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Issue 133

Artefact: Sonsbeek Beyond the Limits
by Rodrigo Ortiz Monasterio

There are few written accounts of conflict unfolding within the art world: fights among artists, artists and curators, or critics and artists. Jef Cornelis, however, was drawn to such moments; if there was anyone who could record these artistic rivalries, it was Cornelis through his work as a television director, documentarian and screenwriter.

Between 1963 and 1998, Cornelis worked as a TV director at the cultural news show Zoeklicht op de culturele actualiteit (Spotlight on Current Cultural Events), broadcast by Belgium’s former national radio and TV chain. The programs Cornelis produced dealt with a variety of topics, ranging from visual arts, literature and theatre, to architecture and urbanism. Between 1968 and 1973, he documented iconic exhibitions and compiled a series of interviews with artists – a strategy the director used to provoke artists into revealing both their personal and professional conflicts.

A good example of this strategy at work is Sonsbeek buiten de perken (literally, “Sonsbeek beyond the limits”), from 1971. Conflict lies at the centre of this documentary about the sixth edition of the Sonsbeek biennale exhibition in Arnhem, Netherlands, with the 45-minute black-and-white film portraying disagreements among the exhibition’s protagonists, artists, curators, politicians and Arnhem’s city councillor. Moving beyond the pivotal manifestations, it demonstrates Cornelis´ use of television to reflect the clash between the postmodern world and contemporary art.

Sonsbeek buiten de perken, Arnhem, June–August 1971

There are two particular aspects worth mentioning about Sonsbeek, the first being its format. This exhibition takes place in Arnhem’s Sonsbeek Park. Conceived initially in 1949 as a biennale, it was later held every three years and then, from 1958 on, its frequency became irregular. In 1971, the format changed radically when curator Wim Beeren decided to take Sonsbeek beyond the limits of the park, extending the exhibition throughout the Netherlands. This shift enabled new spatial relationships and the integration of new communication technologies such as, the organizers’ decision to include a tent, where the audience could communicate with people in other parts of the country, by telephone or by Telex. In addition, the curator invited international contemporary artists to participate for the first time – including Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, Daniel Buren, Ger van Elk, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, among others – and also commissioned pieces to be made in situ for Sonsbeek.

The second notable aspect of Sonsbeek is the cause of the dispute that inspired Cornelis’ documentary: not a single local artist was included in the 1971 edition of the biennale. In reaction, the BBK national artists’ association went on strike. Its members criticized the curator, the exhibition director, the educational director of the exhibition and the participating artists, with their motto being “A Million Guilders of Elite Art for the Elite.”

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Cornelis’ documentary begins with a cartoon of two men fighting, followed by footage of the live broadcast of Sonsbeek ’71’s opening. Poet Georges Adé – an accomplice for most of the films Cornelis produced during those years – then interviews one of the BBK demonstrators:

Sonsbeek is a perfectly proper, neat exhibition. [It] is much ado about nothing. Sonsbeek is a fact packed in a plastic bag and put in a display case, whereupon everybody declares in the newspapers that it smells delicious. Conviviality, magic, chaos, fantasy and people – all of that is missing. Sonsbeek is dried out and dead.1

Throughout the film, Cornelis does not favour any one point of view over another. On the contrary, he acts as a mediator between different voices, a strategy that allows the interviewees to express themselves freely. In another interview, Adé speaks to Sonsbeek education program director Cor Blok at a moment when the latter likely felt under attack:

There are so many things that are more important. Should you spend so much money to organize an exhibition of visual art? In fact, you should begin by changing all of education, because that is where the problems come from. That’s why people go into the world so badly prepared, among other things, in this field.

The conflict deepens when Adé asks some of the participating artists to express their opinions on the protesters’ critique, especially their claims that the exhibition was elitist. Artist Robert Morris, for example, talks about his work, an observatory, which wasn’t finished when the show opened:

I hope that when it is finished, it will be a space that makes this area very special, that people without any knowledge that it is in fact partly an observatory will be able to enjoy it, because I don’t think that this is fundamental to it. It is a space, a place to be, for anyone.

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It is significant that the documentary ends with an interview with artist Daniel Buren about his collaboration at Sonsbeek ’71, considering that Cornelis did another film that same year in which Buren appears with his piece Travail in situ.2 It seems to have been an intentional choice to close with this interview since Buren is critical of the concept behind Sonsbeek ’71 namely, the idea of expanding the exhibition beyond the limited space of a museum. As the artist says, “on the one hand, by claiming that one cannot simply go outside the boundaries of the museum; on the other, that the organizers are behaving like enemies to the people when they do move beyond the museums.”

For Cornelis, the editing process was where he could handle conflict best. While the first scene featuring the cartoon of the two fighting men at first doesn’t make sense – and might even seem like an editorial mistake – it’s a perfect example of how incorporating apparently absurd images can introduce the elements to come. Here, the two fighting men foreshadow later drama – a soap opera featuring the art world’s characters.

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