Wendelien van Oldenborgh, a visual artist who lives and works in Rotterdam, has been awarded the 2014 Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Art (EUR 100,000, half of which is intended to fund a publication and/or exhibition).
According to the jury, Van Oldenborgh occupies a unique place in the Dutch artistic landscape because of the way in which she addresses modern-day social issues in exceptional, authoritative and multi-layered works. Van Oldenborgh has an impressive track record, having exhibited at the São Paulo Biennial (2010), the Istanbul Biennial (2009) and other internationally renowned art fairs.
Van Oldenborgh’s work accesses parts of our reality that remain in the background in other areas of public life. We see a world that is often hidden from view on television and in the papers. A somewhat older example is Sound Track Stage, part of the series A Certain Brazilianness (2006). Here, she set up the representatives of two subcultures, “Gabber” and “Hip Hop”, for a musical and verbal confrontation. The confrontation unfolded at Rotterdam’s Boijmans van Beuningen Museum and was shot professionally and screened as it took place. Both during the public recording session and in the film, she avoided a black-and-white depiction of these subcultures but showed them to be complex systems in which similarities overlap subtly with differences.
Van Oldenborgh has a unique ability to build a dialogue between a precisely selected social or historical theme, a space, and a film or photograph. This is very clear in her more recent work, for example Après la reprise, la prise (2009), in which she focuses on two employees of an old French jeans factory who are reinventing themselves as actors. The two women tell their life story to a group of vocational school students who are about to graduate. The work consists of slides and audio clips documenting their encounter and projected in a fit-for-purpose space. The two generations of workers brought together in sound and image raise questions about industrial and demographic shifts. Van Oldenborgh compares and contrasts the ethnically mixed group of pupils with the older, white employees, whose work in the theatre has unexpectedly landed them in the “creative” industry. Their meeting unfolds into an interaction in which images and sound are not there to illustrate a story but to enter into dialogue with each other. Images and sound assume an importance beyond the story. The challenge for the viewer is not only to comprehend the world (as narrative), but – by looking – to understand a familiar story in a new way. It is precisely this subtlety that reveals Van Oldenborgh’s unique artistry.