Skip to main content Start of main content

‘Topsy Turvy’: The End of Carnival in the Netherlands

Installation view, ‘Topsy Turvy’, de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam, 2012. From front to back: David Lloyd, V for Vendetta, 1892–85, series of drawings, and Berend Strik, Selfportrait as Baby, 1995, textile. Photograph: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk. Courtesy the artists and Vanhaerents Art Collection, Brussel.
On the occasion of de Appel’s opening exhibition in its new premises, Nick Aikens reflects on the potential and limitations of sanctioned subversion.
Installation view, ‘Topsy Turvy’, de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam, 2012. From front to back: David Lloyd, V for Vendetta, 1892–85, series of drawings, and Berend Strik, Selfportrait as Baby, 1995, textile. Photograph: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk. Courtesy the artists and Vanhaerents Art Collection, Brussel.

The Dutch cultural landscape – its new funding structures, public perception and own vision of its future – looks precarious. The cuts to the arts in the Netherlands have been discussed at length in the Lowlands and elsewhere, but it is worth briefly sketching the scene: In May the Council for Culture announced their recommendations to the government for the next four years of funding, following last year’s decision to cut state support for the arts by 25% after a decade of healthy – some would say bloated – public funding. 01 The outcome is now clear: a spate of arts organisations will close (SKOR, Netherlands Media Art Institute and SMART Project Space being the most high profile examples in the field of visual art) whereas others will see drastic decreases in funding (BAK in Utrecht, for example, has been re-categorised as a ‘small’ organisation and will receive 60% less funding). The future of the postgraduate art schools Rijksakademie and Ateliers remains uncertain; their survival depending on them coming together under a vastly different guise.

Meanwhile, the Stedelijk, the country’s flagship for modern and contemporary art, will reopen in September following a seven-year renovation to an understandably impatient public, and will be forced to operate 70% more exhibition space with nearly €1m less from Amsterdam city council. 02 To make matters worse for the cultural sector the Dutch public are in general agreement that support for the arts should be slashed, with 60% of people supporting the cuts. 03 The nationalist-populist charge that the liberal elite shouldn’t be subsidised by Henk & Ingrid (the archetypal, hardworking and eminently Dutch couple dreamed up by the nationalist PVV leader Geert Wilders and co-opted by both the right and left), has struck an emphatic chord. The PVV, whose parliamentary support the coalition government was dependent on (it has subsequently collapsed at the hands of the very same party), succeeded in ushering in a new ideology that is belligerent in its criticism of state support for the arts. Artists, museums and intellectuals – for years left to their own devices on an island funded by, but increasingly detached from, the taxpayer – have failed to formulate a coherent argument as to their role within and relevance to public life. For over a decade the leftist art world was allowed, even encouraged, to stand at a safe distance, firing critical blanks at the system that funded them. Now, the weakest parts of their defence – which for the most part rightly pitches supports of the arts in a longer history of the Dutch welfare state – simply re-articulates the ‘us versus them’ rhetoric deployed by populists, placing the arts and its actors at one stepped removed from its constituents and serving only to embolden their adversaries’ attacks. 04 A year on, many of the worst hit still appear to be stuck with their head in the sand, wishing the whole unsavoury episode away.

Not so for de Appel who, a few weeks ago opened the doors to their new four-storey premises on the Prins Hendrikkade in the centre of Amsterdam, marking the end of a six-year search for a new space. That de Appel secured funding and public support for a new building project in the current climate is no mean feat. Completing renovations in time and on budget (it took 12 months to renovate at a cost of €1m) is equally impressive (and in stark contrast to their larger institutional neighbours, the Stedelijk and Rijksmuseum). 05 De Appel have also been granted their requested annual funding of €500,000 per year – meaning, for now, their future is secure.

The new space has undergone a modest renovation with the only noticeable intervention being an open foyer linking ground and first floors. Denieuwegeneratie and ADP architects renovated the eighteenth-century building, which houses four galleries, a library with over 10,000 volumes, archive, a floor for the de Appel curatorial programme and a restaurant in the basement. The new building signals the end of de Appel’s temporary lodging in the Old Boy’s School and a new chapter for one of Amsterdam’s oldest contemporary arts organisations.

Louis Weijters, Berge lat d’r eige aannemers naar de maan gaan, coloured pen and ink drawing, 1959. Courtesy the artist and de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam

How, then, to celebrate and mark a new beginning for an institution within such a torrid and uncertain national context? ‘Topsy Turvy’, the opening show at Prins Hendrikkade, deploys the theme of carnival to walk the tightrope between celebration, subversion, humility and metamorphosis. 06 In her essay in the accompanying publication, director Ann Demeester notes that the Carnival, the Catholic festival celebrated in the south of the Netherlands and the north of Belgium preceding Lent, is a ‘moment of excess prior to several weeks of restraint and introspection’, where normal hierarchies are inverted and subversion reigns supreme. 07 The protocol of Carnival dictates that the keys of the city are given over to the people, embodied by the Carnival prince, followed by three days of ‘sanctioned disobedience’ where the political establishment is openly mocked and ridiculed. The theme of carnival as a combination of protest and party is a pertinent one in the light of the recent swathe of public protest, epitomised by the global Occupy movement, where a celebratory mood has gone hand-in-hand with the wish to upturn established orders. Equally, the idea that the arts themselves have become a form of sanctioned, though ineffectual, field for poking fun at the ruling order makes carnival a useful trope with which to mark a new beginning.

