Edward Clydesdale Thomson, 'rivier, boot, stad'. Commissioned by the Dordrechts Museum and Gemeente Dordrecht, conceptualised by the artist and realised in collaboration with his studio team, volunteers, interns, and many other individuals. Photo: Victoria Ushkanova

In defense of making a boat that would never touch the water: Edward Clydesdale Thomson’s rivier, boot, stad in Dordrecht

Issue no6
dec - jan 2022
zigzag 2022 > 2023 + nieuwe collectie

Inspired by Dordrecht’s history as a city of trading, and in collaboration with the local community, artist Edward Clydesdale Thomson built a hekjtalk that was supposed to sail right through the Dordrechts Museum’s monumental garden wall. City residents objected and Thomson found a way to execute the work without too much provocation. Together with the artist Manuela Zammit looks back to the project: the hektjalk, its execution and the initial backlash.

On Saturday September 17th 2022, a 15 metre-long wooden hektjalk (inland barge) was dragged by volunteers from the Dordrechts Museum to the Hof van Nederland (Court of the Netherlands) in a procession-like event that lasted from the morning until the early evening. This day marked the culmination of the artistic project rivier, boot, stad (river, boat, city). The project was commissioned by the Dordrechts Museum and Gemeente Dordrecht, conceptualised by artist Edward Clydesdale Thomson, and realised in collaboration with his studio team, dedicated volunteers, interns, and many other individuals who got involved in various capacities.

The process of building the boat and planning out its only journey - one that took place on land - started in April 2019. As it was dragged along Dordrecht’s historic city centre, the hektjalk gradually broke apart, leaving behind traces and fragments that marked its passage. It will only continue existing in the memory of those who helped build it, those who witnessed the event, and soon as a set of casted sculptures that will be permanently installed in the city centre in the course of next year. But after being caught between a sizeable media storm and a COVID-19 pandemic in full fledge, dragging a large wooden boat across narrow streets was not the only rough sailing that the artist and his collaborators had to contend with. Ultimately, both these forces not only fundamentally shaped the course of the project and altered the boat's trajectory, but brought to light why contemporary artistic projects unfolding in the public space, in all their degrees of success and failure, are always a highly political matter.

Contemporary artistic projects unfolding in the public space, in all their degrees of success and failure, are always a highly political matter

Edward Clydesdale Thomson, 'rivier, boot, stad'. Commissioned by the Dordrechts Museum and Gemeente Dordrecht, conceptualised by the artist and realised in collaboration with his studio team, volunteers, interns, and many other individuals. Photo: Kees Dijkman

Edward Clydesdale Thomson, 'rivier, boot, stad'. Commissioned by the Dordrechts Museum and Gemeente Dordrecht, conceptualised by the artist and realised in collaboration with his studio team, volunteers, interns, and many other individuals. Photo: Victoria Ushkanova

My first encounter with rivier, boot, stad was through one of the numerous online articles published last year that raved about a contemporary artist’s ‘outrageous’ proposal to temporarily demolish the Dordrechts Museum's outer fence in order to break out onto the street with a large wooden boat. The article was followed by a string of public comments denouncing the whole thing as nonsensical madness. I remember assuming that the whole thing would not go through (which it didn’t, or at least, not in the way originally planned).

The boat itself did sail after all, but the road to departure was an exceptionally rocky one. rivier, boot, stad started being opposed by local historians and residents around March 2021, initially due to the artist’s intent to temporarily demolish part of the museum’s historic fence - also a national monument, as was repeatedly emphasised - in a move that was deemed unnecessary and unacceptable. Shortly afterwards, the project was criticised on the basis of its historical inaccuracy, and then approached with further skepticism as an expensive marketing ploy enacted by the Museum in the attempt to attract more visitors to their undervisited location in the Hof. Following these instances, the discussion inevitably expanded to; Why should we be spending a lot of public money on something like this? Why would anyone pay an artist to build a boat that will never touch the water, and that will be destroyed in a grand public display as soon as it is completed? Why is an international artist who knows almost nothing about Dordrecht, invited to come in and impose his artistic vision on the city?

It’s not difficult to see why proposing the demolition of a national monument didn’t go down well with a group of historians in a (relatively) well-preserved medieval city that proudly brands itself as the oldest city of Holland

Contemporary art’s infamous reputation of being conceptually impenetrable and the way it always seems to come shrouded in a cloud of stuck-up jargon often renders it, and anyone associated with it, immediately suspicious. It certainly did not help rivier, boot, stad gain any favours in a debate that quickly became a popular talking point in Dordrecht. Some of the questions raised by the project's opponents are valid and it is important to remain skeptical of institutions’ agendas, to voice concerns about public spending, and to question the narratives that we are being asked to engage with (and the people behind them). It’s also true that historically, art has been repeatedly weaponised as a means to achieve dubious political and economic goals, and that as a commission by the Dordrechts Museum and the Gemeente Dordrecht, Clydesdale Thomson’s artistic project is to an extent inextricable from these institutional structures and agendas. And it’s not difficult to see why proposing the demolition of a national monument didn’t go down well with a group of historians in a (relatively) well-preserved medieval city that proudly brands itself as the oldest city of Holland.

