“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.”
after Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Artist Patricia Kaersenhout uses her work to raise awareness of diverging perspectives on the past. She exposes the charged side of Dutch history by making space for voices and stories that have been denied a place in the dominant, prevailing narrative for years. We see this in her latest work What a Piece of Work is Man (2021), presented for the first time on the former shooting range of Het HEM. The installation makes the explosiveness of the Dutch colonial past palpable and emphasises the importance of making space for varying perspectives on our past. The Hembrug site, the location of a munitions factory of the Dutch state active until 2003, brings forth a range of contesting sentiments and is by no means a neutral player in this work. But how do we write a history that leaves room for multiplicity and conflicting perspectives and experiences?
What started in March 2015, when a student in Cape Town threw a bucket of faeces over a monument of British diamond mogul, imperialist politician, and White supremacist Cecil Rhodes, led to a worldwide domino effect as statues of colonial warlords toppled one after another. These haunted monuments are often about one hundred years old and operate as silent yet dominant witnesses of a deep inequality in society. Whilst they are largely being overlooked by most people, depending on skin colour and background, they can be a painful reminder and provocation for others. Throughout the world the moment has come to pronunciate these perspectives to be more publicly. Including in the Netherlands, with a heated debate on removing the statue of merchant, general and colonial offender J.P. Coen in Hoorn. This type of iconoclasm does not aim to ‘erase history,’ as is often claimed; instead, it reviews how history is told and generates attention for the underrepresented and uncomfortable episodes of that history.
Patricia Kaersenhout is part of this movement. With her work, she doesn’t just shed light on a different part of history; she also changes the way the story is being told. Curator Vivian Ziherl calls her work ‘symbolic counter monuments’, a description befitting What A Piece of Work is Man in particular. The installation consists of nine videos, a penetrating sound composition, and hand-crafted glass sculptures. It is overwhelming at its first encounter but allows for a close dissection of a layered web of metaphors, cross-references and contradictions. Within this, Kaersenhout demonstrates the differences between destruction and violence and how the current re-evaluation of monuments, a contemporary form of iconoclasm, can help us listen to voices that have been silenced by dominant narratives.
From the exhibition booklet published by Het Hem september 2021. Click here to download the booklet (Dutch-English).