'Black makes invisible'

Siebe Thissen Lon Pennock and de Blaak, 22.06.2020
Maarten Laupman

Since 1984, one of the most striking works of art in Rotterdam's public space has been located in the central reservation of the Blaak, near the rear of the Markthal. Two identical steel pylons face the sky ecstatic - over twenty meters high, one and a half meters wide, thirty-five centimeters thick, weighing thirteen thousand kilograms, supported by a huge concrete foundation. Rotterdammers love statistics. Despite the size and volume, the columns seem light-footed and poetic. "I deliberately put them off the lead," said Lon Pennock, creator of the twin sculpture. "I didn't want to put them at right angles to the Blaak. They have to lean a little towards each other - that just makes the image exciting '. The Free People baptized the statue when placed 'de Doorkijk'. CBK Rotterdam registered the work five years later as 'An image on the Blaak'. And sometime in time, the exact moment is shrouded in mystery, the image acquired its current name: The River. Just as children of the North American Lakota people first acquire their name after they have grown up, so too should they The River deserve his name. "You can't say we're going to put something here," Pennock explained. 'An environment changes, the city changes and images change with it. An environment is growing, so is an image. If the image is good, it will eventually find its place in architecture. ' And so found the image as The River its place in the built environment.

Although Pennock's sculpture can be read without prior knowledge, it cannot be easily interpreted. The River Critics called it a gate, a boundary, a signal, a marker, and even interpreted as two stelae, although the image is devoid of inscriptions, texts or representations. "That's right, I wanted both records to be perfectly tight, straight and smooth," said Pennock. In order to achieve that perfect image, the sculptor even refused to allow welds. That wish had to be countered with an ingenious skeleton, invisible to the public. A fine example of Anton Furst-like steampunk design keeps both columns upright and motionless from the inside. Yet the matte black plates, however colossal, seem to be only an afterthought: they form a list that wants to draw attention to the void between them. Which The Free People calling his statue 'the Doorkijk' was not so childish. "I'm fascinated by looking," Pennock explained on the eve of his work being posted. 'The cityscape is determined by vistas. I made drawings and models and I kept sliding both plates back and forth on a drawn cross-section of the Blaak. You could always see something different, the image changed constantly. When you cross my church plates at Churchillplein and look in the direction of Blaak train station, you can catch the distance between my two plates and you will see the image of the city constantly changing. ' The River is an exercise in looking.

Although Pennock chose the pedestrian's perspective, his remark about crossing the Blaak was a subtle criticism of his clients. They envisioned a place to stay on the broad central reservation - a metropolitan mezzanine or green esplanade, where pedestrians and office workers could take a break during their lunch break. Not a nun place that would be traversed purely by restless passers-by. But such a romantic 'Ramblas model' for the Blaak was a misunderstanding, Lon Pennock thought, familiar with the history of the area. In the 1980s, the artist was affiliated director of the Academy of Visual Arts, located in one of the most striking monuments on Blaak. 'Blaak 10' was the former bank building of Mees & Zonen, which was built in the period 1930-1934 by the Catholic architect Alexander Kropholler. That Pennock wanted to capture the changing city with his image on the Blaak testified to a sense of reality, because nowhere were the transformations as drastic as here.

De Blaak and Westblaak are part of a somewhat pompous and unbalanced artery in the heart of the city. They form the link between Oostplein and Rochussenstraat. The route, which is far too wide-ranging, seems designed for military parades, parade and carnival parades. Originally, the Blaak was a water that was filled in with rubble during the occupation, from the center bombed by the German Air Force. After the liberation, bank and office buildings arose here. In a westerly direction, the Blaak ran dead past Churchillplein in Westblaak. At the Hartmanstraat, the street was met by a series of 'terribly old houses, turned slums in the most absolute sense', such as The Free People in 1960. "Hundreds of families live here in narrow, sunless streets." In the Basic Plan for Reconstruction a breakthrough to Rochussentraat was already foreseen. This was also the case, because the increased traffic volume had to be streamlined rapidly and the demand for new office buildings was high. Bulldozers made a trail through the city with great violence. On the way, houses were pulled down, the rubble was removed, and poor families with a moving premium of three hundred guilders were moved to Zuidwijk and Hoogvliet. It Algemeen Handelsblad spoke of the new east-west route as' a sloppy run through a cohesive neighborhood ... building over and over, throwing it back, building it again, making a breakthrough, changing it again ... a disorderly and meaningless history. At least, that image is presented to us here in one and the same district. ' After the smoke of the breakthrough had cleared up, new interventions already emerged. The Nieuwehaven was filled in, there was a traffic tunnel for car traffic under the Churchillplein, the cube houses of Piet Blom were built (with that poor gate building that squeezes all of them like a stomach band). The most far-reaching city job was the construction of the metro in an east and west direction. The Blaak was open again. In 1982 an underground metro station was opened, directly opposite the art academy. From his office Lon Pennock saw it all happen. Every day he peered into a construction site.