Edward Clydesdale Thomson, 'rivier, boot, stad'. Commissioned by the Dordrechts Museum and Gemeente Dordrecht, conceptualised by the artist and realised in collaboration with his studio team, volunteers, interns, and many other individuals. Photo: Victoria Ushkanova

Edward Clydesdale Thomson, 'rivier, boot, stad'. Commissioned by the Dordrechts Museum and Gemeente Dordrecht, conceptualised by the artist and realised in collaboration with his studio team, volunteers, interns, and many other individuals. Photo: Victoria Ushkanova

Edward Clydesdale Thomson, 'rivier, boot, stad'. Commissioned by the Dordrechts Museum and Gemeente Dordrecht, conceptualised by the artist and realised in collaboration with his studio team, volunteers, interns, and many other individuals. Photo: Victoria Ushkanova

Yet, I strongly suspect that none of the project's greatest critics really attempted to engage with the artistic concept and process beyond the sensational breaking of the wall and the historical inaccuracies. For instance, nothing was mentioned about the project as an opportunity to transfer the dying knowledge and craft of historic boat building to a younger generation and the general public, or the labour involved in digging up pieces of a largely ignored history. I guess this is an invitation to everyone to start giving the benefit of the doubt to that which seems to want to break with (or through) history, that which isn’t strictly factual, purely logical, or easily digestible in the first instance. Contemporary art is all of these things. As a field occupied with questioning the present, by critically and creatively engaging with the past in order to shape the future, the main subject matter of contemporary art is almost always change, and translating this into an aesthetic experience, let alone a public one, is a complicated matter. Indeed, the main question addressed by rivier, boot, stad is; Who does the city belong to and who has a say in its future?

During my conversation with the artist, he summarised: ‘The project literally drags something from the past into the present, breaking things in the process, because for change to happen, something has to give.’ He explained that the idea was to start by breaking out onto the street: ‘It was supposed to be a classic defiant gesture of kicking down the door and leaving. The fence of the museum was to be the stage set for the rest of the event to unfold. With almost surgical precision, we planned how a five-metre section of the wall would be taken out, and found a company specialising in the restoration of historic buildings who would help us do it. It just wasn’t true that I was destroying it.’

Thomson: 'With almost surgical precision, we planned how a five-metre section of the wall would be taken out. It just wasn’t true that I was destroying it’

Edward Clydesdale Thomson, 'rivier, boot, stad'. Commissioned by the Dordrechts Museum and Gemeente Dordrecht, conceptualised by the artist and realised in collaboration with his studio team, volunteers, interns, and many other individuals. Photo: Victoria Ushkanova

Edward Clydesdale Thomson, 'rivier, boot, stad'. Commissioned by the Dordrechts Museum and Gemeente Dordrecht, conceptualised by the artist and realised in collaboration with his studio team, volunteers, interns, and many other individuals. Photo: Victoria Ushkanova

For Clydesdale Thomson, the project was meant as a tribute to Dordrecht and its history as a water-trade city: ‘ I’m not so interested in religious or political history, but more in the history of the binnenvaart (inland shipping), and the barges that sailed on Holland’s waterways, especially the people that lived and worked on these boats for generations. This history is not given much attention, yet it has been - still is - so present in Dordrecht. A boat is much more than the wood and metal that go into it, it’s the story of someone’s life and livelihood, and all the different phases of the boat’s life. Not all of those phases are nice, and so this boat was made to never to touch the water, to disintegrate, telling a story in so doing.’

Initially, each stakeholder gave the green light and was excited about the idea, but about a month before the event’s original date, the Dordrechts Museum was told to ask the artist to come up with a solution that would not involve breaking the wall. Was this the most democratic solution to a case of public outcry? That was a really emotional time for the team because everyone had been working so hard and dedicated thousands of hours into the making of the boat, and suddenly everything was uncertain’, Clydesdale Thomson recalls. ‘During this period, the alternative solution emerged. It was a pretty simple act of translation from a boat made out of wood to one made out of people. We decided to create a contemporary dance performance in which a group of dancers would literally climb over the fence of the museum.’

'Our alternative solution was a pretty simple act of translation from a boat made out of wood to one made out of people. A group of dancers literally climbed over the fence of the museum’

Edward Clydesdale Thomson, 'rivier, boot, stad'. Commissioned by the Dordrechts Museum and Gemeente Dordrecht, conceptualised by the artist and realised in collaboration with his studio team, volunteers, interns, and many other individuals. Photo: Kees Dijkman

I was present on the day of this performance. This was the moment around which all the anxieties, tensions, and uncertainties surrounding the project coalesced. In my view, the alternative opening did indeed offer a very different kind of aesthetic experience than watching a 15-metre long boat exiting the museum through a 5-metre wide gaping hole in the wall; not as spectacular and violent, but there was something distinctly defiant about seeing a group of young people climbing over a wall that they’re not supposed to. The large, dark vessel waiting silently up to that point, had an alien presence on the street, not only because it was (intentionally) way out of proportion in relation to its surroundings, but also because seeing a seafaring vessel resurrected from history standing ready to set sail on solid ground was quite surreal. The sight and sound of the hektjalk being laboriously dragged along the cobbled ground and gradually falling apart, was a moving scene, especially knowing the whole process that went into making it happen.

Beyond the poetic aesthetic aspect, one can question whether the project ultimately achieved its community-building claims. I don’t know what kinds of relationships were cultivated among those involved in building the boat, or whether they walked away from the workshop with a sense of satisfaction or fulfilment. Certainly not all of those present were on board with the idea, wanted to see the project succeed, or were happy with the day’s proceedings. I don’t know whether the young people of Dordrecht feel more seen, heard, or otherwise addressed by the city. I also don’t know whether people will change their mind in the long run, especially once the boat comes back as a set of bronze sculptures installed around the city.

Ultimately, for artists working in the public eye will never make for smooth sailing. Clydesdale Thomson already alluded to what was really at stake when he mentioned that a boat is made out of people. The real working material of rivier, boot, stad was never metal, wood, and stone but, as the project made clear, the most delicate and volatile material of them all; people and the relationships between them.

To learn more about the project, click here. For more information on Thomson's exhibition at Dordrechts Museum, click here

Manuela Zammit
is a writer and researcher

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