In his 2010 film Commission, Erik van Lieshout is faced with a problem. Having agreed to make a work in response to the Zuidplein mall in Rotterdam South – a poor suburb of the city that’s home to a number of immigrant communities – he now must come up with the goods. Drifting past the shop fronts with his video camera, chatting to nail bar workers and toilet attendants, shooting footage of florist’s displays and security guards frowning at North African teens, the artist asks himself ‘how do you make a film about a shopping centre in which you are personally involved’?’ Rotterdam South is a place van Lieshout knows well – he lived here from 1993 to 2007 – but he’s struggling to connect with this mall, with its 10 mobile phone stores and 63 CCTV cameras, or maybe he’s struggling with the whole idea of making a commissioned work. Van Lieshout’s art is many things – sharply political, often hilarious, fearless in the face of uncomfortable human truths – but it is not socially ameliorative, or at least not in the bright-eyed, unambiguous sense that might please the average bureaucrat.
Zuidplein, we should note, isn’t one of the city’s more famous monuments to capitalism – you won’t find it on tourist maps alongside Rem Koolhaas’ De Rotterdam (2013), say, or MVRDV’s Markthal (2015). Beached on the ‘wrong’ side of the harbor, its units house a mixture of unremarkable chain stores, cheap clothiers, kebab sellers, and a single Christian bookshop (a hangover from a different era, in a neighbourhood in which Islam is perhaps now the dominant faith). If the Zuidplein that van Lieshout presents in Commission isn’t quite dead yet – despite the recent global financial crisis, shoppers still wander its hallways, trying, as one shopkeeper puts it, ‘to fill up an emptiness’ through consumption – then it appears to be approaching a kind of terminal decline, like the elderly white men who spend their twilight years mouldering on the mall’s benches, chatting about their cancer diagnoses, and making dark remarks about immigrant gangs. As van Lieshout’s camera lingers on a scurrying mouse, we learn from one shopkeeper that cuts at Zuidplein have impacted on trash disposal. Another tells the artist that most of the mall’s small businesses have been replaced by brand franchises, while a third, asked if there is a sense of fellowship among the shopkeepers, replies that in the current climate, it’s every retailer for themselves.
Now and then, security guards hassle van Lieshout about filming, as though they were cops protecting a parliament from an imminent terrorist atrocity. Usually in the artist’s work, his charisma – a kind of weaponised guilelessness, to which people respond with astonishing and often self-defeating candour – is the only tool he needs to open up a community and expose its contradictions, but Rotterdam South, his former home, is proving a tough nut to crack. Glumly, van Lieshout ponders the purpose of his project, concluding that ‘my added value to Zuidplein is not great’. His apparent internalization of the numbing language of arts bureaucracy is telling. Providing ‘added value’ to a shopping mall, after all, is very far from the avant-garde dream, in which art is an end in itself, and artists are only answerable to the call of their own talent. Can he find a way to negotiate this commission without compromising his practice? Can artistic freedom survive in this environment, ‘a place where there is no art’? What, then, is to be done?
Van Lieshout’s answer is to go native. Putting aside his role as the mall’s artist in residence – an ecological niche somewhere between anthropologist and travelling circus performer – he rents an empty unit, opens a store (‘the model shop of Zuidplein’) and joins the retailer’s tribe. Compared to the other outlets, his stock is eccentric, as is his attitude to commerce: he fills his shelves with bouquets of dried Brussels sprout stalks, and a hoard of grimy screws, bolts and other odds and ends acquired from a boozy Croatian guy named Swonko, none of which are for sale. In the film’s funniest scene, Van Lieshout and his assistants carry a box of this junk up Zuidplein’s escalators, while Swonko brings up the rear, straddling a broomstick like a witch and bellowing ‘giddy up, giddy up!’ The Croat’s clowning causes the box to topple over, spilling scrap metal into the escalator’s workings, which shudder to a sudden, horrifying halt. Van Lieshout breaks into nervous laughter, while on the opposite escalator two teenaged girls squint and shrug, blithely unimpressed by the middle-aged artist, and his sweaty crew of vandals. As the girls pass by, the camera lingers longingly on their pert, receding buttocks. Lechery has seldom felt like such an admission of defeat.
If van Lieshout’s shop is an oddity in Zuidplein, it at least provides him with something to talk about with his fellow shopkeepers – a patch of unstable common ground. One retailer advises him on his ‘point of sale material’ (fixtures, fittings, promotional images), which the artist translates into bare wood curvilinear shelving, rickety water features, and large posters of two of Rotterdam’s most notorious sons, the ‘starchitect’ Rem Koolhaas (whose axiom ‘Real Luxury is Buying Nothing’ also appears on the shop’s frontage), and the assassinated Far Right politician, Pim Fortuyn. Seeing these posters, a white visitor complains that Koolhaas’ OMA employs a lot of young foreign architects on short-term contracts (‘they’re all expats, nothing to do with Rotterdam), while a smiling African man confesses that he has no idea who Fortuyn was. Multiculturalism, and its attendant tensions, is one of Commission’s big subplots, always bubbling away, but never – of course – resolved. During a coffee break, the artist’s assistant Wouter, a preppy kid who positively reeks of unchecked privilege, claims that the PVV leader Geert Wilders is ‘a genius’. Does Wouter share the politician’s opinions on immigration? He certainly shares his hairstyle, a slicked back pompadour-cum-mullet that couldn’t feel further from the streets of Rotterdam South.
Van Lieshout’s shop opens to a mixture of curiosity and confusion. One visitor asks ‘is it modern?’, while another warns ‘I don’t think people will understand it’. On the advice of his mother, the artist serves tea (‘cheaper than coffee’), and in an echo of the ‘gift economies’ identified by the French sociologist Marcel Mauss, he begins to give away items from Swonko’s stash. He worries that he has made the shop look like a work we might find in a museum (‘Oh fuck, it’s art. But art is so cool!’), and that none of the mall’s inhabitants grasp its meaning. At one point, he attempts to take refuge in the fact that he is a hired hand, stating that ‘what I do is harmless. I received a project commission, so essentially I’m here in all innocence’. This, of course, is only a momentary self-delusion. Van Lieshout is aware that he is complicit in a fiction – art as ‘added value’, art as a measurable social good – and that his ‘innocence’, his disingenuous ingenuousness, is the very thing that’s allowed to get under a few millimeters under Zuidplein’s tough and greying skin. Speaking to the artist in 2010, he told me that Commission ‘is my commentary on the socio-political powerlessness of people and of art. It is also my quest for home’. The films ends with one of the mall’s managers observing that van Lieshout has been very energetic in promoting his shop, and that ‘it’s a pity he’s not an entrepreneur, but an artist’. We might wonder – in an age in which no sphere of human activity seems to be impervious to market forces – just how meaningful this distinction is.