Ad de Jong


We encountered Ad de Jong a few years back when we were both presenting at a seminar at OSR Projects. Ad began his talk with a photo of himself taken in the late 1970s. The black and white photo depicts Ad in the mid-ground, his back to the camera, beyond Ad is a line of riot police, facing him, shields raised. It’s a striking punk image reminiscent of any number of anti-establishment protests where the individual and the collective face off against the State and capitalist interests. In 1979, Ad along with Guus van der Werf, Marianne Kronenberg, Martha Crijns and Reinout Weydom squatted a large derelict building in the centre of Amsterdam and launched W139, an artist-led art space which is still running today. Sluice interviewed Ad for the spring 2021 edition of Sluice magazine which was dedicated to institutional critique.

  Sluice   For something born in those circumstances to survive for over 40 years there must have been some serious consideration about where you wanted W139 to sit in relation to the institution and by extension where you as an artist sit in relation to the institution.

  Ad de Jong   In the beginning of W139 there was no relation to the art world in the sense that we wanted recognition. We were part of the art world because as soon as you show art you are somewhere part of this world if you want it or not. As squatters we wanted a place to live and work and as artists, we wanted a place to show our art. After the first 10 years without any structure, I became the first artistic director. The first years artists payed a small fee for cost of electricity etc. Because I was a working artist myself, I focused on – and was stimulated by – the artist programming (and not what was going on at biennales etc).
Because the W139 space is enormous you have to come up with a solid courageous plan to make a show. From the beginning of my time as artistic director and later on the exhibitions had a museum-like quality although they looked different. So, the direction towards the art institutions and funding foundations were not existing, but we had such speed in exhibiting and transforming the space, that they came after us to see what was going on. After my artistic directorship period ended we decided we would change the artistic director every 2 or 4 years so that the place would not get stuck in the ideas of one person. And for a long time, they were also artists. After 2020 the funding institutions became more and more curatorially oriented. More and more they wanted a grip on the planning and they suggested that with a curator the shows will be better. They wanted to secure their artistic vision, whereas the vision of W139 is always up to date because they follow the ideas of the artists which in my eyes are always true to the moment/time. W139 does not want to be successful as an institution but wants the artist to show their ideas in whatever way they want to.
So, funding institutions want you to become more professional and international in a way that they can claim part of that success. The goal with my friends after the first years was to secure W139 as an artist-led space, for the city. Later the W139 foundation bought the building and now it will be forever an artist’s space. My position as an artist was and is, that I always create my own space in this art world. My dependence is on people to come and look at my sculptures, not institutions or galleries, in that way I stay independent as organiser and artist.

In much of the art world the idea is to want to be the best and collect the most money etc. whereas W139 wants to give energy and new ideas from artists to the people.

Ad de Jong

  Sluice   Your vibrant large-scale sculptures resemble monolithic superstructures of dubious structural integrity. Or scaled-up infrastructural model parts for an unrealised engine or piece of engineering. Artists start projects and galleries for all sorts of reasons, but what I find most compelling is when the project grows out of the studio practice of the artist, one informing the other. Do you see a connection between the things that drove you to start W139 40 years ago with your current constructions?

  AdJ   After I finished the art academy I was mentally interested in the dark black space of anarchy where you can go in and bring from the dark unknown space new structures for our world. I started to disregard the usual materials like clay, plaster, wood, machines and factories to make my art. I started from scratch to make my own art world for people making sculptures with plastic bags, cardboard boxes from the street and fluid epoxy resin. Trying with these materials to give form to my ideas. And from there and then I still make every centimetre of my small and large sculptures with my own eyes and hands, to bring my spirit & energy directly in my sculptures.
My current sculptures: I make them in a way, although very colourful, that they are ‘a black dark space’. You don’t know what they are, I try to make them unrecognisable. When you start looking, you enter a new space, inside yourself. My sculpture becomes a reflection of your new space, and maybe expands your vision or consciousness. The same idea was at the start of W139 and is true for W139. When we started (in 1979) nobody had money to buy such quantities of material to fill the big space with their art, so you relied on do-it-yourself with paint and simple construction materials – often stolen from construction sites – and container found materials. The shows were totally made for and built on-site, which gave it a special true energy. We moved away from the usual gallery white walls and museum ideas, and started from scratch to realise and build our own vision of how a space for our art should look.
Because the W139 building was situated in the run-down sex-worker area the mental and physical background of the shows were people from all over the world, and junkies and dealers. In that situation you cannot fake or pretend anything, you have to be true to yourself, because as an exhibiting artist you would host the show from noon through to midnight.

The New Reach at School Club, Ad de Jong, Amsterdam, 2017

  Sluice   Do you think it’s possible (and desirable) for artists and artist-led organisations to remain antagonistic to the institution, to the establishment? Can independence really be maintained when funding comes with certain expectations?

