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Old Church in search of contemporary forms of charity and mercy

Amsterdam's oldest and perhaps most beautiful building combines quite a few functions. Although tourists are dominant these days, believers still celebrate the love of God there every week. And even though the former Nicolaaskerk no longer provides space for fishermen to mend their nets, organ concerts are still given there, since the fourteenth century. Handing out bread is no longer today, but the chocolate milk on 5 December that I enjoyed with my daughter for many years stands in a long tradition of caring for the poor and sick.

Surrounded by an international array of peasants and outlaws who come to see the whores, and fortune seekers trying to get a piece of the pie, it sometimes seems as if nothing substantial changes on the Red Light District, all these centuries in and around the Old Church.

Misericordia #1, Old Church 28 October 2016
Misericordia #1, Old Church 28 October 2016


Tonight marks the second evening of the Misericordia project at the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. With talks and reports, performances, soup and a guided tour by ex-homeless people, journalists, artists, scientists, architects and other cultural workers try to actualise ideas about mercy and charity in the centuries-old and overwhelmingly beautiful Oude Kerk.

Non-fiction, an organisation that makes programmes on social developments, urbanisation and architecture, holds offices in one of the small houses leaning against the church. Together with director Old Church Jacqueline Grandjean, Michiel van Iersel and René Boer set up a programme to recalibrate ideas and practices of charity and mercy. Because on the one hand, we are getting into it: charity is an increasingly hippy pursuit for the newly rich. On the other hand, Europe is unable to deal with the refugee crisis, and in the Netherlands, too, a xenophobic leader is high in the polls.

Journalists, including Jeroen Smit and Maarten Zeegers, report on how charity is thought of on the South Axis or in the mosque. Mirjam Vossen analysed the different frameworks within which global poverty is depicted, by Western politicians, journalists and NGOs. Against the abstraction of thinking and the dominant images, there are then the relatively small and concrete interventions or actions of people who oppose human trafficking or who, with a performance, want to make us aware of how we pay attention or work together.

No mean feat

Amal Alhaag, including as a curator at Framer Framed, makes radio about the less positive sides of charity. Luca Hillen lets visitors explore the church together with their eyes closed and Lada Hrsak made architectural puzzle pieces, which can be used as props by guests and visitors.

Salva Sanchis, Island 1, museumn8, Old Church, 2016. Photo: Fransien van der Putt
Salva Sanchis, Islands 1, during Museumn8, Old Church, 2016. Photo: Fransien van der Putt.

As an artist, it is no mean feat to relate to the spectacular beauty and centuries of history of the Old Church. Yet for decades, the Old Church has sought to actualise the spiritual and social functions of the church building, and contemporary art plays a natural role in it. I recall, for example, Rietveld students in the 1990s experimenting with sound right under the centuries-old and famous main organ.

The Garden which is nearest to God, Taturo Atzu, installation on roof Old Church, 2015. Photo: Wim Hanenberg
The Garden which is nearest to God, Taturo Atzu, Old Church, 2015. Photo: Wim Hanenberg

Today, activities at the Old Church have been taken to a slightly higher level. Under director Beaujean, the church received a hefty subsidy for the first time. But not everyone is happy with the distinctly challenging artistic policy. As recently as 2015, for instance, many citizens of the city protested the arrival of Taturo Atzu's installation on the church's roof, like this parole article shows.


Wrongly. The Garden which is nearest to God proved a model of artistic intervention in public space, something that has become a rarity in Amsterdam's otherwise populist programme. The Oude Kerk's programme manages to link tradition and convention with artistic and social experimentation and was rewarded for it.

Germaine Kruip, Column Untitled, 2011-2015, Oude Kerk, Amsterdam.
Germaine Kruip, Column Untitled, 2011-2015, Oude Kerk, Amsterdam.

From the successful exhibitions of Germaine Kruip last year or Marinus Boezem at the moment, it appears that radical yet subtle interventions in particular survive the glory of rich history and impressive architecture. Kruip and Boezem's work also has in common that, in very different ways, they explicitly involve and implicate the visitor in their work, which has both landscape and ritual aspects. Architecture and social history, ritual and spiritual practices resonate through the materiality of the work, which is placed in space and time not as an autonomous object but as a gesture. It is about people's actions, movements and motivations, which have left traces and are recalled. See here also the importance of performance art.

Night wanderings

The work of David Helbich or Salva Sanchis, and other artists working with performance who have been featured at the Oude Kerk in recent years, including in the series Night-time wanderings, show well how important small, terse investments can be. Seeking interaction with the audience, not forcing them but inviting them to enter into a different relationship with the environment, to open ears and eyes, and in this to include one's own behaviour, body and history as material to work with - it is not an easy task, but certainly worth trying. Helbich which, on the basis of a do-it-yourself score or puzzle tour, makes people aware of the aural space in the church and then extends it to such diverse things as the trance beat or the silence of a cloister. Or Salva Sanchis, unfortunately much too rarely seen as a choreographer in the Netherlands, who with his choreographic interventions entitled Islands 1, incredibly connects simplicity and complexity.



Architect Lada Hrsak says of her part in Misericordia: "It is quite an open definition that we use. Everyone who contributes interprets mercy or charity from their own background, as professionals, but also as human beings. We come from very different parts of the world and so have been brought up with different ideas of charity. That sometimes clashes, but I think that is precisely the intention. Not a solution but an exploration, which leaves room for criticism, for difference. The personal is actually very important. You can come up with all kinds of radical plans as an urbanist or architect, but perhaps interaction as a human being with other people is more important right now."

Good to know

Commencement Misericordia , 10 December, 18:00, Oude Kerk, Amsterdam. For more info, see Website Old Church


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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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