Patricia Kaersenhout, 'What a Piece of Work is Man' at Het HEM, photo: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk

And the rest is silence: Patricia Kaersenhout at Het Hem

Issue no5
okt-nov 2021
Fluïditeit

Glass busts of Dutch generals and army commanders who played a prominent role in quashing revolts in the former Dutch colonies of Surinam and Indonesia are getting blown to shards; in reverse and on repeat in spectacular slow motion. Patricia Kaersenhout’s What a Piece of Work is Man at Het HEM gets the white, male, colonial oppressors to silently reckon with their legacy’s literal undoing.

I tread down the flight of stairs leading to the underground shooting range where Patricia Kaersenhout’s What a Piece of Work is Man is currently installed. The first to blow me off my feet are not the spectacular cinematic explosions happening silently and simultaneously in slow motion across nine screens, but the reverberating voice of musician Shishani Vranckx, reciting Kaersenhout’s adapted excerpt from the Shakespearean tragedy ‘Hamlet’.

What a piece of work is man! How Noble
in Reason? how infinite in faculty? in form and moving
how express and admirable? in Action, how like an Angel?
In apprehension, how like a God?
The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals - and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Men delights me not.

What is Kaersenhout doing, quoting and adapting lines by William Shakespeare in a work about the Netherlands’ highly charged and contentious colonial history? This particular passage is uttered by Prince Hamlet in a moment of desperation, raising profound questions about the human condition. And what is history, if not one great attempt by humans to understand and come to grips with our existence? Yet we now know that there is not one, but multiple parallel stories that have been brutally silenced and erased in service of the ‘one grand narrative’ told by military generals and war heroes, that is often the only side we get to hear. Through multiple artistic projects, not least What a Piece of Work is Man, Patricia Kaersenhout unearths and tells the forgotten histories of enslaved peoples.

What is Kaersenhout doing, quoting and adapting lines by William Shakespeare in a work about the Netherlands’ highly charged and contentious colonial history?

Patricia Kaersenhout, 'What a Piece of Work is Man' at Het HEM, photo: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk

In light of this, it is interesting to point out that Shakespeare’s Hamlet, just like our fraught human history, lends itself well to being adapted and retold, since there exist several ancient written precursors to the Shakespearean version. Shishani Vranckx’s unclouded and piercing voice, as the combined voices of all those who were violently suppressed into silence by their colonial oppressors, comes to tell her own version of the story and makes sure we get to hear it loud and clear. At the end of the play, as Hamlet lies dying in Horatio’s arms, he begs him to continue telling his story. “The rest is silence,” he says.

But what goes unheard and untold matters just as much. Silence too has the capability to make pronounced statements and bear significant weights, particularly within the context of suppressed histories of colonialism. The simultaneous explosions happening on-screen are muted, but are nonetheless pointed and reverberating. Kaersenhout commissioned Vrij Glas, a glass studio on the Hembrug site, to make a series of busts of Dutch generals and army commanders who played a prominent role in quashing revolts in the former Dutch colonies of Surinam and Indonesia. It is these busts that we see getting blown to shards, in reverse and on repeat in spectacular slow motion. what is this quintessence of dust? Men delights me not.

Patricia Kaersenhout, 'What a Piece of Work is Man' at Het HEM, photo: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk

Patricia Kaersenhout, 'What a Piece of Work is Man' at Het HEM, photo: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk

The other viewers and I stand listening and looking on in silence, but ours is not the only silent presence in the space. I turn to look behind me and notice that I am standing in a particular spot between the main screen and two glass busts (one of them headless), some meters back, also positioned to be facing the screen. It is as if the artist wanted these ‘great’ men, once hailed as heroes in their home country, to be forced to reckon with their own destruction; not just the destruction they themselves inflicted on others, but also the destruction of their legacy. It is no longer their turn to speak and write history. In fact, the busts are not placed in a prominent place on tall pedestals outlining their glorious achievements, but on severed tree trunks, somewhere towards the back.

There is yet another silent presence in the space. Hanging from the ceiling are leaves and flowers made out of colourful glass. These sculptures are based on plants found in Surinamese jungles and which are attributed with holy and spiritual powers by the descendants of enslaved peoples. In addition, there is also the ‘Okra’, a plant originating in West Africa that enslaved women took with them to South America by braiding its seeds into their hair. Amidst all the destruction, these plants stand out as a resilient and restorative presence. Perseverance, growth and healing are silent processes too.

The use of glass as artistic material is highly significant in several of Kaersenhout’s works. Other than possessing fascinating physical qualities - its elusive anatomical construction, uncertain movements between liquid and solid states, and the difficulty to handle and stabilise while it is being crafted - glass resonates with philosopher Édouard Glissant’s notions of transparency and opacity. Opacity speaks to the right to preserve a private inner world which should not always need to be understood by those outside of the individual. Enslaved peoples and colonial subjects had this right stripped away and were forced into full transparency by their colonisers. Furthermore, the presence of fragile glass objects within a subterranean shooting range located on the same terrain where the Dutch state formerly had its arms factories, generates an additional tension.

The use of transparant glass as artistic material is highly significant; enslaved peoples and colonial subjects had their right to opacity stripped away and were forced into full transparency by their colonisers

Patricia Kaersenhout, 'What a Piece of Work is Man' at Het HEM, photo: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk

What a Piece of Work is Man is being exhibited at a special time when Patricia Kaersenhout’s other monumental work Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Too? can be seen at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem. This installation, consisting of large dining tables set with embroidered runners and glassware, asks the question, “Who else deserves a seat at the table?” The table is a metaphor for the history books, referring once again to stories that have been purposefully erased. While in What a Piece of Work is Man Kaersenhout gets the white, male, colonial oppressors to silently reckon with their legacy’s literal undoing, in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Too? the artist celebrates the stories of women of colour who are heroines of resistance and deserve to have their stories told. And the rest is history.

Patricia Kaersenhout’s ‘What a Piece of Work is Man’ is on view in the former shooting range at Het Hem until October 31. Visit Het Hem’s website for more information.

Manuela Zammit
is a writer and researcher

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