FEAGA Award 2006: Interview with Ellen de Bruijne by Domeniek Ruyters, Metropolis M

Ellen de Bruijne Projects, Amsterdam: The Farmhouse Model
Intimate and Public

First, there was a space. It was a space with great light, and height, both in front and in back. In between, there is a broad corridor along an impressive number of doors, close together, as if it were a burlesque theatre set. Unwittingly, the doors determine the atmosphere of the whole and turn the space into a stage. Ellen de Bruijne Projects presents itself more as a scene for action than a space for exhibiting.

The gallery was established in 1999, shortly after Ellen de Bruijne and her family moved to the Rozengracht. This enormous building had space left over, space that one could do something with. As an art historian who had long been a producer and assistant curator, De Bruijne briefly considered setting up an unaffiliated art centre. But Amsterdam already had plenty of those. What the city did not have enough of was galleries, specifically galleries for young artists. In ten years’ time, not a single gallery for new art had opened. Bloom Gallery, opened in the 1980s, was the most recent, but it would close by the end of the 1990s (its owners, Annet Gelink and Diana Stigter, later set up independently). There was also Fons Welters, one of the Netherlands’ best known galleries, representing such artists as Aernout Mik and Joep van Lieshout, and which also started in the 1980s. Welters cleverly reserved the front of his exhibition space for young art. At the time, this was about all that was available to young artists in the Netherlands. The result was a generation of artists who risked missing the boat in the commercial art circuit and who had to find ways to survive on grants and sparse presentations in the alternative circuit.

Ellen de Bruijne moved into the gap, convinced that these artists, just beginning their careers in the 1990s, needed support from the commercial sector of the art world. Even in the Netherlands, where the gallery structure was not financially strong, innovation at all levels needs to win a place for itself if the art climate is to remain tenable. De Bruijne wanted to make a long-term investment in helping to build the careers of these artists and in seeking markets for their work, wherever that might be in the world. Six years later, with the European Association of Galleries’ FEAGA award for innovation and creativity, we can say that her investment is beginning to reap its rewards.

One of her first artists was Otto Berchem. The young American-born artist, who settled in the Netherlands, had just completed a large art project in Utrecht, for which he had altered a house into a showcase by replacing its enclosed roof with glass. Visitors to Utrecht’s Central Museum’s Panorama 2000 exhibition of large-scale projects spread throughout the city, which could be viewed from a high, central location, had the opportunity to spy on the residents from above. This was the year 2000, the beginning of the Big Brother epoch, when the debate about the mutual assimilation of public and private functions was at its apex.

De Bruijne, who had helped produce Panorama 2000, immediately invited Berchem to the gallery. Soon thereafter, some five years ago, they produced their now-famous project, Dating Market, which was also the first presentation by Ellen de Bruijne Projects at Art Basel. In a supermarket, Berchem distributed a large number of shopping baskets with which, through a simple code, people could make it publicly known that they were interested in a date. He had noticed how Dutch inner city supermarkets had become cruising zones for singles.

Berchem’s work is symbolic of the gallery that De Bruijne went on to establish: analytical, socially engaged, critical of the media, and performative. The art that De Bruijne has selected, then and now, is characteristically a product of the 1990s. It is reflective in nature and very interactive. It often incorporates elements that at the time came to be known as relational aesthetics, after a theory by Nicolas Bourriaud.

Although her own training took place during the 1980s, De Bruijne never felt much affinity with the New Expressionist painting of the time, which for her was ‘too superficial, too susceptible to trends and full of effects’. She preferred to stand for art with a reputation for being ‘difficult’, art that openly and transparently ‘accepts responsibility’, at least for itself. It is conceptual art, although she prefers to speak of its ‘constructive’ character, the way it builds on an idea. By this, De Bruijne means that the work has an emphatically self-reflective character, that it is conscious of its role in the world, certainly the role of art. It is not her objective to present appealing exhibitions. They have to be statements. An exhibition consequently succeeds only when an artist has succeeded in making a powerful statement, one that stands out, one that is probably also disconcerting. The most famous of the disturbers of the peace in her stable is L.A. Raeven, the emaciated twins whose work reflects on the complex social issues and doctrines with which the western world wrestles. In their contemplations, they do not exempt themselves.

