Food for Thought is a series in which tastemakers from different fields consider their knowledge in relation to Old Masters, asking how they might offer a fresh perspective in the way one engages with the art of the past. For this installment, we invited theatermaker Elfie Tromp to take us on a tour of the new Boijmans Depot in her home city of Rotterdam.
A shiny egg sitting at the park entrance.
A surrealist dream come to life.
A portal to another dimension.
From the lip-glossed smiles of the employees to the highlighted cheeks of the visitors during openings week, everything shines when it comes to the Boijmans van Beuningen’s Depot. For the duration of a visit, the metropolitan mistrust, the city’s crabbiness, disappears.
The designers of MVRDV, the Rotterdam architecture firm that designed the building, have confessed that the idea of its round shape came from the bowl of sugar cubes that sat on the table during their first brainstorm session. The shape would make it seem like the building had landed, simply appeared as it was, instead of built. It was to be reflective, as to maximize the appearance of the greenery around it. Every city is thirsting for more green, be it for their image, their inhabitants’ mental wellbeing or the much needed extra water drainage, with weather conditions becoming more severe every year. The Depot has the exact right amount of ecological goodwill, with bathrooms operating on collected rainwater and a park on the top floor with interwoven tree roots that grow to become part of a supporting structure of the building.
The entrance on the ground floor is soaked in a colorful video work by artist Pipilotti Rist which beams and moves in circular shapes on the concrete, called ‘wasting life on you’. Now that’s an uplifting title.
Computer simulated hallways.
A dream setting.
High tech liminal space.
Inside, the senses are calmed by long, winding, light gray passageways that are slightly disorientating for the visitor to pass through. Each corridor has several floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a view into the climate controlled vaults, where the essence of the building is held: the art.
The Boijmans collection currently holds about 151,000 objects, ranging from medieval objects, modern art, to fashion and design. The danger of a high-end, bric-a-brac muddle lurks, but the genius of the curators shines through in how the collection is arranged. Salvador Dali’s iconic lobster phone, for example, is set out in glass displays surrounded by a number of different designs, from the first mobile phones, big as suitcases, to the sturdy black Bakelite boxes with round, white dials, all of which were bought by curators over the years as markers of design history.
Mixing classic and modern works feels like a refreshing hopscotch through aesthetics. Instead of being lulled by one style by diving deeper into the specifics of one genre or artist, it is a reawakening experience to move back and forth through the evolution of art instead. From the near holy, regal oil paint portraits of the medieval rich, to the contemporary works on newspaper and plywood, using more mundane and liberated materials (and subjects), moving horizontally and diagonally rather than just from past to present results in an invigorating experience.
The vaults are divided into different categories, including pottery, drawings, small and large paintings, each of which can be visited in the company of a guide. If visitors are interested in a certain artist or style, they can book private curated tours in which the desired art works are put on display and elaborated on.
The Depot puts its visitors in the middle of an abundant history and encourages their eyes to decide where to wander off to, what to be amazed by. I spot one of my favorite van Goghs; Portrait of Armand Roulin. Featuring the vibrant green surrounding the teenage postal clerk, the painting hangs frameless on one of the moveable metal mesh storage units, which is set on a rail and can be moved mechanically. The brooding adolescent subject of the portrait brings me back to my own days of youthful anxiety. I recognise the tense pensive moods in his set face, the skulking powerlessness in the slightly hunched shoulders, like when my own body was too weak and needed to become its own armour. Across the walkway, Hieronymus Bosch’s The Pedlar awaits its next big exhibition on its round wooden panel, like a wheel set in an ornamental, curly gold frame. I remember seeing him for the first time on a guided school tour and being blown to smithereens by the artist’s finesse and the sense liberty I found in the weirdness of his work. The celebratory element in their darkness spoke to my gothic soul and Bosch joined, instantly, my idol altar, where he sat comfortably nestled between the rock bands Nine Inch Nails and Garbage.
overpriced storage facility
overconfident city planning
a body laid bare in glass
Critical reviews about the Depot are abound. Whether the sheer cost of nearly five million euros is justified. Whether the artworks themselves shouldn’t be more important than the walls that house them. Whether a city like Rotterdam is big enough for such a pageantry. After all, no matter how much the museums in Rotterdam are appreciated, their works and exhibitions have not been able to create Mona Lisa-like lines for their works.
I might be a simple soul, easily impressed. But anything seems possible here, as a see-through elevator whisks me up floor after floor filled with art, making me feel like I’m the protagonist in a children’s book. From high up, the cityknown for its high rise , and one I have thoughtlessly roamed for years, suddenly seems like a place of promise. For much of my adult life, I have carelessly visited friends in its skyscrapers. I have sauntered through its immense library. I have suppressed yawns in one of its many churches. But make walls invisible, and I suddenly see the wonder of architecture again.
I wonder if we would appreciate each other more if our skins, too, would be made of glass, and our whole biological getup could simply be glanced over. We would be able to skip the ritual of awkwardly making acquaintance. We would be able to see each others veins swelling when the blood starts rushing, when the heart is accelerating with pleasure. The joints rotating when hands are held out—how beautiful, how clear such a meeting would be.
A sun-filled room with two robotic extractor hoods for dust particles, that’s where art restorers can be seen at work. One is refreshing the paint in a landscape by Daubigny. It is immensely satisfying to see the brightness in the hues of the forest landscape change to a deeper, wilder bustle of greens. A rustling of its leaves as the seasons change in an immortal picture.
Another conservator, dressed like a surgeon, carefully drags a fine brush with chemicals across a surface that predates her by many centuries. On the chrome tables, an array of wooden Christs lie waiting, ready for a restorative dip in fresh varnish that will ensure a safe passage into the future.
The Depot does something loopy with time. It seems irrelevant here. Usually mindful of the clock, visitors seem to slow down here. It is a sign of being absorbed by something bigger than ourselves. There is beauty lying await in the Depot, and it’s a beauty well taken care of. Somehow, that is a soothing thought. For the length of this piece , I get a similar shimmer in my eye when I think of the Depot’s future. ❖