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Anne Wenzel - The Opaque Palace

Column recited in honour of the solo exhibition .Anne Wenzel � The Opaque Palace
Saskia van Kampen-Prein, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam


In this column I would like to take you back to February 2010. It is evening and the courtyard of Museum Boijmans van Beuningen is brightly illuminated by several construction lamps. The characteristic black and white stripes on the museum concourse look very dramatic in this light. Suddenly a group of young men march onto the square. They wear uniforms and each carries a large army green, beige or brown flag. Precisely in the middle they come to a halt, their bodies and flags tightly in line. Then, music blares across the courtyard and the group starts moving. The flag dance begins! The men wave their banners deftly. Their movements look neither graceful nor improvised, but clear, powerful and with well-defined motions. An extremely tight choreography ensues that ends in the 'Klaverblad' (Cloverleaf) of the museum. This space, which comprises four alcoves around a cross-shaped aisle, has been transformed into a war memorial by Anne Wenzel.

The artwork entitled Requiem of Heroism consists of a podium on which a huge ceramic memorial wreath rests. The wreath, jet black with blood-red ribbons, hangs limp and wilted. Dead leaves are scattered here and there, along with a few withered lilies; the ceremony is clearly already over. In the cabinets too, all the colour seems to have been filtered out of the image and the building. The decaying wreaths, the wilted foliage and the steel bars: everything is covered with a grey haze.

Wenzel has carefully thought out - or orchestrated as she would probably describe it - not only the exhibition, but also the opening ceremony. From the beginning (the flag dance) to the end (the installation), she has manipulated the perception of the viewer. The fact that she truly succeeds in evoking connotations and associations within a conceptual framework defined by herself soon became clear when a colleague of mine approached me during the opening and said in a rather irritated manner that he really didn't think all that flag waving was appropriate for the museum. He was certainly not the only one who felt that way this evening, experiencing connotations of death, war, displays of power and manifestations of right-wing extremism. But do the symbols and elements that Wenzel uses in her work carry the meaning that we attribute to them? On closer inspection, one discovers that multiple and often completely opposite meanings can be derived from her work. Take the flag dance group again. She first attended a performance by this group during a work period at the FLACC in Genk in 2007 and in her own words, she immediately saw a connection with her own sculptural work. The clear, powerful formal idiom of the flag dance appeals to the language adopted by right-wing extremist positions, but essentially the origin of this language lies in tradition. In short, good or evil? While we watch the flag dance, Wenzel is able to guide our viewing behaviour so that we simply forget that it also has a traditional aspect.

A similar mental puzzle is applicable to Wenzel's work. Because what was actually commemorated in the Klaverblad? On seeing this work, the first thoughts that spring to mind are of war, power, ruin and violence. While it is essentially no more than an enactment, made out of clay. Beautifully produced, a technical tour de force. This is probably to further emphasize the idea of power. The very fact that it is no more than a simulacrum or empty shell means that the viewers are forced to take a position and ask themselves where they stand in relation to commemoration ceremonies and monuments, politics and power.

To achieve this effect, Wenzel carries out extensive research for every sculpture. Thus, for Requiem of Heroism she travelled to various cities in the Netherlands and abroad to study the way in which memorials are designed. She incorporated her findings into a visual idiom that is recognizable to all. Over the top, uncompromising and compelling. She uses carefully selected symbols which she reduces to their essence and thereby gives the viewer the wrong impression. It is also important that she leaves just enough room for the imagination. In the catalogue published by TENT on the occasion of her presentation, she explains her work method: "The iconography is already in our heads. The basic form is so strong that it cannot be undermined. We are so conditioned that we complete the image ourselves". The power of Wenzel's work thus lies in the details.

The palace that she has created here in TENT, and which we shall discuss further in the interview, is also shrouded in a thick fog. Together with guest curator Daria de Beauvais, Wenzel selected works from the past ten years, which are presented in a new setting. Here she has again intervened in the architecture by closing off sections or covering walls with metal leaf or wall-sized paintings. This makes the exhibition read like a story. She gives just enough substance to get the viewer thinking. Again the carefully crafted sculptures and installed spaces are half the work. The viewer completes the work, according to the rules determined by Anne.