Lost Luggage Depot

The most obvious meaning of Canadian artist Jeff Wall’s cast-iron monument at Rotterdam’s Kop van Zuid area is its link to the history of Wilhelmina pier, the spot the sculpture was designed for and placed in October 2001. For decades this was where emigrants boarded the Holland America Line, in most cases never to see their mother country again. When the shipping company terminated the service, its office building and departure hall remained and were used for other purposes. The office building, virtually unchanged, at the end of the pier is now the Hotel New York and Wall’s sculpture has been erected on its spacious forecourt right on the quay.

In 1990 the Dutch government donated one million guilders (454,000 Euro) to Rotterdam to produce a specially commissioned work of art to commemorate its 650-year town status and fifty years of post-war reconstruction. The choice of Lost Luggage Depot by Jeff Wall, known for his large staged photographs in light boxes, dates from 1996. The monument at Kop van Zuid is his first and only sculpture thus far.

The work comprises an octagonal framework with three levels. All its components, apart from the lamp post in the middle, are casts of existing objects, from the suitcases, bags, boxes and kit bags through the beams and planks of the framework to the depot manager’s coffee mugs, cooking ring and flattened Coke cans in the bin. The result of this unconventionally executed material duplication recalls the freezing of a moment in time as captured in photography. And similar to a photograph there is no difference between essential and accidental visual elements – everything that appears ‘in front of the lens’ is given the same physical and mechanical treatment.

The objects in the depot are from various periods in time, ranging from a century-old duffel bag to a very recent computer holdall. At the moment the iron founder finished the work, the accumulation of time inferred came to a standstill and the history represented was concluded. Wall chose cast-iron instead of bronze for its rougher quality and the fact that cast-iron puts a slightly greater distance between the objects and their original materials. The sculpture has a seven-degree rotation so that the lower and upper levels of the framework jump out from each other thereby creating a subtle broken rhythm. This can be seen as symbolically representing the historical split between an original object and its reproduction – this broken link, however, is still a link. As the artist explains: “When you enter it [the work] you will know that it is not real. Yet, because it has been cast from real things, it will appear to present a direct trace of those things, things that must have existed if their casts were to have been taken.” By painting everything in a matt rust-colour, Wall not only increases the formal unity of the piece as a whole, but highlights the historical disruption lurking behind the apparently literal appearance of the casts.

Notwithstanding what it is supposed to represent or commemorate, a monument always includes a homage to the idea of what is appropriate and applicable. No matter the historical reference behind it, a monument always says something about itself: this belongs here, this is in its rightful place, this will always be here. The contemporary art world may turn its nose up at traditional forms of monumentality, but meanwhile – especially with regard to installation or in-situ art – it conforms to the concept of what is appropriate and applicable by requiring that a work of art be based on a specific interaction with the proposed site. Thus site-specificity has evolved over the past decades into a general prescription of an imperative nature. The odd point about this is that even temporary or ephemeral works of public art display a characteristic of monumentality.

In his design for Kop van Zuid, Jeff Wall appears to have had no intention of breaking free from the classic concept of a monument. This is immediately evident from the uncompromising mass of iron utilized and the craftsmanship of the casting. Nevertheless, he has put into perspective the dogma of site-specificity by relating his work to those emigrant people who actually cut the bonds with their native soil. “I want the monument to remember those who have left, whenever they left, and to recognize those who arrive, whenever they have arrived, and from wherever they have come.” One cannot escape such political references in understanding this work of art, which partly determines its present-day relevance. However, it is the concept of displacement and being uprooted that also reshapes the meaning of the theme of emigration and immigration and brings it back to the domain of thinking about art. Wall’s evocation of a lost luggage depot can also be seen as an improvised ‘orphanage’ for the objet trouvé or ready-made. Marcel Duchamp chose his ready-mades out of a sense of aesthetic indifference, feeling neither drawn nor repelled by the objects he came across. His ideal was to merge the wanted and the unwanted, the will and the lack of will. Jeff Wall actually pulled both poles apart again. In contrast to the will to depart, he places the unwanted loss of a case or bag.

Camiel van Winkel

Citates: Jeff Wall, “Proposal for the Kop van Zuid Monument Rotterdam”, in: informatieblad Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, nr. 17, september 1996.

Publicatiedatum: 12/05/2015