The HMS Inaccessible
By Bryan R. Monte

Many of the Stedelijk’s critics have complained that the museum’s new, modern, white wing looks like a giant bathtub next to the original, 1890s brick building. I would argue, however, that it reminds me more of the white hulls of the giant cruise ships that dock in Amsterdam, towering over 19th century, brick warehouses. And I wonder how much the new wing’s streamlined design reflects the Stedelijk’s (subconscious?) desire to compete for these tourists with the neighbouring Van Gogh and Rijksmuseums.

Before it can open its doors to boatloads of tourists, however, the Stedelijk needs to solve several accessibility problems between and within its new and old wings to allow visitors of all abilities to make their way independently through the museum. Due to the accessibility problems and obstacles I encountered during my six visits from January to March 2013, the Stedelijk felt to me more like the tsunami-overturned ocean liner in the Poseidon Adventure than a whimsical, Postmodern pleasure ship.

How Do I Get Out of Here?

On my fourth visit to the museum within a fortnight whilst preparing to write this review, I heard a gray-haired Dutch woman in the new wing’s basement lobby exclaim: Hoe kom ik hier daaruit! (“How do I get out of here!”). Perhaps she’d been confused by the express escalator which only links the basement and upper floor special exhibit areas and bypasses the ground-floor lobby to exit. Or maybe she was irritated by the periodic screams from David Kelley’s Animation 20, 2007 audible two floors below. Whatever the case, even on my fourth visit to the museum, I was still having trouble piloting my rollator (British English: Zimmer frame on wheels; American English: walker with wheels) through the Stedelijk’s old and new galleries.

Feeling a bit like Shelly Winters, who plays a former Olympic swimmer in the Poseidon Adventureand takes a small band of tourists to safety through the creaking bowels of the overturned ocean liner, I led the woman and her group of eight retirees to the far end of new wing’s basement where the small (less than half the capacity of the old wing’s), barely noticeable (from the other end of the basement) public lift would take them back up to the lobby.

Then I became angry. Even though most of the lifts were working this day versus my previous visits on the 17th, 18th, and 22nd of January, why, I asked myself, after a €170 million extension and upgrade, wasn’t the new Stedelijk more accessible and navigable for its patrons than the old museum? I began to count, in chronological order, the barriers I had encountered whilst exploring the new museum, and I wondered why no one—not even the critics from the reviews I’ve read so far—seemed to have noticed this.

The first obstacle I encountered each day was at the museum’s main entrance—a large revolving door. As I tried to enter the museum here with my rollator, I was waved away by a security guard who pointed to a plate-glass door just to the left. Painted on it in white letters and with wheelchair and pram pictograms were the words: “Entrance” and “Toegang.” Behind this door inside, however, was a blue cord that visually roped off or closed the door to admission. The guard unhitched the cord and unlocked the door to allow me to enter. I looked for the standard, blue, large button with a white wheelchair common on most upgraded buildings for disabled people to open this door themselves or request entrance. Strangely, I didn’t see one.

The second obstacle I encountered was just after I had paid for admission, used my electronic ticket to clear the high-tech, double-wide turnstile, and checked my coat. The floor of the Stedelijk’s new wing’s lobby is at least a metre lower than the old building. This difference could only be negotiated by ascending six steps. A special lift had been built in the middle of these steps, but on every day I visited the museum it was not working. The lift I directed the retirees to on the 30th to go to the lobby was also out of order on the 17th.

I stood behind my rollator at the foot of the stairs to see if anyone saw my dilemma. No one came to my aid. No one would have had to, however, if a corrugated-steel ramp, which bent back once, had been laid on the right side of this staircase where there are almost five metres of space.

After waiting a few minutes, I caught the attention of a blonde-haired woman on her way down the corrugated-steel ramp at the Van Baerelstraat employee/service entrance. I asked her if she knew how I could get into the museum. She said she would notify someone at security that I needed assistance. After a few minutes, she came back, led me up the ramp she had descended, and used her electronic key to open a wall-high door in the side of gallery 0.26 to give me entrance to the museum.

I was now in the Stedelijk’s furniture and housewares section, a treasure of objects and interiors including Mies van de Roh chairs, old Philips radios and a reconstructed Mondriaanesque Geert Rietveld black, white, yellow, blue and red bedroom similar in importance to the Dutch as the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Arts and Crafts Rooms are to the British. I made my way again through the museum’s “original” galleries and became reacquainted with old friends—Picasso’s Sitting Woman with Fish Hat (complete with lemon, fork and knife); the big-eyed, Spencer and Toorop self-portraits side-by-side; Van Gogh’s green-handed La berceuse holding a yellow cord; Mondriaan’s reassuring, regular geometric exercises in yellow, red, black, blue, and white; and Matisse’s La perruche et la sirène with its pink, orange, green and blue tomato, seaweed, parrot, and mermaid shapes pasted onto a white canvas after the old master could no longer hold a brush.

