Museum Rijswijk’s PAPER BIENNALE 2024 – Animal Farm

To give an exhibition a general theme is a brilliant idea. In the Rijswijk Museum this works beautifully as it knits even wildly diverging styles of international artists together. In the works shown, Orwell’s tiny book Animal Farm provides the baseline for political, environmental and human rights, equality and our relationship with animals and plants, among others. Published in 1945, Orwell’s moral fable was a reaction to how fascist ambitious, self-seeking individuals, (Hitler or Stalin?), in the book depicted as pigs, who, as soon as they seize power, quickly pivot from being the oppressed to being abusive oppressers.

Inevitably, among the twenty artists exhibiting, some pieces caught my attention more than others. 

Iraki-Dutch Sadik Kwaish Alfraji’s self-portrait with Orwell’s donkey from the book Animal Farm makes reference to the statement in the book: ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.’ But in contrast Alfraji states: ‘The donkey is me.’

English artist Daisy Madden-Wells  presents a papier maché dog in the ancient pose of a Pharaoh’s dogs. Its pearl teeth bite on (or through?) a fragile paper chain. The blue and white dog at first glance looks as docile as a lap dog, but at second glance its expression is ambiguous, if not malignant – rather like the Minogame turtles in Japanese art. Will it be led by its master by the gentle paper chain or will its pearl teeth break the chain between the centuries-long bond of man and dog? By the look in its eye it certainly looks capable of the latter.

Semâ Bekirović lets us observe how ants, given a pile of cut out letters busy themselves by carrying them into their underground home, all without further interference by the artist. Gutenberg invented printing letter by letter – perhaps in centuries to come archaeologist will discover the book the ants have will have written on lazy Sunday afternoons?

Kevin van Braak, in his dark and moving installation Too Many Shadows, uses Indonesian wajang puppets to speak about the horrendous abuse his grandfather suffered as a prisoner of the Japanese who forced him to work on the Burma railway.

What seems to be a rather amusing video by Puck Verkade of a grey pigeon (in a handmade mask) in perplexed conversation with its black offspring turns out to pose serious questions about society’s expectations – must it build a nest? And what about the biological female clock ticking, the social pressure to reproduce? A giant egg lands in ‘her lap’ prompting her to question: Is an egg already a living being and who owns that life?

Caren van Herwaarden’s horses, made of card, leather  and string, illustrate how humans use stallions for breeding programs. Some of her figures are shown in the act of copulation. In the powerful drawings some horses lie on the ground, possibly exhausted or even dead due to exploitation, other horses mournfully standing over the inert horse seem to show that horses, just like us, experience real grief.

The undoubted centre piece of the exhibition is Irish artist Sam Keogh’s gigantic exhuberantly coloured cartoon-collage The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle. Think Gollum, Ubu Roi, Frankenstein’s monster or Grimm’s most nightmarish fairy tales coming to haunt your dreams – all this echoing the famous images of the Flemish 16th century tapestries The Hunt for the Unicorn. There are textures of rich royal costumes and luscious plant borders. The ferocious characters in turn hold giant scissors (possibly participating in creating the collage?) and sharp weapons etc. while caressing their favourite hounds as Henry VIII did. It is a truly astonishing work.

An exhibition not to be missed by this excellent museum.  Astrid Burchardt 30th June 2024

RIJSWIJK PAPIER BIËNNALE 2024 continues until 17th November 2024