in the Red Light District, many more than elsewhere in the city. She then went to talk with all these people in order to determine why they are actually based here. The bottom line was: there are people to be saved here. The universal perception is that people in the Red Light District are frequently irretrievably lost, or they’re drinkers or drug users, or they work in prostitution. So here you can help people by being merciful. One person does this by strumming his guitar, another actually serves out soup. So there are all kinds of relief organizations with a religious hue here, from NotForSale to Kruispost 100.
We are currently at the start of the Misericordia project. At the moment the reporters have headed out into the world to investigate mercy, and how it functions as a mechanism, in the realms of society they’re familiar with. Do you already have certain expectations about what the reporters, or the artists who we’re asking to interpret their work, will return with?
The investigations by the reporters are already providing a highly varied picture of the complexity of ‘misericordia’. If you delve into something, then the topic often proves to be much more complex than you thought beforehand. Last year I went on a trip to Israel for curators. At first I had my doubts whether I should go, but in the end I thought that I should, in order to gain a better impression of what is really going on there. And yes, the ideas that I’d formed here about the whole conflict in the Middle East proved to be completely wrong. The issues proved to be much more complex and complicated than the media could explain. In short: the reporters will hopefully come back with a much more diffuse impression of the state of affairs on the street, in the city and in the living room.
But at the same time the church as an institute has historically used art to simplify mercy – Caravaggio included all seven prescribed forms of mercy in a single painting.
Much of what we experience is still being reduced to top ten lists, from the top ten restaurants to the top ten sights in Amsterdam or cultural daytrips. That’s actually the same as the evangelist Matthew was doing with his seven Works of Mercy: It’s like a bucket list. You can tick something off, and if you’ve worked through the list then you’re a good person. For the church, art could capture that succinctly and powerfully, so that people truly sensed it, with Caravaggio as the master narrator of the Seven Works of Mercy.
And there’s something powerful in that line-up of those seven images. It speaks to you profoundly, even to a broadly based public. Isn’t it one of our tasks to initially broaden and delineate the complexity of such a concept, and then somehow converge it again? Or do people have the wherewithal to do that for themselves?
The discussion is more valuable than a list. And I hope that this research goes further, that this is an initial start of something that can gradually take shape. Perhaps now is the time to propose seven exploratory quests rather than to present seven truths.