Tired after about an hour or so of visiting old friends, I decided to try the museum’s second-floor Zadelhoff Café to lift my flagging spirits. Here, instead of being able to just relax and refuel with a cup of java, I encountered my third obstacle.

The café’s tables were set in rows just wide enough for my rollator. One or two patrons had turned chairs aside and draped their coats over them obstructing the walkways. I tried carefully to negotiate my way to a free table, grazing more than a few coats and bags along the way. I wondered why at least one of these aisles hadn’t been made wide enough for wheelchairs and/or rollators or why a disabled section including a table or two without chairs hadn’t been created.

Thankfully, getting the waitress’ attention once I found a free table was much easier than finding a seat. Drinking my koffie verkeerd (café latte) in the container provided, however, proved to be yet another challenge. The coffee was served in a tall, handle-less ceramic cup which was too hot to hold without a napkin even though, mysteriously, the coffee itself was the proper temperature for drinking.

In addition to the hot and hard to hold coffee cup, the café’s ambience was very much unlike that of the glitzy, glass-box restaurant and bar at the museum’s entrance. If eating there could be considered dining at the captain’s table, then eating here was barely second-class and quite possibly steerage. The café’s chairs and tables seemed positioned for the maximum seating and flow through. And the views, on either side, were oppressive. On one side was a white-washed brick wall with Lawrence Weiner’s black, block-lettered piece, Escalated from Time to Time, Overloaded from Time to Time, Revoked from Time to Time. On the other side was a bare, white-washed brick wall. This is unfortunate because if the seating were adjusted 90 degrees, café patrons would enjoy views of either Dan Flavin’s Untitled, a pink, yellow, green, blue and white neon sculptural tribute to Mondriaan in the old wing’s grand staircase lobby, or the late-19th/early-20th century, brick buildings across the street framed by giant, arched windows.

As it is now, however, the café feels jammed into a former second-floor landing. It feels cold (due to a breeze which seems to flow from behind the bar and out towards the grand staircase) and penitential—not in the religious but in the custodial sense. It reminded me of my high school’s 1950s-style functional eat-your-food-and-get-out-because-there-are-hundreds-of-other-people-waiting-cafeteria. Definitely not a place where tourists or, on this afternoon, mostly Dutch retirees and elderly patrons will linger to enjoy a break before resuming their afternoon of Art.

On 17 January I ended my visit at the Stedelijk here. But on the 18th, 22nd and 30th, fortified by a cup of java, I explored the new wing and the Michael Kelley special exhibition. I should note here before my critique that I like to shake things up and view special exhibitions, especially retrospectives, in reverse order so that discontinuities are foregrounded and point more strongly back to their origins.

The Michael Kelley Exhibit

The Stedelijk’s new wing has doubled the museum’s exhibition space. There is a new, upper-floor, steeply pitched theatre for viewing videos, with built-in, wooden seats. Sadly, there is no special space for wheelchairs in front where their users can sit out of the traffic flow. During my first visit, this cinema was playing Kelley’s Banana Man (1982). The video itself felt contrived and acted in the way a small, community theatre would perform Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle (No offence intended to Brecht or small community theatres) as the actors surrounding Kelley chanted “We’re not moving” as they swayed in chorus around him. Not something I would expect from someone who lived and worked in Los Angeles, the capital of the film industry.

In the next gallery were four, more memorable video works—snow blowing in a howling wind in a laboratory bottle, the two Mary’s video shown in the free, exhibition guide, a sort-of Halloween haunted house encounter with mama, and the fourth, a young man or older boy getting a shave in a barber shop whilst being taunted by two barbers (to the point of child abuse I would think) who use the p-word for vagina. Perhaps this last video was some sort of flashback to bullying Kelley had experienced in school. It was apparent from the last three videos that Kelley definitely had “issues” with mother figures. On the back balcony were a series of Kelley’s artworks—animated graphics on plasma screens—featuring futuristic castle cities in laboratory bottles that scream, moan, laugh or whine whilst appearing to expand or vibrate. The screams were audible down at the museum’s main entrance lobby and even in the basement.

At this point, I encountered the museum’s fourth physical barrier. Between the second-floor balcony and the musical, lime-green express escalator that brings patrons down to the special exhibition space in the basement are a series of stairs. The lift that would help me circumvent these stairs, however, was out of order. Once again, a ramp would have solved the problem since half the staircase is already blocked by one of the non-permanent border walls of the Kelley exhibition. My only choice was to reverse my course back through the museum into the old wing, take the lift downstairs and again request assistance for access to the basement galleries.

I reached the basement via the Van Baerelstraat service lift. After a call on his walkie-talkie, I shared the lift with a guard and three other people—two cleaners with their mops and buckets full of water and cleaning fluid and another man who was moving large, black boxes. The security guard squeezed all of us in before taking us down to the basement. The lift opened up not in a public space, but in a service corridor where I encountered my fifth obstacle—two sets of electrical cords laid across the corridor floor which I had to jump with my rollator.

