On the construction of Poems for Earthlings

Marian Cousijn Nieuws

Over the past several weeks, people were hard at work inside the Oude Kerk setting up the special installation Poems for Earthlings by Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas. An installation through which the artist raises questions about the value of, and our approach to, heritage. Why, for instance, are sounds from history not heritage? How was the Oude Kerk kept safe during the Second World War? And who defines the value of heritage? Visitors entering Poems for Earthlings, letting the installation encompass them, will experience the church and the world outside it in a very different way.

But how does a collaboration with artists like this work? And which experts and institutions are involved? And are the concerns of some about potential damage to the building actually justified?

New art in the Oude Kerk
Two to three times a year, the Oude Kerk invites artists and composers to create a work that throws a different perspective on the building’s 700-year history. In recent years, Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, Nicolás Jaar, Germaine Kruip, Giorgio Andreotta Calò, Smári Róbertsson, Christian Boltanski, Sarah van Sonsbeeck, Philip Glass, Marinus Boezem, Tony Oursler and many others have taken inspiration from the landmark structure and its context. Alongside the Oude Kerk’s mission of care for the landmark and its collection, the work of these artists is the heritage of tomorrow. The collection of the Oude Kerk includes numerous objects and paintings, but it grows immaterially as well: stories, conversations, memories and sounds form the new ‘art objects’ complementing the collection.

Every work of art, large or small, is preceded by months, if not years, of preparation. Precisely because of the unique building and the collection, collaborations are never rushed into. The views of heritage experts, advocacy groups, the congregation, the neighbourhood and other stakeholders are heard, and dialogue takes place in the open. Remarkably enough, this very discussion, about the care and preservation of heritage, is central to the work conceived and created by artists for the Oude Kerk.

Poems for Earthlings
Only once every five years does the Oude Kerk undertake an intervention as massive as the current installation Poems for Earthlings; the previous one was Taturo Atzu’s roof platform. So it has considerable experience in the careful elaboration and construction of art on this scale. For Poems for Earthlings, from the very first plans, discussions were carried out with builders, restoration architects, fire safety experts and (under the direction of an independent moderator) stakeholders in the heritage domain. An exchange of views with the congregation began in March as well.

Besides working out the artist’s own idea, the builder (with more than 20 years’ experience at the Oude Kerk) and the restoration architect (with more than 30 years’ experience at the Oude Kerk) carried out calculations of the load on the building’s floor, a floor of tombstones that rested on loose sand until 2012 but has since, thanks to steel grids and mortar, been made sturdier than ever. The calculations they produced were verified by experts from the building preservation authorities. Naturally, fire safety was another crucial priority, especially in light of the Notre-Dame scenario. Before construction began, the Oude Kerk discussed potential risks with the fire department, with whom a rigorous prevention plan was drawn up. All materials used in the installation were thoroughly tested for flammability, and the entire installation was impregnated with a flame-retardant emulsion. The fire department, insurance company and building preservation authorities all gave the installation their approval.

Church and art institution
Besides being the city’s oldest building and a church still in active use, the Oude Kerk has also grown over the last several years into one of the country’s newest art institutions. What makes the Oude Kerk unique in the Netherlands, and even in the world, is that these functions are combined under one roof. The Oude Kerk is a registered museum and a house of worship, is seen by neighbourhood residents as ‘their’ church and is embraced by many Amsterdam residents as representing the city’s identity and origin. Operating in such an arena is a gargantuan challenge for a museum – after all, what we do affects society directly. The result is a highly relevant and interesting debate that always produces new insights.

For that matter, the Oude Kerk commissioning artists and musicians today is part of an age-old tradition: as far back as the fifteenth century, artists such as Maarten van Heemskerck (1498-1574) and Jacob van Oostsaenen (ca. 1475-1533) were asked to create new work for this place. The major contrast with back then is that reactions are of a different order today. Does this mean we now look at landmark buildings, and religious landmark buildings in particular, with different eyes? What is the meaning of a church building today? Interesting questions about which the Oude Kerk regularly engages in open dialogue with anyone willing to participate.

For the Oude Kerk, collaboration with people is key to a brilliant future. For the construction of the massive Poems for Earthlings, a recruiting campaign for volunteers was launched last summer: extra manpower was needed. In the past several weeks, more than 200 hands worked to set up the work of art. Most of those who signed up were neighbourhood residents. Encounters, conversations, physical collaboration: together these resulted in a work that, in the words of one volunteer, ‘is unique for a place in the middle of the city’.

In a city with 250 different cultures, the meaning and the use of cultural heritage are not set in stone. It is new memories, conversations and encounters that ensure that future generations and new Dutch citizens will also care about the preservation and the identity of this city’s oldest building.