In the meantime, the insight had dawned that economies of scale, neighborhood breakthroughs and the primacy of traffic had not connected the city districts, but rather had divided them into islands. In his study The inner city experience and Rotterdam (1968) Rob Wentholt mercilessly downplayed the philosophy of reconstruction. The post-war city is said to have sacrificed quality of life, atmosphere and conviviality to 'functional modernism'. Public space had a chronic lack of intimacy, greenery and visual art. Rotterdam had not only become too tight and too business-like, but also empty, cold and gray. The city council and the Urban Development Service felt the urgency. From now on, it was necessary to put a stop to through motorways in the city center; pedestrians and cyclists deserved more space; and the quality of public space had to be increased considerably. The construction of the metro necessitated the redesign of a number of main lines in the city. This offered a unique opportunity to realize the intimacy program in and around the city center. Traffic routes had to be transformed into city boulevards, monotonous sidewalks in tree-lined central reservations with walking paths and residential functions. The boulevards of Paris were studied, the Ramblas in Barcelona, ​​the Scheldt bank of Antwerp and the esplanade along the Rhône in Valence. "We wanted boulevards," said Jan Willem Vader, chief of the Urban Development Department. "Not the boulevards of reconstruction, which had become like highways and had become barriers. We wanted real boulevards, in Paris'. The Blaak had to be tackled in the same way. And on such a new esplanade there was of course also room for visual art.

More than eighty artists responded to an advertisement in the magazine BK Information. The heavily commissioned advisory committee consisted of six artists, three landscape designers from the Urban Development department, an engineer from the Municipal Works department and an architect. In the advertisement text, the committee invited applicants to make a proposal for an autonomous object that, in terms of size and scale, would take the pedestrian as a benchmark. Moreover, this object was supposed to respond to changing circumstances (movement, wind, sun, rain, light, air), should not harm the existing interior of the Blaak, and had to be designed in such a way that maintenance costs would be minimal. The budget was charged to the so-called Fonds Bohré, named after the group chairman of the Rotterdam CDA, Bertus Bohré. In 1975, the city council passed a motion by him calling for a fund for urban beautification. A gigantic series of trees, murals, window boxes, play objects, street furniture, children's farms, fishing jetties, kiosks and street fairs could be financed from that pot. The fund gave a powerful boost to the intimacy program initiated by the city council. In that campaign, an artwork on the new Blaak boulevard was also considered desirable. This boulevard would be designed according to 'the Ramblas type, that is, the widest possible central reservation with green decoration and a strolling option', according to the ad text. BK Information. The advisory committee chose Lon Pennock from the large number of candidates. However, a Trojan Horse was brought in with Pennock, because the artist ignored the assignment description. No Ramblas in Rotterdam. Metropolitan! That was the point. "I particularly like the Blaak's business accent," he told a reporter. "Look at those sizes here! A real urban road, although it is not finished. Compare the Blaak with the Vijzelstraat in Amsterdam! Well, then the latter falls pretty well. I like to make objects in an environment of artificial nature and artificial civilization '.

Pennock observed de Blaak for weeks. The artist noted the dimensions of all buildings. He followed the movements of pedestrians and found that no one was using the central reservation (as evidence he pointed to the moss and weeds that thrived between the tiles). Moreover, there was no question of a classic, uninterrupted central reservation. The strip on the Blaak had the shape of a jagged, elongated island that at the most served as a refuge for pedestrians crossing. Pennock studied the way in which pedestrians preferred to cross the Blaak, always from the river side to the city center or in the opposite direction (urged the notion of this The River for the first time?). He posted at the exit of Blaak Station and saw that no traveler had the idea to use the footpath on the shoulder. He peered into the side streets, such as the Molstraat, from which office staff crossed diagonally to the Dominee Jan Scharpstraat. He was fascinated by the bayonet-shaped shift of the building lines at this intersection. There is a beautiful photo in which Pennock sat all alone on a bench in the central reservation of the Blaak. It is 1982. The decor is formed by car traffic, a concrete apartment complex and poor rows of trees. The artist adopted a meditative posture, hands folded over the groin, his eyes slit. Gazing from under his cap, he absorbs the environment in a concentrated way. And then he suddenly saw it. He had to make an obelisk, like that of Washington and Paris, but as an ensemble, so that one more function could be added to the object: looking. He informed his clients by telephone. The cold sweat was on his back. Was the solution really that simple? The advisory committee was initially not enthusiastic, but was willing to listen to the motives of the artist.

