What a Piece of Work is Man, 2021
“What a piece of work is man! how Noble in
Reason? how infinite in faculty? in form and moving
how express and admirable? in Action, how like an Angel? in apprehension, how like a God?
The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals — and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Men delights me not.”
—after Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Artist Patricia Kaersenhout uses her work to raise awareness of diverging perspectives on the past. She exposes the charged side of Dutch history by making space for voices and stories that have been denied a place in the dominant, prevailing narrative for years. We see this in her latest work What a Piece of Work is Man (2021), presented for the first time on the former shooting range of Het HEM. The installation makes the explosiveness of the Dutch colonial past palpable and emphasises the importance of making space for varying perspectives on our past. The Hembrug site, the location of a munitions factory of the Dutch state active until 2003, brings forth a range of contesting sentiments and is by no means a neutral player in this work. But how do we write a history that leaves room for multiplicity and conflicting perspectives and experiences?
What started in March 2015, when a student in Cape Town threw a bucket of faeces over a monument of British diamond mogul, imperialist politician, and White supremacist Cecil Rhodes, led to a worldwide domino effect as statues of colonial warlords toppled one after another. These haunted monuments are often about one hundred years old and operate as silent yet dominant witnesses of a deep inequality in society. Whilst they are largely being overlooked by most people, depending on skin colour and background, they can be a painful reminder and provocation for others. Throughout the world the moment has come to pronunciate these perspectives to be more publicly. Including in the Netherlands, with a heated debate on removing the statue of merchant, general and colonial offender J.P. Coen in Hoorn. This type of iconoclasm does not aim to ‘erase history,’ as is often claimed; instead, it reviews how history is told and generates attention for the underrepresented and uncomfortable episodes of that history.
Patricia Kaersenhout is part of this movement. With her work, she doesn’t just shed light on a different part of history; she also changes the way the story is being told. Curator Vivian Ziherl calls her work ‘symbolic counter monuments’, a description befitting What A Piece of Work is Man in particular. The installation consists of nine videos, a penetrating sound composition, and hand-crafted glass sculptures. It is overwhelming at its first encounter but allows for a close dissection of a layered web of metaphors, cross-references and contradictions. Within this, Kaersenhout demonstrates the differences between destruction and violence and how the current re-evaluation of monuments, a contemporary form of iconoclasm, can help us listen to voices that have been silenced by dominant narratives.
From the exhibition booklet published by Het Hem september 2021. Click here to download the booklet (Dutch-English).
What a Piece of Work is Man, 2021
Multi-channel video installation, sound, glass, wooden trunks
Installation image at Het Hem, Zaanstad (NL)
Photos: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk
Guess Who's Coming To Dinner Too? (2017-2021)
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Too? is a community art project by visual artist and activist Patricia Kaersenhout, which started in 2017. With this work, Kaersenhout (1966) delivers an artistic critique on Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), which celebrates strong women but under represents women of colour. Inspired by this work, Kaersenhout built an installation consisting of a large triangular dining table, full of symbolism, where she honors Black women and women of color. These ‘heroines of resistance’ deserve much more attention because of their fight against injustice.
Kaersenhout researched hidden and forgotten stories, like she did before in a body of work that unfolds as an artistic search for the meaning of invisibility resulting from the African diaspora and colonialism. Her work embodies the paradox of wanting to visualize the unseen and to allow the undefinable. The subjects Kaersenhout researches and broaches deal with the position of Black women in relation to sexuality, slavery, colonialism and racism.
After the development of the prototype in 2017 at WOW Amsterdam, which was firmly rooted in Amsterdam West through a unique, intensive collaboration between three cultural institutions, all run by women: AGA LAB, GildeLab, WOW Amsterdam and local women of the Kolenkit neighborhood, the work travelled to De Appel in the autumn of 2019. In total 38 Black women were represented at the table through emroidered tablerunners. Also a large series of glass vessels were produced by the artist, inspired by the ceramics of (pre-Christian) South America and Africa and placed randomly, representing a communal body instead of individual seats. Glass is chosen because it is one of the oldest mediums, in its fluid molecular nature, with both transparent and opaque qualities, symbolises the right to opacity that marginalised people have.
In the latest iteration developed in the summer of 2021 for four Dutch museums – The Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Centraal Museum in Utrecht and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven – another 22 Black women were added bringing the total up to 60. The amount of table runners, vessels and biographies is adjusted accordingly. The work can now also be split up in four separate triangle formed tables. In its smallest form every museum can show 15 Black heroins at one table each. Till 2 January 2022 this configuration is exhibited at the Frans Hals Museum.
The table is by no means a static object but is activated to bring different groups and communities together. For example the table runners are not finished and probably never will be. But they can be used to embroider further and whilst embroidering stories could be shared.
Click here to read an essay about the work by Vivian Ziherl.
Click here to read the artist statement about the work.
Click here to download full credit list.
Click here to see documentation of the 2019 installation at De Appel, Amsterdam.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Too?, 2017-2021
Installation view at collection presentation ‘Who is she?’, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem (NL)
Collection Frans Hals Museum acquired in collaboration with Centraal Museum, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Van Abbemuseum, supported by Mondriaan Fund and Vereniging Rembrandt.
Photos: Charlott Markus