H-H-HSL, a cult exhibition about leftovers

On show until August 3 in Rotterdam’s Groothandelsgebouw is the exhibition ‘A Design For Places Left Over After Planning’. Anyone expecting to find a mouthful of exquisite sushi or Mediterranean anti-pasta among all these leftovers is in for a disappointment. What they will find is a veritable hodgepodge of dazzling designs for works of art along the route of the future High-Speed Rail link (HSL).

Non Stop – Martine Leroi, Gladys Jacobson, Mattijs van ’t Hoff

curated Nculture / nesting viewing – drftwd

The proposals of some artists and architects are totally mind-boggling and can be divided into different categories. The first category I would label ’the laconic leftovers’. If they’re anything to go by, we have to wait just a few years before we can enjoy all the riches of animal and plant kingdom along the route from Amsterdam to Rotterdam. Setting the scene are installations containing an assortment of flamingos, palm trees, Pekinese, Indians, cacti, white rabbits, maple trees, deer, kangaroos, ornithologists, antelopes, horses of polyester, computer-driver insects, giraffes, and much more besides. All of which turns these zones, like the artificial zoo at Schiphol Airport, into annexes of the city zoo. Another category of intervention is the megalomaniac monument as landmark. No doubt intended to shake passengers out of their rail-induced slumber, these huge, hallucinogenic images portray everything from the human countenance to flawed and highly suspicious old gentlemen, Andy Warholesque figures bearing a resemblance to Karl Marx, tipsy three-dimensional spirals, fairground attractions at a scale of 100:1, blue volcanoes and — I quote freely – ’typically Dutch landscape elements (…) a pyramid sunk in the water near Bleiswijk’. I wouldn’t want to be the psychiatrist of the Taiwanese businessman who, to get over a missed deal, thought of coming to his senses by travelling by train from Amsterdam to Brussels. Grouped in another category are schemes with catchy names that seek to encapsulate the ideas that underpin their concepts. En Passant, Close Encounter, Rest becomes Repose, The View from the Rail, Inversion, A Farmstead and Haystack, Welcome to Holland?, Delta-Works, Walking on Water, Trainspotting (not, unfortunately, a design for a rehabilitation clinic along the Heroine-Speed-Lithium route), Non-Stop, Flower Power and more of that nature. In the final category, a collection of miscellaneous designs, artistic freedom is also much in evidence. But all of them fail to approach the context, the subject or the aspect of speed in a critical manner. And, with one or two exceptions about which I’ve no opinion, the designs are uninspiring.

The exhibition and the initiative for ‘A Design For Places Left Over After Planning’ certainly succeeds in its aim. The results are camp, grandiose, bordering on the insane. What’s lacking, of course, is any vision on the particularity of the phenomenon of ‘residual space’. For that is what there places essentially are. They are not conditions, but phenomena – phenomena that can be perceived empirically and that are the effect of conditions not pertaining directly to those places. Residual space, therefore, does not have the status of independent space immune to the effects of planning. Rather, it is a sign of the spatial indifference of planning in the presence of coherence or incoherence. The leftover remains an unfathomable entity; it is the rosé you get when you mix white and red wine. And so it’s to the credit of most of the artists that they are as indifferent towards those places as those places are to the surrounding context. This fact, and certainly the schemes in the first three categories, makes for public art at its best and makes it, albeit unintentionally, a monumental, cult exhibition that is certainly worth visiting – and not only if you happen to find yourself waiting in vain for a train at Rotterdam Central.

The exhibition is an initiative of the Ministry of Transport and Water Management, the Foundation for Art and Public Space (SKOR) and the Atelier HSL. It sets out to give some relevance to the cultural and social significance of the HSL. Now that the rail route has been mapped out and is under construction, the time seemed right to examine the spatial impact of the HSL on the Dutch landscape. The initiators came to the swift conclusion that ‘residual spaces or ‘redundant zones’ were left stranded between the tracks and nearby roads. These are unspecified places, defined by the head of the Atelier HSL thus: ‘(…) often tapered sites that cannot readily be used for agriculture, housing or commercial development’. And what are such sites suitable for? Exactly. For that other leftover from society: art.

In the text ‘Monuments for the Unplanned’, which accompanies the exhibition, Eric Luiten offers an historical topology of leftover space. As expected, they come in all shapes, sizes and colours, everywhere from Paris via Bemmel to Barcelona. The intervention that Luiten advocates for such places is based on a four-pronged technical strategy: localise, stylise, characterise and monumentalise. The last will ensure that ’the HSL has more to communicate than what it essentially is’. What’s more, the works of art ‘offer a sound basis for a critical, monumental treatment’. He describes those strips of land no bigger than a handkerchief in almost 18th-century theatrical language: ‘uncultivated, inaccessible, untended, and unsafe’. And it’s for those very places that more than a hundred artists and architects were able to come up with new identities in a competition. The organisers selected five such locations alongside the route: two sites in the Haarlemmermeer, one in Bleiswijk (along the A12 motorway), one in Bergenschenhoek, and the last ‘an authentic technical residual space’ (sic!): Blijdorp Railway Triangle close to Rotterdam’s main station.