Picture an Amsterdam without its famous Rijksmuseum, Central Station or Amstel Hotel—imagine how much room that would make, right? Not much, it turns out, when I saw the exhibition of designer and art director Johannes Verwoerd last weekend. For his project Amsterdam Landmarks, he made pictures of famous city sights, but then without its iconic buildings. Strangely enough, it still feels quite familiar. As a resident living in Amsterdam for all my life I didn’t miss the landmarks for a second. Instead, what I saw was a not an empty nothingness, but a surprisingly open environment where I would often need to do a double-take to realize what was missing
I called Verwoerd to ask if he would rather live in an empty Amsterdam.
The Creators Project: Johannes, don't you like Amsterdam and our architectural wonders?
Johannes Verwoerd: I do, most of them are beautiful buildings, but they're in the wrong places. They often close things off: the Central Station is like a wall between the city and the IJ-river, which means that we aren't a waterfront city anymore. The Rijksmuseum blocks your vision of the Museumplein, just like the Royal Palace blocks the sight of the beautiful street behind it, the Raadhuisstraat. That palace could be removed anyway: almost nothing ever happens in it.
So with Photoshop you just made all these buildings disappear?
I did, but Landmarks isn't about Photoshop, it's about how we (don't) look. It's almost a test for the people of Amsterdam: how well do you know your city? These pictures make you realize how easy you miss such huge structures, you won't even notice when they're gone. You get used to the street sights you see everyday, but you only start watching more closely when something misses. It is also about the fact that pictures have lost their truth: even though it is a photograph, it isn’t necessarily true. That's why I sell these images as some sort of shadow postcards—I suspect a lot of people won't know something is missing.
How did you came up with this idea?
I was cycling the city in the summer and I saw all the tourists walking around. The city of Amsterdam really supports tourism, but that's actually a very shallow way of seeing our city. I wondered what it was like to remove the touristic highlights. Ironically, nobody really notices—the tourists, nor the citizens of Amsterdam. It's like a store that suddenly closes: two weeks pass and you've forgotten it was there in the first place. I thought removing the landmarks would create big gaps, but it didn't: it looks fine.
Your exhibition takes place at the Stadhuis (City Hall), a building that, in my opinion, should be removed indeed.
Six months ago I saw this empty wall in the City Hall, and tried to figure out who ‘owned’ it, because I thought it would be a great place for my exhibition. But it was quite unclear who could make the decision about that. In the end I spoke with someone from the National Opera and Ballet company (which resides in the same building), and she wanted to lobby for me, but in return she asked me to make a picture where the building of the City Hall was also erased. That one hangs in her office now.
Your expo looks good over there. Did you just glue it to the wall?
Yes, with wallpaper paste! Usually an exhibition is incredibilly expensive whety you want to frame everything—especially this one, due to the enormous size of the photographs. This is an immaterial and affordable way to do it, and I really like it as well, without added objects, like frames.
What will be your next project?
I'm creating a museum on one of the biggest squares in Amsterdam, the Museumplein, together with another artist.
Yeah, on the entire square, the Poëzie Museum (Poetry Museum). Famous poetess Anna Enquist will be the curator, I will design the always moving letters and it will open this spring. It is a virtual museum, but bound to one place. A giant museum of poems will appear through an app with augmented reality. The different rooms will be marked by the real pathways on the square. You can encounter three-word verses, but also very long poems that stretch from one side of the square to the other. Or into the sky.
Did you talk this through with the officials of the city council of Amsterdam?
No. Digital technology makes it possible to do these kind of things on top notch locations, like the Museumplein. We're actually squatting the square. If you leave the 'real' museums (the Van Gogh, Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk are all around the square), you'll enter ours—the Poëzie Museum.
The images from Amsterdam Landmarks can be bought in a set of 10 postcards through Johannes' website and in multiple bookstores.
Verwoerd is creating the Poëzie Museum in collaboration with artist Twan Janssen.
A version of this article originally appeared on The Creators Project Netherlands.