There is a stereotypical view of a sailor, perhaps perpetuated in historical nautical portraits, as a tough man who enjoys travelling the world, flirting with women in many ports, having to endure tough and stormy conditions at sea, wearing a smart uniform and carrying a telescope if an officer, or wearing grubby seaman’s clothes, stained from working below deck, if an ordinary seaman.
In “The Ultimate Sailor: Under Construction”, the National Maritime Museum Amsterdam (Hetscheepvaartmuseum) asked four contemporary photographers, Marie José Jongerius, Aisha Zeijpveld, Koen Hauser and Jan Hoek, to take apart this stereotype (of which there are many illustrations in the main galleries of the museum) and explore their thoughts about the image of the sailor in the 21st century.
The Museum is housed in the former naval storehouse, an impressive stone building designed by the Dutch architect Daniël Stalpaert built in the harbour in 1656, with an excellent refurbishment completed in 2011 by Dok architecten whose new contemporary insertions respect and enhance the historic fabric, including a new glass roof to the courtyard designed by Laurent Ney and inspired by the compass rose on nautical maps, new staircases and lifts through the building, new toilets and lockers in the brick arches in the basement and a new two-story special exhibition space which currently houses this exhibition.
In the exhibition, Marie José Jongerius’ photographs appear at first to be the most traditional, showing night-time images of the port of Rotterdam, but they are empty of any human life, like some community on another planet, as she explores the boundary between the sea and man’s aim to control it.
Aisha Zeijveld takes the image of the classic fearless 17th or 18th century hero, who is shown in the historic galleries in the museum,proudly posing in his uniform surrounded by symbols of power and status, along with a Dutch children’s song about a young woman who went to sea disguised as a man, and creates portraits where genders are neutral and ambiguous, reinforcing each other and blending together, a theme also reflected in Koen Hauser’s video. Hauser is a psychologist as well as an artist and sees sailors as rescuers – people who save the lives of other people who may become casualties as maritime refugees. In his video, men and women, rescuer and casuality, all blend together as one through the act of resuscitation, while Jan Hoek creates portraits which are about the malleability of society with his images of a group of men in Nairobi who pretended to be pirates, though they had never seen the ocean, in response to the Somalian hijacks in 2010 as a way of making money by fooling western journalists who travelled to Kenya to interview ex-pirates, much safer than travelling to Somalia.
The refurbishment of the building, which included the new special gallery space, was won in competition. The central courtyard provides an orientation space for visitors to the museum and a venue for concerts and exhibitions, with the new roof covering the courtyard having as slim a structure as possible and integrating lighting, sun-shielding and natural ventilation, below which the new travertine floor gives the impression of a brick-paved city square. The historic sturdy timber beams supporting the floors have remained exposed with new staircases and services enhancing the old structure, as in the gallery space.
One of the things that many Amsterdam museums do well is to bring contemporary art in to the historic environment. Both in terms of the architecture and the exhibitions, the Hetscheepvaartmuseum does this very well.