Jasper Niens
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Crowd Control - A visit to the fair in six movements
An essay by Nathalie Hartjes

Oh joy, oh excitement, the art fair comes to town! Today’s finest, hand-picked and presented for our pleasure, our luxury, needs and desires. Neat rows of stalls, some making first-time introductions, others celebrating the well-established. Beautifully cropped gallerists, an endless supply of smart eyewear, the colorful outfits of the daring, against the solemn black background of the classy. The buzz and bustle of those who have flocked to the city’s exhibition halls. With anticipation the pack finds its way down the central concourse, disperses through the smaller arcades, clusters in one stand or another, ushering themselves towards the central plaza to discuss the highlights; and then on and on, the crowd carries on. They come to see, to sniff, to inhale the arts and hopefully, ultimately fall in love. They come to find a delightful conversation piece, the object that has the special ability to express those sentiments which cannot be put into words, that one exquisite work that will fill the lacuna in their collection.

The Usual
Besides all its pleasures, the exhibition hall poses an enormous challenge. No less than a hundred galleries give up some fierce competition. As an individual in the crowd you have to take your steps carefully, an effective visit requires discipline and structure. Shifting from one stand to another, one needs to have the ability of rapid assessment, pin-point a work’s potential with one sharp glance; only engage if interest, intrigue and price are equally balanced. You can muse over its other layers of meaning when it’s nicely posed on your mantelpiece. If you want to cover enough ground before the day is over, don’t linger too long catching up with vague relations, be nice, listen to their findings and then pick-up pace. Why not wait with the small talk until you have acquired that work of genius which will stir up their envy? So there the crowd goes on, systematically marking off all the stands from their checklist, drudging along past frames, plinths and posters, with the occasional nod and handshake, but never to be sidetracked from their mission. Just like a colony of ants the crowd of art lovers conquers the exhibition halls, intuitively moving about in order to make that one great find and bring it home!

But when following their paths these hard workers might bump into the unexpected. One booth in the midst of many seems obstructed, fully occupied by a monumental structure; a cylindrical chamber, a grand revolving wall hermetically closed a door. Of course a true devotee will not be put off by this apparent obstacle. A quick peek into this queer singularity is tempting, who knows what marvels are to be found inside? Yet even though these structures allow access, once inside, the booth remains decisively empty. Perhaps a light wave of disappointment overcomes the enthusiastic fair visitor and he will hastily try to head back to the fairgrounds, for there is still so much to see! But as he turns to leave the structure he will find out it doesn’t always come easy. The cylinder has turned and closed him in, the revolving wall/construction seems to move backwards not forward or he is caught between doors in a maze of narrow corridors.

Artist Jasper Niens (Zwolle, 1980) creates architectural interventions, often in the context of mass audience events, such as art fairs and festivals. In his work he attempts to break the flow of the visit, catch the visitor unawares. To enter the structures one often needs to deploy manual labor, heavy walls need a considerable push, or long vertical grooves allow you to turn the cylindrical constructions. The structures only allow a limited space to move in, instantly demarcating the lines along which you move about, rendering visible the pathways which are normally treaded upon unconsciously, defined by architecture. Niens’ structures offer, in a way, a bird’s eye view of movement, as one can remember from old dance instruction charts, or sports game analyses.

The manually moved edifices incite interaction between the visitors, who become dependent of one another to move around in the space. Sometimes as a necessity – when the construction is simply too heavy to move on your own – or because the presence of some other person blocks your intended motion. A power play! Will the guests be amiable and cooperate, or will one person insist on getting his way; marking his territory? When the walls start turning a short moment of surprise hits. Niens intentionally keeps the structure’s principle of activation transparent and it doesn’t take long to figure out how it ‘works’. But in that one brief instant of confusion, Niens is able to disrupt the habitual flow and forces his visitors to respond and interact. It is like the moment a train suddenly draws to a halt and you are swept away from your private thoughts and glance around inquisitively if someone else knows what on earth is happening. Niens seeks a direct confrontation with his audience. He inserts a handicap that confronts them with each other, and ultimately themselves. How do you position yourself amongst the hustle & bustle of the fairground? Do you keep to your own; are you tempted to connect?

The Moment
Even though, due to the precise formal and material execution, the structures could easily be mistaken to be merely fine pieces of contemporary sculpture, the real work lies in the social activity the object inspires. Niens: “The audience is my material. I just define the conditions in which they choose to act”. In creating a situation in which motion is obstructed, sometimes bordering on the absurd, Niens highlights how architecture defines our environment and the way we move around in it. Our day-to-day life is organized in ways that enhance the flow, creating natural motion in artificial settings, as if pushed forward by an invisible hand. In these moments of disruption the audience needs to renegotiate its movements. When applying these strategies during large scale events, Niens emphasizes the tension between the mass and the individuals, out of which the mass is composed of. The artist reminds us that “We’re all in this together” and breaks through the anonymity of the spectacle. But, just as the fair, the work is fleeting. It is contained in its material: the people inside of it. Those who respond, push, pull, find each other in the midst of the structure, and negotiate about the movements they and it should deploy. So when the fair draws to a close and the visitors retire, a ghost of the work remains. A powerful ghost nevertheless, which holds the potential to create social connections the instant it is put into motion once again.

Nathalie Hartjes (1981) has an MA in art history and is co-ordinator of the Comité van Roosendaal, a network connecting 12 contemporary art institutions throughout the Benelux and North Rhine Westphalia, offering a platform for debate on cultural political issues. From 2006 – 2008 she worked at Witte de With (Rotterdam) as a communications officer and assistant to Nicolaus Schafhausen.
She is a freelance critic and writer since 2005 and has published in Tubelight magazine, Kunstbeeld, Beton Brut (magazine Kunstverein Düsseldorf), Pataphor (artist book Hidde van Schie) and the newsletter of Kunsthuis SYB (Beetsterzwaag), amongst others.

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