Art Rotterdam – Culture and architecture in the world’s port

Located due east of Colchester, where Franco-Germanic rivers breakout into the North Sea, Rotterdam is one of the lesser known of our near-European neighbours. The largest port in the world until 2004, when the Shanghai juggernaut surpassed it, the city’s maritime relevance tends to dominate its image in the eyes of outsiders.

More than a subject for weary sailors’ sea shanties, though, Rotterdam today is a place of high-end architecture and design, as well as being home to the Netherlands’ premier contemporary art fair – Art Rotterdam.

Art Rotterdam 2013, the art fair’s fourteenth edition, took place at the start of February in its recurring home, Rotterdam’s historic, waterside Cruise Terminal. Alongside 95 galleries from the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK and further afield, presented in the main building, this year saw the launch of Art Rotterdam Projections, a new section dedicated to video art and displayed across the road in a separate building.

Side-stepping the usual art fair environment of harsh, artificial lighting and an overload of individual works, Projections saw nineteen galleries each project one film, shown on repeat, with the spacious room darkened too good effect. With many of the films professional, HD fare and sound provided by both down-pointing speakers and seat-side headphones, this was a sleek, inviting showcase that saw Art Rotterdam making a genuine attempt to distinguish itself from the plethora of international fairs that fill the art world’s calendar.

Chief among Projection’s inaugural selection was the new Hans Op de Beeck film, Parade (2013), presented by Amsterdam’s Ron Mandos gallery. The feted Belgian artist – known for a wide body of elegant, minimalist work – has created a polished, theatre-based piece, with a series of characters moving across the stage as elaborately drawn sets slowly changed behind them. Segmented into a series of distinct processions, each element could be a linear undertaking taken from real-life: a woman walking her dog, flight crew strolling along the airport concourse, or a funeral cortège. Rising above what might have been a cliched, overly-simplistic performance, the film sees Op de Beeck realise a quiet, pleasing beauty; a calming lament on the journeys of life. More short film than art video, Stefan Constantinescu’s Family Dinner (2012), shown here by Frankfurt’s Anita Beckers gallery, shows a similar concern for high production values, focused on an intimate portrayal of adultery, enacted within the norms and interrupted-privacy of family life. With works by Johanna Billing, Benoit Palteus and Hajnal Nemeth equally consistent in their deference to quality, each offering distinctive, immersive viewing, Projections has made a good start at trumpeting what could be arts’ most rewarding medium over the coming years.

Art Rotterdam’s wider charms include an inviting building, with large, arched windows surveying the surrounding port and city, a good provision of independently operated bars and restaurants and a special events programme that is well integrated with the city’s other cultural institutions. As well as being the best place to get up-to-scratch with emerging Dutch art, the fair attracts some quality foreign operators, with the surprising appearance of some of the best eastern European galleries now a notable, recurring feature. The main fair has also been joined by a series of satellite fairs, providing cheaper prices and a more informal, warehouse experience, where visitors and exhibitors alike amble around with wine or beer in hand. Largely based along a shabby waterfront behind  the Cruise Terminal, they add a rewarding extra-dimension to the more high-minded, art world pretensions of Art Rotterdam. Add in the opportunity for pre-organized visits to some of Rotterdam’s leading architectural and design practices, as well as artists’ studios, and the annual art fair weekend makes for a worthy distraction for culture vultures of varying shades.

Beyond this incursion of art, Rotterdam is a grown-up kind of city that manages to find a good balance between different nodes: between, for example, contemporary and historic architecture and between laid-back hometown and stylish trendsetter. Compact and easily navigated, the central, water-lined Westersingel street makes for a good spine from which to plan various detours. Three streets leading off it, the opposing Nieuwe Binnenweg and Oude Binneweg and, a little further down Westersingel, the uber-cool Witte de Withstraat, are home to some of the best bars, mostly harnessing a europeanized, dive bar vibe. In a straight line beyond Westersingel, the grand-cafe/restaurant Loos is a great hangout anytime of day, while a taxi boat ride from here, the bar and restaurant of the early-20th century Hotel New York, sited next to the Cruise Terminal, is similarly perfect. All in all, you’ll find a city that bit more sophisticated than most in the UK, but with a certain, edgy undercurrent to keep things interesting. Go there by train, starting on the Eurostar to Brussels, and you can easily plan a stress-free weekend away.

Next year’s Art Rotterdam & Art Rotterdam Projections will also take place in February.

words Richard Unwin


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