Boijmans Van Beuningen’s drive-through show at empty Ahoy convention centre in Rotterdam keeps exhibitions going in the new normal through August with infallible social distancing and huge artworks from the comfort of your car seat
The Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam had been looking for alternative locations to show its famous collection since it closed for a seven-year renovation in 2019. Meanwhile, the city’s convention centre halls Ahoy had been standing empty since March when the Eurovision song contest was postponed to 2021 because of coronavirus, and the North Sea Jazz Festival and congresses were cancelled. So the two organisations decided to make a virtue of necessity and team up, creating the Boijmans Ahoy drive-thru museum which opened on 1 August. You may have seen videos whirling around the internet of its slo-mo cars driving up to huge artworks.
The drive-through museum combines the excitement of visiting a funfair with the contemplative experience of driving steadily on squeaky floors through the dark in your own coronavirus-proof cocoon. After disinfecting your hands at the entrance and showing your driver’s license, you hop into your ‘rollercoaster cart’: one of 30 electric Mini Coopers (sponsored by BMW) from which you can behold some 50 works of art brought together in the huge exhibition hall.
The variety is great. Drive up close, your nose to the windscreen, to Oskar Kokoschka’s 1926 broad-brushstroke Expressionist painting The Mandrill, or sit back and take in Marijke van Warmerdam’s spectacular 1997 16mm dyptich film Bear of a pair of gigantic life-like bears moving around on two screens as if in the room in front of you. Certainly, the exhibition offers a welcome escape from the ‘New Normal’, as the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte calls the 1.5m-society with its social distancing circles and one way-arrows. Here you may move freely in your car, respecting three traffic rules: a speed limit of 5km/h, not to exit the car, and no hooting. You can bring your own electric car if you have one.
Everyone, of course, starts out from the entrance porch still neatly in a row, The Mandrill ahead. But sooner or later a Mini will break free – perhaps towards the Model for a Tower, a new enormous panorama of hanging rippling canvases depicting Pieter Breugel’s Tower of Babel, created by Dutch photographer Bas Princen with Flemish architects Kersten Geers and David van Severen. Or another will pause in front of a huge film screen showing a desert where you can turn on the radio to interactively listen to the accompanying soundscape. In one corner of the hall, you can peek into Paul McCarthy’s Bunk House (1996) where puppets perform sexual acts. He is the artist who also made the much-debated sculpture ‘Santa Claus’ in 2001 for Eendrachtsplein in Rotterdam, better known as the butt plug gnome.
West 8’s landscape architect Adriaan Geuze was among a team of curators and designers who explored the space and advised on the layout and arrangement of art works. A free plan was the spatial starting point, the car’s front window formed the looking frame. Most of the artworks are hung from the ceiling or on building cranes.
However, although the realisation of it is new, the idea for a drive-thru museum is not. In 2008, when Boijmans Van Beuningen was intending to renovate its museum entrance at Museumpark, a plan evolved to arrange the ground floor for visits by car during the construction period, with a Monet on display at each bend in the route. Due to many practical objections ‘Monet by carlight’ was stored in a drawer with other ‘fun but impossible’ plans. But Boijmans director Sjarel Ex kept it in mind.
As happened during the economic crisis, when many vacant buildings and sites were temporarily transformed with all sorts of pop-up pavilions, Ex saw an opportunity this year to explore new possibilities for exhibiting art, together with Ahoy and financial support from sponsors.
‘The scale of the hall makes this project especially interesting’, says Ex. ‘How do you provide a basis for art to function in a 16m-high hall of 10,000m2?’
Will visitors get that the exhibition is about ‘the tension between mankind and nature’?
Melanie Smith’s film Fordlandia shows the settlement in the Brazilian Amazon where Henry Ford built a rubber factory 100 years ago, which has been reconquered by nature. Artist Frank Bruggeman created beautiful dried ‘bouquets’ of trees from the city that died because nobody watered them during the lockdown. Atelier van Lieshout’s Mercedes with 57mm Canon lights up a series of hanging art works. The insect-like Tweevleugel (Two wings) by Panamarenko, in front of Olphaert den Otter’s globe Tondo Mondo, make me think that mankind is much like the locusts we now see in Africa: a plague, and Covid-19 in fact a reaction to overpopulation. As Ex says: ‘We always look at art through the eyes of our time.’
The drive-in concept works especially well for films. What I miss in my safe cocoon is contact with other visitors. In a normal museum you see and hear comments and reactions. Here, the shared experience is limited to the café-terrace where you can preview or have a chat afterwards. For people who don’t want to or cannot drive, the museum offers €7,50 tickets for the grandstand on the long side of the hall to look at the exhibition itself, and enjoy the choreography of slowly moving cars.
Kirsten Hannema is a freelance architecture critic, writing for, among others, the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. She is also editor in chief of the Yearbook Architecture in the Netherlands