During a presentation, Pennock managed to find support for two gigantic black plates of more than twenty meters, with which he not only created a gate for pedestrians crossing, but also imposed a vertical profile on the Blaak - a genuine tribute to metropolitanism. He did not want to know anything about a small-scale intervention at pedestrian level or other social accents. "Look, it's a misunderstanding to just focus on the pedestrian here," Pennock taught. "There is no beginning and no end to Blaak. Someone who would like to stay in the central lane is one from Mars. That whole esplanade idea isn't going to work here. Not the pedestrian, but the car traffic determines the dynamics of the Blaak. You are dealing with heavy traffic in opposite directions. And that car traffic really does not dwell on your image. That is why there is an image on the Blaak that you only experience for a very short time, at a glance. It must have a very fast experience. Then it's over. ' Pennock convinced his clients that he had to make a grand gesture on the Blaak: a double sculpture of size. Committee members called his presentation convincing and impressive.

Pennock received carte blanche. Both columns were placed on Thursday April 12, 1984. Only one photo, made by Vincent Mentzel for NRC Handelsblad, paid attention to the work. The Free People was only interested in the construction of the 'see-through plates', as if it concerned the industrial production of a ship's hull. The newspaper described in detail how the sandblasting treatments and the application of the matt-gloss black coating were carried out under the supervision of two municipal inspectors. A conversation with the director of the coating company was limited to posturing about extra supplies of paint, necessary if graffiti would tarnish the columns. Five years later, Hans Abelman of CBK Rotterdam regretted that the attention to the disclosure had been so low. At that time it was customary to place images in a sober way in the city. A more mechanical event where at most a small revelation took place with the persons directly involved in the project. ' That regret was understandable, because the image had grown very slowly in the city. The image slowly crept into architecture. And one day, around the turn of the century, was The Rivera fact. A majestic image, unthinkable that it will ever disappear from the Blaak. Motionless, like a tuning fork in a resting position. Unchanging, in a hyper-dynamic environment. The image of Dark City (1998) Imposes itself here, the film by Alex Proyas, in which a telekinetic sect manages to change the architecture and skyline of the city at a killing pace. A stone's throw from The River a new library was built and the Blaaktoren by Piet Blom built. The old air track was replaced by the Willemspoortunnel. The ultramodern Blaak railway station was opened in 1993, office buildings crushed by demolition hammers, or gutted and then repainted. And again and again Pennock peered at the Blaak through the window The River opened for him. "I like an environment that changes," he told anyone who wanted to hear it. "Not that everything has to be overhauled all the time. No stripping. But changes, fine. '

And then the Market Hall came. This post-modern and post-Mediterranean bazaar, designed by the Rotterdam MVRDV, fits seamlessly into the carnival-like architectural landscape that was built around Blaak Station (that status is periodically rewarded with the arrival of a Ferris wheel). During the construction of the Markthal in 2009, entrepreneurs realized that supplying their stands and shops would be problematic. Trucks and vans should drive from Churchillplein to Oostplein. It was necessary to turn there and then drive all the way back to the Markthal. The responsible councilor appeared to be sensitive to the grievances of the entrepreneurs and promised a 'left affer', a new turn to the left at the back of the Markthal and the underground parking in Dominee Jan Scharpstraat. But it was right there The River situated. When asked by the Urban Development Department whether the artwork could be moved, CBK Rotterdam replied resolutely: No, the work is inextricably linked to this place. "We were really in our stomach," said the congregation representative. 'On a map, the image represents no more than two dots. It is easy to slide in the flat surface. But the reality is different. So we started talking to CBK Rotterdam and the artist. '

