• commissioning and public space

In 2017, the IJssel Biennale put itself on the map with a big bang as the Dutch equivalent of Beaufort and Emscherkunst; a mile-long temporary exhibition in the IJssel Valley with countless works of art that you could view by bike.

There were' once seven willows
In a farmer's field,
They wore big wigs on
Their old hard wooden head
And lined up.

[From: The willows (1918), C.S. Adama van Scheltema]

The second edition of the IJssel Biennial was planned for the summer of 2020, but corona made it impossible to organise the exhibition properly and it has therefore been moved to this summer. However, the organisation did not want to let the year 2020 pass by unnoticed. Especially in this special time there was a need for comfort; in the sense of connecting, coming to a standstill, reflection but also hope and positive energy. The landscape offered solace: while the world was changing at breakneck speed, the river continued to flow imperturbably and the view remained the same; or did it?

Especially in that special time, there was a need for comfort

The IJssel Biennial found solace in a beautiful and painfully topical theme. A theme that did not call for a grand event or gesture, but for something small and intimate. Which of the 26 artists that had already been selected would be able to interpret this in a beautiful way? That would be Birthe Leemeijer, and she subsequently developed the project Meetings at the willow.

The client

Mieke Conijn, director of Kunstenlab and the IJssel Biennial, is the driving force behind this 'Ode to the IJssel'. Together with the staff of Kunstenlab and the IJssel Biennial Foundation, she is responsible for the content of the IJssel Biennial: selecting the artists and formulating the assignments. She explains that they want to put the participating artists 'in position', i.e. that they match an artist with the right location and the right partner to create something special, and to challenge the artist to go a step further than usual. Over the years Kunstenlab has built up a large and solid regional and local network; the trust in them as an organisation provides valuable partners and unexpected locations.

The Artist

Birthe Leemeijer says that it is important to her, as an artist, that she is invited on the basis of trust. That the client is willing to embark on an adventure with her, the course of which is uncertain, in the knowledge that together you are going to do something that has never been done before.

Trust appears to be a key concept for both client and artist. "During a process, an artist gathers many new insights, which can mean that the original proposal turns out differently. A good client is aware of this and is flexible, moving along in the process", explains Leemeijer. She found this important quality in Conijn and her colleagues.

Trust appears to be a key concept for both client and artist

When it comes to obtaining a commission, Leemeijer almost always finds himself in a competition with several artists. "The first phase, that of the sketch design, is the most difficult. It requires the most brainpower, a lot of research and concentration. Sketch designs that are not honoured can be seen as a loss of artistic capital. Although ideas can take on unexpected new life online or in a new situation. At the IJssel Biennial, there was no competition; of course, a proposal had to be submitted and approved. The client gives the artist his trust, and in this particular case the client can again count on the trust of the partners.

The assignment situation

Leemeijer saw the pollarded willows during her cycle trips along the river IJssel. Once pruned, this tree, so typical of the Netherlands, must be relieved of its branches every few years to prevent them from tearing apart. While retaining a great deal of strength, the willow develops wondrous and idiosyncratic forms. Leemeijer saw these as living sculptures in the landscape, and she noticed a parallel with this day and age, when people feel restricted in their growth by the coronavirus.

Leemeijer decided to investigate what this restriction means for our relationship with the landscape and nature. She organised thirteen Meetings at the willow between two people who don't know each other. Their conversations can be listened to as a podcast. The client actively thought about the possible discussion partners, and while Leemeijer brought in artists, scientists and nature managers from outside, the IJssel Biennial introduced people with local roots. After each conversation a branch was marked on the willow. The thirteen branches were cut off and replanted together. In the course of time they will grow into a living monument to mark the coronation period. Stichting IJssellandschap will take care of the management.

Whereas Leemeijer brought in artists, scientists and nature managers from outside, the IJssel Biennial introduced people with local roots.

Looking back, Leemeijer believes that it was an assignment that brought about a great deal. The presence of the old willow, the open air, the light and the surrounding landscape led to conversations that moved between hope and despair, with an underlying longing for change. For a different relationship between man and nature. For many people, the coronavirus is a marker in time, and in this way they gave shape to it.

With thanks to

Mieke Conijn and Josien in 't Hof (IJsselbiennale/Kunstenlab), Birthe Leemeijer
IJssel Biennial 18 June-19 September 2021 (you can also find the podcasts here)

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