Art Rotterdam 2023 at the Van Nelle Fabriek

One of the high-points of cultural and artistic life in Rotterdam is the undoubtedly Art Week, and one of the highlights of that is the Art fair which takes place in the iconic, and an artwork in its own right, old Van Nelle Fabriek on the north-western fringes of the city on the grassy banks of the Delfshavense Schie canal/river.

Now back in full-swing after three years of Covid disruption, this fair is just about the right size with plenty of space and wide passageways to visit the ninety-plus galleries from all over Europe. Of course, most of the exhibitors are from The Netherlands and I must confess, I had never heard of many of the Amsterdam galleries. With any fair of this type there is bound to be a huge variety of styles and of quality, ranging from the avant garde to the downright commercial, but it must be said that there was relatively little of the latter, bearing in mind that the dealers are here to do business.

One innovation this year, which I thought was a great asset to the show as a whole, was a big open space in the middle of the main hall designated as the Sculpture Park. It gives the show a focal point and a breathing space where one can sit and rest with a glass of something nice and a snack from one of the strategically placed food stands. If you fancy a bit of fresh air and the weather is fine, you could also take a break and relax outside where more sculpture is displayed on the lawns that surround the factory.

Another important area is assigned to the annual NN Art Award. The award is a cash prize of €10,000 given by the NN Group which also buys work from the nominees for its own corporate collection. This prize, intended as an encouragement and stimulus, puts the spotlight on the exceptional quality of art education in the Netherlands. The four nominees this year were Salim Bayri, Laura Jatkowsk, Kevin Bray and Monali Meher.

It would be difficult, unfair perhaps, to pick out a single gallery in particular but one, for me, stood out. I am generally not a big fan of Karel Appel but the works on show at the Eenwerk Gallery stand really caught my eye. On the wall hang a series of large Polaroid photos that have been over-painted by Appel but the stand is dominated by the 1987 work Standing Nude No. 1, a giant sculpture hanging from the ceiling like a deformed and broken puppet.  

I also liked Vending Machine by Casper Braat, shown by the Torch Gallery, from which you could buy a small marble sculpture for up to €450 or a tin of special Casper Braat peanuts for just €2.50. I think the problem with this piece is that a lot of people will walk straight past it, assuming it’s just an ordinary vending machine selling Coke, chocolate or ordinary, no-artistic peanuts.

Another easy-to-miss part of the Art Rotterdam is the section hidden away in a far corner of the old factory, accessed by a sun drenched, at least it was on the day we were there, passage. Prospects is in a huge industrial room, almost like a mini version of the wonderful Turbine Hall in Tate Modern in London and is dedicated to the work of young artists who have received financial grants from Mondrian Fonds, one of the most important supporters of the arts in The Netherlands.

The setting is ideally suited to the work, much of which is large sculptures or installations, all of it on the cutting edge of contemporary art. Compared to the main area, Prospects was relatively quiet. It is not very well promoted or sign-posted from the main fair and is consequently easy to miss, which is a pity because, for me, this is where the real interest in Art Rotterdam lies. I won’t say it is wasted in this semi-hidden area of the art fair, but I would have thought it was deserving of its own dedicated location and time.  Michael Hasted  9th February 2023

Art Rotterdam continues at the Van Nelle Fabriek until 12th February