  AdJ   Yes. Because true new art and ideas come from a free space; the artists studio. The artist (exhibition) space has to stay free too, to bring all this in a free and open way to all people, not a selected group. W139 has no entrance fee, the donation sign says pay what you will. True, independence becomes more and more difficult because funding commissions want to steer more and more your programme on their ideas and not on the plans and directions artists are moving with their art.

  Sluice   Mark Fisher describes ‘the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.’ Can art provide a real alternative to the institutional and capitalist status quo or are we just court jesters performing critique?

  AdJ   YES. But not an alternative, because that means from the base of capitalism (money rules art) towards an alternative. No, we have to build and start a new (art) world from the bottom up. It will be painful to leave everything behind. To start at the art academies. The problem is that people want to experience and feel less and less, (they become afraid of change) because of the digital screens, but to change the whole world and get away from the catastrophic ideas we embrace now we have to realign ourselves with everything around us, nature, stars, all people on this earth, in a way that we are connected to everything and we have to live and work accordingly. Art is a great way to experience yourself in a different way and give people questions and answers for the future.

  Sluice   So if we’re talking about the physicality of the art work as situated in the world as a way of embracing our interconnectedness – do you feel the context of where your work is shown affects the mediation/reception of the work? For instance, I’ve always found it odd seeing Arte Povera artworks in commercial galleries. Surely that neutralises any countercultural power it once held? Can art be neutered by where it’s shown?

  AdJ   It affects it, but not all the way, the essence stays. I have experienced that with my former Gallery in Antwerp, Annette De Keyser, the energy and the impact of my sculptures, for a sensitive person stayed the same.
Because the starting point from my sculptures is always an intention, which starts with the question what do I want to give? Some places you can give more. Recently I exhibited my large sculptures in a famous nightclub De School in Amsterdam. People could see it all night long and touch all the sculptures and just be with them, I think, one of my best shows ever.

  Sluice   Your art is often monumental and invites interaction or at least doesn’t allow for non-engagement. I feel for you the artwork is just as much about the relationship between object and viewer as it is about the object and the environment it finds itself in. So, the object is not passive but a bit of a trojan horse – or a virus that aims to overwhelm the contextual baggage of the host venue. What are your feelings on this, can art exist in potentially hostile environments without being conceptually damaged?

  AdJ   Again, that depends upon what you want with your artwork. If you want it to shine and sell for as much as possible the only space for you is a white cube gallery. If you want to contribute to your surroundings or the world at large a hostile environment is even better, I think as long as you as the artist are in charge of the way it is installed, in every aspect. Pure conceptual art depends mostly on an intellectual text or story that makes it mostly impossible to exhibit in a non art friendly space. There is less or no time to go reading and look and think. I believe that everybody can resonate and connect viscerally with a physical artwork that is made to connect from the visual appearance and not only from the intellectual understanding.

  Sluice   The institution is often aligned to ideas of hierarchy and gatekeeping, how can an institutional space that prioritises free explorations of creativity and display ensure the space remains accessible to a broad distribution of artists?

  AdJ   To ensure that accessibility for all artists, till 2012 W139 had an artistic director, then from 2012 till 2021 a group of 20 artists were in charge each by initiating a large show with their own selected artists and would then appoint a new member after that show to the group of 20 artists. That was a meaningful experiment which W139 is now reviewing and three artists are now revaluating with the board and setting up a new programme.

  Sluice   From our perspective we can see a value in cosplaying as an institution, because a certain perceived authority can be helpful building relationships with official bodies, press and the public. However, this sets up a conflict between what you actually are and how you’re seen, is this something you experienced with W139 and as an artist? When you showed the protest photo you seemed to be alluding to the idea that what is presented to us (physically at the seminar) may not reflect what lies beneath.

Billboards in the street for expo at W139, 1993

  AdJ   In a way you can hardly avoid cosplaying nowadays because application for grants for me as an artist and funding for W139 are written not visual applications. You have to translate your ideas and the ideas from artists into a structured and readable plan and that plan is competitive with other applications. In this way you mostly know exactly what boxes to tick to have more chances to get a positive result. It is a balancing act not to be more Catholic then the pope and still get funding. The problem lies in the conviction that commissioners believe that when artists make art they are not thinking but only making, and therefore text is valued above pictures of your artworks which are underscoring your new plans. Whilst making art is the sublime act of thinking, looking and making at the same time, and philosophy is the friend of art but not art itself.

  Sluice   Processes calcify over time, regulations bind, systems become standardised and quantifiable. How can an artist-led org with institutional processes allow for non-quantifiable results? How, after 40 years, does W139 maintain a lightness of touch organisationally and artistically?

  AdJ   By allowing artists with diverse ideas to exhibit next to each other and for their ideas to lead in the development of the programme rather than curatorial correctness or prioritising the institutions profile. As Thomas Hirschhorn would say ‘Energy: Yes! Quality: No!’ Stay away from becoming professional and embrace energy.  s

   This interview features in the Spring 2021 edition of the Sluice_magazine