Finally back outside in the public portion of the basement, I looked up at two cloth banners by Kelley—Animal Friends  in the basement. Just inside the exhibition’s entrance were two others that were banally provocative. One in black and white read, “Pants Shitter and Proud of It. P.S. Jerk Off Too (I Wear Glasses).” To the left of this banner was another that featured a giant cookie jar with the motto: Let’s Talk About Disobeying.” Further inside the exhibit was a massive green, grey, tan, purple and brown herringbone carpet under which were the shapes of human bodies. To the left of the carpet were a series of drawings, including one, a smiling rag doll, which is on the exhibition’s folder’s cover. The series also included Kelley’s Kissing Kidneys drawing. Behind the carpet were a series of portraits of stuffed animals and a simulated photo of Kelley as a teenager. In the next room was one of Kelley’s signature works—his sculptures of used/recovered stuffed animals, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin (1987) sewn or glued together. To the right of this sculpture was what I would consider the most transgressive part of the exhibit—two black and white photos of a naked man and woman from behind having simulated sex with stuffed toys. They reminded me of a similar set of three photos upstairs in gallery 1.22—one with a shirtless, mohawked blond punk pissing on a green chair, the second of a naked man and a woman in a tree, and third of a woman with an exposed breast squirting milk out of a teat.

To the left and in the next gallery, Kelley’s Banana Man video was playing again on a small video monitor. On display next to it was the yellow plastic suit he wore during its filming. Across the gallery were cardboard tubes out of which bellowed the sounds boys make when they blow though them like trumpets.

Except for the bodies under the rug, most of Kelley’s art seems unimaginative and even puerile—and not in a naïve or playful way either. Having attended grammar school with Jerome Caja, the artist who shot to fame with his Marcel Duchamp/Salvador Daliesque (re)interpretation of Bartolomé Estaban Murillo’s Immaculate Conception by painting a Bozo clown face on the Virgin Mary and on the angels surrounding her, I know that Modern and Postmodern art is mostly about rebellion and revulsion from one’s upbringing and creating some sort of unique signature over someone else’s work, especially if your sign(ature) upends that work’s or tradition’s original intention. Caja and Kelley grew up in similar, mid-Western suburban neighborhoods – Caja just outside of Cleveland and Kelley just outside of Detroit. So it doesn’t surprise me that Caja’s signature became his Catholic Bozos and Kelley’s, his stuffed-animal sculptures sewn or glued together.

Caja’s art, however, boldly and bravely subverts mythological and religious themes. His paintings include The Birth of Venus in Cleveland (a self-portrait now owned by the Smithsonian in which Caja stands in a backyard, inflatable infant’s pool wearing only fish net stockings, a leather jacket and a bra) and The Last Hand Job. He created his works from found objects due to his extreme poverty—painting on abandoned pieces of paper and cardboard, even McDonald’s French fry boxes and soda pop bottle caps—mostly miniatures with acrylic nail polish—before he lost his sight to CMV and his life to AIDS in 1995. His works exposed his frustration, anger and rebellion with his Catholic upbringing and his unpleasant, painful life cut short at the height of his artistic output. Kelley’s work, like Caja’s to a larger degree, seems dependent on its shock-value especially with video works screaming from the balcony or moaning in the basement for attention. Kelley seems to accomplish this best with his four videos on the second floor. But compared to Caja, this work seems like a shock without a programme—more like an irritation or a bad joke, not a sublime artistic statement.

And Kelley’s John Glenn Memorial Detroit River Reclamation Project with its collection of objects of the same colours laid in trays and/or stacked (occasionally resembling his later towered futuristic cities) or pasted on a mannequin and its racks of suburban newspapers about boy scouts, clowns, ventriloquists and community musicals and plays, doesn’t really dredge up and (re)create as many new perspectives as do, for example, Michael Brady’s giant abstract and almost topographical canvases made from Hurricane Katrina detritis. That’s what I would really consider “found art” and a profound display of craftsmanship and technique.

In addition, as a gay man, I ask myself where does AIDS Crisis of the 1980s and 1990s register in Kelley’s oeuvre? Nowhere that I noticed whilst visiting this exhibition.

What I missed even more, however, were redundant, low-tech systems (such as ramps) to allow museum visitors with disabilities to move through the galleries, corridors and floors comfortably and independently. Instead of sailing away comfortably for an afternoon of Art in the white-hulled, HMS New Stedelijk, I felt confounded by mobility obstacles in what I experienced as the HMS Inaccessible. I realize that in cutting-edge, Postmodern architecture, hallways and staircases that seem to lead nowhere and balconies and lifts that are almost too small for practical use are de rigueur jokes. However, even a hip, new, museum wing should be designed to help everyone keep his/her dignity and mobility without having to ask for assistance. At €170 million, the new Stedelijk wing shouldn’t be a poorly connected maze; it should be amazing. Sadly, it isn’t—yet.