David Lloyd, V for Vendetta, 1892–85, drawing from a series, 27x39cm each, detail. Courtesy the artist and de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam

Whilst many of these lines of investigation are explored in essays in the accompanying publication, the second issue of de Appel’s annual journal The Shadowfiles, the exhibition itself missed the opportunity to delve deeper into some of the more potentially fruitful links between carnival, art and political action and its relevance in the Netherlands today. Instead, the choice of works meandered politely between historical representations of carnival and contemporary works that vary from the mildly subversive to those of science fiction. The opening gallery was a case in point: a series of pen and ink drawings from David Lloyd’s well-known cartoon V for Vendetta(1982–85) tells the story of ‘V’, a hero who roams the streets of London, ruled by fascists after a nuclear fallout. ‘V’, who in the cartoon is the hero for the minorities and nonconformists expelled by the right wing ruling order, hides behind that contemporary signifier of dissidence, the Guy Fawkes mask. Both the Occupy movement and, more recently, those supporting the ACTA protests against stringent new anti-piracy legislation, including a group of Polish MPs, have adopted the mask of the seventeenth-century English rebel. Beside these drawings, lying on the floor of the gallery was Ugo Rondinone’s If There Were Anywhere But Desert. Sunday (2000), depicting a fibreglass clown, an archetypal embodiment of the artist – tragic, disregarded and left on the sidelines. The link between carnival or fantasy, clown and artist is made plain to see – though artists’ recent role in contemporary, more politically volatile carnivals, such as Artists in Occupy Amsterdam, is left unexplored. 08 If, as Demeester rightly notes, ‘tension is rising’ in the Netherlands on both the ‘macro’ (the recent fall of the centre right coalition who were dependent on the support of the populist PVV paty) and ‘micro’ (severe funding cuts across the cultural sector) level, it would seem important to bring those tensions closer to the surface in the exhibition itself, especially when both artistic and carnivalesque strategies might offer fresh perspectives.

Ugo Rondinone, If There Were Anything But Desert. Sunday, 2000, fibreglass sculpture, 2,20m x1m. Photograph: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk. Courtesy the artist and Vanhaerents Art Collection, Brussels

Equally, whilst Esther Peeren explores the historical links between carnival and mass political events in her essay ‘The Metamorphosis of Carnival’, by drawing on examples such as ‘Rock Against Racism’ and the ‘Anti Nazi League’ in 1970s Britain (I would add the Jarocin Rock Festival in Poland in the 80s), ‘Topsy Turvy’ decided not to examine historical examples of the verve for protest and party in favour of a series of objects and images that remain within and restricted by their status as art. 09 Historical representations of carnival, such as James Esnor’s Carnaval en Flandre (Carnival in Flanders, 1929–30), a quaint canvas depicting a typical Belgian Carnival scene where figures dress up as satirical judges or over-zealous soldiers, are here held in a double-bound straitjacket: a representation of the sanctioned disobedience of Carnival displayed within the sanctioned mocking house of a contemporary art institution.

James Esnor, Carnaval en Flandre, 1929–30, oil on canvas, 54.5×73 cm. Courtesy the artist and de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam

Elsewhere there are works that depict a blurring or upturning of norms: Ottica Xero (2007), Maja Borg’s fictional documentary of Nadya Cazan, a fledgling actress who rejected fame and money to become a political activist, is an alluring portrayal of a woman who chooses utopian ideals over material wealth. Likewise, Melanie Gilligan’s personification of the economy undergoing psychotherapy treatment in Self- Capital (2009) humorously undermines the notion of the perpetually rational market. Yet the context of endorsed and subsequently impotent disorder – both the lens of carnival and the sanctioned space of the institution – blunt their critique. If, as Peeren comments, carnival only becomes politically volatile – and effective – when it breaks its own boundaries, there is a strong case to be made for artists and institutions to re-examine their own legitimised form of rule-breaking. A good place to start would seem a more cunning, deviant approach to the structures, politics and history within which they operate that could lead to new forms of critical traction.

Pereen goes on to write that carnival relies on the idea of metamorphosis for effect and as a result needs to perpetually morph in order to retain a sense of effective subversion: ‘If it is to unsettle permanently and radically it needs to break out of its strictures which runs the risk of destroying the carnival spirit.’ 10 As the Dutch cultural field finds itself in un-chartered territory, ruthlessly thrown out of its comfort zone for ideological, rather than economic reasons, enforced metamorphosis is well under way. As Demeester notes in her text, the game has changed. Sanctioned disobedience has proved to be a dead end. The challenge to institutions is to now bend the rules.


  • The Council for Culture is the legal adviser to the Dutch government in the arts, culture and media. As their website states: ‘The Council provides recommendations regarding the cultural policy in the Netherlands, whether it is requested of them or not.’ See
  • The Stedelijk requested a subsidy of €15.5m a year for 2013–16 but was granted €11.6m a year, down from €12.5m a year for the past three years.
  • Ibid, p.79.
  • The original budget for the Stedlijk renovation, announced in 2002, was €50m with a projected opening date of 2008. It will open in September 2012 with €112m spent, due in large part, to the mismanagement of Amsterdam City Council. NRC 3rd Septmebr 2011, p.2. The main building of the Rijksmuseum has been closed since 1992. The original budget for its renovations were €200m. The current estimate is €375m. NRC, 21st December 2010.
  • The exhibition ‘Topsy Turvy’ runs from 25 May to 23 September 2012. For more information, see
  • Ann Demeester, ‘“Within the Rules We Change the Game”: “Topsy Turvy” and Turning the Word Upside Down’, The Shadowfiles, no.2, p.10.
  • Occupy Amsterdam is presented in Shadowfiles, where writer Daniël Rovers recounts his experience of the Occupy camp. D. Rovers, ‘I Am Really Not Going to Like This’, ibid., pp.45–62.
  • Esther Pereen, ‘The Metamorphosis of Carnival’, ibid., pp.21–30.
  • Ibid., p.28.