Pennock expressed his willingness to think about a solution. "An artist does not have to claim inviolability for his art," he thought. 'A metamorphosis of an artwork is always an option. I love that about Rotterdam. That changes are necessary, but that as an artist I am still asked: what do you think? '. He found that a relocation of his artwork was not necessary at all: the left-hand car traffic could also The River be guided. But stationary cars in front of a traffic light and slow-moving traffic moving around the artwork would create a totally new context. "If you get turn-off traffic, the image actually becomes much more active instead of being at a distance," he explained. 'Then it is no longer an image that the whole lot misses, but a pivot around which everything revolves. One way, the other way. Then the work must therefore have a much more active appearance. ' The artist asked reflection period: how could he increase the activity of the image? After a short period of reflection, he proposed a color examination. That was a shock, because CBK Rotterdam had rejected any changes to the artwork at the municipality. "But I made color images quite regularly," Pennock reassured the doubters. 'Menie I think evoke wrong associations in this environment, too much a color of the port. Industrial yellow? Well. I don't think green and blue are good anyway. Maybe red. Eventually I came up with something brassy, ​​a kind of gold. This makes the image really present '. Maintaining the black color was not an option for Pennock. The black had become too invisible on the Blaak. Visibility, that was what it was all about now. Presence. Activity. Dynamics. "Look, the image doesn't change shape, but it becomes a different image," he predicted.

It would take years before the turn to the Markthal was a fact. In mid-April 2014, a renowned painting company from Pernis was commissioned to spray paint The River. A gigantic tower was built around the artwork wrapped in scaffolding cloth. 'Gold' is not a simple polish, but a somewhat complex type of paint, made up of scales that are spread over each other. This results in a shiny metal effect with which the appearance of gold can be simulated. When the sunlight falls on the paint, the light is reflected in an irregular, gold-like way. Previous test samples had been approved by the artist and the applied test layers on pylons were no cause for concern. But after the jetty was cleared and the new one River first revealed, Lon Pennock reported that he was disappointed in the final result. The layered reflection of the sunlight in the paint had the optical effect that the paint layer did not appear smooth. This made it appear as if the image had been spotted and was no longer smooth. "I don't like the paintwork," he said. "This is not what I expected it to be and the painter suggested us. Unfortunately. The work does not have to be redone, that would be destruction of capital. But I do have an advice: if a new coat of paint is necessary in the future, see if applying another layer of gold is an option. '

To meet the artist's doubts about the paintwork, CBK Rotterdam decided to conduct an independent investigation into the company's performance. This research 'into the difference of opinion as a result of the optical experience of the type of paint with a golden appearance' mainly caused frustration: at the painting company, the paint manufacturer, the municipality of Rotterdam, CBK Rotterdam and at the artist. In early July 2014, the investigation report determined that 'no other paint product could have met everyone's expectations, because this is an effect lacquer that is experienced by everyone in a different way. The appearance of the sculpture will have to be accepted as such '. With that statement, the Riding Judge might have been able to settle a civil dispute, such a statement has no value whatsoever in the visual arts.

Short after The River had taken on a golden form, on July 25, 2014, photographer Otto Snoek shot a beautiful photo on the Blaak: It is warm and the sun creates a fascinating shadow pattern on the asphalt. A colorful crowd swings hip in summer clothes, while scantily clad ladies in bikinis, adorned with blue feathers, wings and masks rush to their friends. You hear the city. Summer Carnival in Rotterdam. Slightly to the left of center is Pike The River portrayed. Like gleaming, golden totem poles, extended beyond the frame of the photo, the artwork acts as a magical, connecting element in the cityscape, like an amulet that will give the partygoers happiness. Presence. Activity. Dynamics. While critics and those involved still had bakeries about the color of the columns or a return to the original black The River found his place in the city again. One day the discussion about the right gold will be conducted again. However, a return to the old situation is out of the question, because black, Pennock warned, makes the sculpture invisible.

Published in: Semicolon (19, 2020), 42-46.

- Tjitte de Vries, 'Lon Pennock makes steel' see-through 'to the Blaak', in: The Free People (March 31, 1983);
- 'Pennock makes fire tower art', in: The Free People (September 21, 1985);
- Hans Abelman (editor), An image on the Blaak (Rotterdam: Center for Visual Arts, 1989);
- Jean Leering, 'Rotterdam and The River', in: Kees Rijnboutt (editor), Sculpture 1968-2003 - Lon Pennock (The Hague: Lon Pennock Foundation, 2004), 19-25;
- Jan Houdijk, 'Golden future for The River', Art and Economy in Rotterdam (8, 2007), 31-35;
Less is more. Lon Pennock talking to Sandra Smets, a film by Mels van Zutphen (Rotterdam: CBK Rotterdam, 2013);
The River (The metamorphosis: from black to gold), a film by Emile Steginga (Rotterdam: CBK Rotterdam, 2014).

Related artwork

The River (1984) Lon Pennock
Untitled (1989) Lon Pennock