De Bruijne hastily dismisses my thought that she might be likely to fall on hard times, now that painting is in the process of making a comeback. It is not her thing, that ‘art for teenage girls, with all those personal bits and pieces’, which people everywhere seem to be applauding. She is untroubled: it would really be something else if she were to suddenly start harking to the caprices of the market. The artists for whom she has worked these last six years mean far too much to her for that. Theirs is the art she relates to. It is a touch strict and Calvinistic in nature, she adds with a smile.

The gallery artists, a group she only gradually assembled, now include nearly 25 individuals, with a few older Dutch artists and many young foreigners, some from graduate programs at Dutch art schools. De Bruijne finds her artists everywhere. In addition to her exhibitions, it is this ability to select that she considers her greatest talent. Mediating between the artists and the market, which is the third and perhaps ultimately a gallery’s most important role – or in any case the most financially lucrative task – got off to a more awkward start, but has recently progressed with greater ease. Sales are on the rise.

At the moment, the best-known artist with the gallery is Susan Philipsz, a sound artist from Scotland. De Bruijne has worked with Philipsz for six years. It once began with a video, but has meanwhile expanded into sounds works of the kind that Philipsz also presented in Berlin’s Auguststrasse cemetery for the 4th Berlin Biennial. The gallery has other name artists as well. Berchem and L.A.Raeven are internationally active, as are Dora Garcia, Keren Cytter, Ross Birrell, Maria Pask and Suchan Kinoshita.

De Bruijne distinguishes herself from most galleries in the Netherlands and overseas through her preference for performances and performative art. If the artists are not actually involved in performance art, structures are created by which life is bent back into a form of action or intervention upon itself, with the viewer turned into actor or participant. The confrontational opening acts by L.A. Raeven, where the audience found themselves facing the consequences of decisions they had themselves made, are now famous. There have been exuberant performances by Maria Pask, as well as the lively chaos generated by young artists at theme evenings at De Bruijne’s own young-artist annex, ‘Dolores’, frequently run by artist Falke Pisano.

De Bruijne swears by this performative vitality. It may not be the easiest product to sell, but for her, it is integrally bound to the gallery, to the location, to her home and to her as a person. She refers to her ‘farmhouse model’, in which the family kitchen moves seamlessly into the gallery. It is a single whole, the art and her life, symbolized by the kitchen table, the centre of both family and gallery life, where art is discussed for hours on end. There is a total absence of distinction between work and leisure, between public and private life. It is all one and the same thing. In fact, De Bruijne is living the contemporary existence that Berchem had so poignantly introduced in 2000, with his glass roof. It is at once intimate and public, with the art lover as the consumer who regularly finds himself in the role of participant.

In the meantime, her farmhouse model has also generated problems. Her gallery is driven by idealism and personal commitment. Ellen de Bruijne Projects is not about commercial incentives, about being a dealership or production agency. The in-house presentations are crucial, for herself, her artists and their public. At the same time, her growing success means that more and more attention needs to be focused on projects elsewhere, at trade fairs, for example. Her success demands professionalizing, division of tasks and more personnel, but for the time being, in any case, she has no intention of letting go of the intimacy that is so characteristic of the gallery’s policy.

This is an almost comforting announcement at the end of our conversation. The ‘art farm’ on Amsterdam’s Rozengracht will continue to exist, and so will the confidence-inspiring mix of life and art that is so much a part of it. I have been speaking with the gallery owner, and I am also speaking with the lady of the house. Her partner arrives, her son brought home, her daughter fries an egg before going off to a piano lesson, and meanwhile, artist George Korsmit comes in and out, as he, his girlfriend and an assistant take down his exhibition and paint over a large mural. The place where it is all happening: Ellen de Bruijne Projects, May 16th, 2006. There is a lot still to be done before the door opens for the next exhibition.

Domeniek Ruyters

editor in chief

METROPOLIS M bimonthly magazine on contemporary art

Translation by Mari Shields
Ellen de Bruijne Projects, Amsterdam: The Farmhouse Model

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