It’s Friday evening in the entrance hall of the Shell-sponsored Van Gogh Museum. Seven muses silently look over the public as they sip their indigestibly oily amuse-bouches from a scallop shell. One muse recites a paragraph from Vincent van Gogh himself —from a letter to his brother— on the subject of courage in the face of danger. It talks about the rising waters, and finding the strength to struggle to survive.
The museum however, is not amused; it corrals the artists and calls the police on them. They spend the night in jail. Four among them choose not to identify themselves, as is common practice amongst detained people of good conscience who wish to show solidarity with undocumented migrants. For this they are taken to foreign detention for a second, and then a third night.
The #VanGogh8 affair quickly sends its ripples across the world. According to the museum, the dripping of a non-staining glucose syrup on the floor is public ‘property damage’ — but fracking, drilling, burning and spilling fossil fuels planet-wide is somehow not. According to the museum, an unsolicited art performance is ‘trespassing’ — while allowing corporate polluters to host parties in front of publicly-funded national treasures is not.
Following a spontaneous, hundred-strong ‘wake’ for justice on Sunday, and museum phones being flooded with calls all weekend, the museum momentarily comes to its senses. It decides not to press charges against the #VanGogh8, despite having called the police on them in the first place. In a vain effort to appease tensions, the museum director poses in front of the Sunflowers and speaks, while four performers spend Mothers’ Day silenced in solitary confinement. After sixty-eight hours in detention with persistent bullying from police, all remaining muses are finally released on Monday.
In a statement published later that day, the museum offers no consolation to the performers or their supporters. Unable to give an accurate account of their mismanagement of the situation, the museum maintains the ludicrous position that such artistic performances constitute a ‘security risk’ to the collection. The verifiable reality is that the performance was staged for the entrance hall steps, very far from any paintings. The oil substitute had long ago been tested and proved to be non-staining to the museum floor. The nature of the performance itself was very clearly peaceful and aesthetic.
As the performance took place, a spokesperson (also arrested) voluntarily informed the security about the intention, non-violence and duration of the piece. The performance, with a total length of five minutes, was planned to end with a dignified exit. Contrary to the museum’s claims, the performers were never asked to leave, but in fact prevented from doing so, and held inside the museum against their will.
The museum’s press statement works very hard to portray the partnership with the climate-wrecking company as benign. Sounding exactly as though it was written by Shell’s PR department, such a statement only serves as a prime expression of the museum’s misguided affinities and priorities there.
While the few drops of glucose syrup on the museum floor are long gone, we believe that the stained reputation of the museum will take much more effort to restore. We call on the museum’s director Alex Rüger and head of security Adrie Kok to take responsibility for the disproportionately punitive response they directed against this peaceful creative criticism, and offer an apology to those that they arranged to have arrested.
As long as the Shell sponsorship remains in place, the stain on the museum will be there. The Van Gogh Museum and all the other public institutions with fossil fuel stained finances should put their houses in order, and take a stand on the right side of history. Fossil Free Culture NL remains committed more than ever to exposing the toxic ties between fossil fuel companies and cultural institutions.
Let it be loud and clear: this is only the opening act. Expect us.