Past Imperfect

Installation / Participatory performance
Cityscapes Foundation / Amsterdam / Sep 2019

The project happened upon invitation by Cityscapefoundation in Amsterdam. During a week of working in the foundation space in Waterlooplein, I sat with the neighbors and people of the neighborhood, asking them questions about the period of their life they spent in the area:  “which year was the darkest year of your life here? Which year was the happiest year of your life? In which year did you fall in love?” Participants could choose a color of the transparent fabrics, between the color selection I made available in the workspace, and they could mark their homes on the map of the neighborhood drawn on the wall. Later, I drew the facade of their homes on the other wall and connected them with ropes to the wall of the map. Between the two walls, the shades of colors—representing the emotional calendar of neighbors’ lives—were hanging from the ropes. Each conversation contributed to the installation, which shaped itself in a week time.  

Four more wall pieces, large textile embroideries, accompanied the exhibition. In these curtains I illustrated my ideas about light in the Northern cities, urban objects and invisible forces in the public space. 
The final exhibition was opened by Hester Alberdingk Thijm (director AkzoNobel Art Foundation), followed by a reading by Giulia Crispiani, and a conversation among the three of us.

The light in the Northern lands flows at an inclined angle, for those who stay in these lands for the first time in a longer period, the quality of time changes all of a sudden due to this difference. The speed of the clouds’ movement in the Dutch sky makes the angular solar radiation slower and more doubtful. Days never come to decisive noon with direct rays and shortest shadows, and nights stay suspended and unfinished by the lights coming from the far northern horizon. Nights and days fade into each other, and their boundaries are not precise, but variable time intervals.

Day-to-day conversion does not come with a certain, eloquent sunrise but with a steady and twilight—in those hours of the early morning when only public service workers are on the public transportation, drunken youths ride their bicycles coming back from the parties and Arab men are on their way to the mosque for the morning prayers.

But the cities of the Northern territories have long been running on another calendar, not by the sky nor natural light. Relying on fixed-time contracts, twenty-four hours a day, and precise minutes for trains, and other movements inside and outside the cities.

This immutable certainty is ruling on the ambiguity of light and the qualitative time of the sky over life. In fact, this measurement of quantitative time controls temporal, fluid, suspended and a shadowless perception of time.

The Northern flatlands are also suspended on the boundaryless soft-soil lands between waters, for which urban designs have drawn artificial borders, definite ranges, sizes and boundaries. Signs do not rely on natural landmarks but on names and street numbers, city boundaries and different stations. Urban planning dominates the soft soil and sets one boundary after the other.

The harsh, humid cold nature of the North requires constant repair. But this restoration often goes along with the obsession to protect something that would no longer exist in the natural course of one’s life. Amsterdam as a calm and stable Northern European capital, a city that maintains a fixed historical facade, a city that denies change in the present. And yet, Amsterdam is metamorphosing from the inside. Under the monumental skin of the city, lies a constant desire for renovation. And yet, in our time and in our urban culture, the importance of living in the moment and fixing history as something in the past, makes it difficult for us to observe everyday urban changes. In Amsterdam, the past is something finished. But if history is finished, what about our own histories in the city? How do we make sense of the changes we see in the present?

Historicizing and turning the city into a museum of the past is a daily life project in Amsterdam. A project that does not allow us to see the most delicate changes under the skin of the city due to the appearance of the monumental facade.

In my personal experience, having lived for ten years in Amsterdam since 2009, Amsterdam has transformed from one city to another, while a large part of the urban mechanism insists on preserving the facade of the past. This preserved appearance is so strong that sometimes it appears to become itself a project of preventing the passage of time. A project to stop time, in a long endless twilight. 

If we want to remember the permanent state of Amsterdam, more than those old cute houses, we must remember the scaffolding, the front fenders, the space dividers, and all the deterrent city signs that signify this constant reparation of the city, these temporary and fluid urban objects are by far the most permanent image of the city.

Golrokh Nafisi
September 2019