Unlike the studios of many of his peers at the Fine Arts Work Center, Dutch artist Pieter Paul Pothoven’s is colorless and bare — aside from some grainy black-and-white printouts of bombed-out buildings arranged in two long horizontal lines on the walls.
Pothoven, a second-year visual arts fellow, will be discussing his work at FAWC on Friday, Feb. 10. The mediums he uses for his art change according to the needs of each project. Often beginning with research, his final output may take the form of a video, an object, an interactive installation — or, as in this case, a text.
There are two stacks of papers on Pothoven’s desk. The larger one contains transcribed interviews with members of RARA (Revolutionary Anti-Racist Action), a collective that fought against the legacy of Dutch imperialism during the 1980s and 1990s using extreme (and sometimes violent) acts. Pothoven describes them as “a post-war militant group,” the Dutch equivalent of radical political groups like the Weather Underground in the U.S. and the I.R.A. in Northern Ireland. “They’re an anonymous collective, and they’re incredibly elusive,” says Pothoven.
After meeting a few members of the group, he gained their trust and spent more than 60 hours interviewing them. The interviews and accompanying research have become the raw materials for Pothoven’s creative projects. He is also working with the group to create an archive for the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam.
His current project — the smaller of the two stacks of papers — is one of three scripts Pothoven has written that narrate moments from RARA’s history. The play is set in an imagined meeting that the collective held in the lead-up to a real-life historical event that Pothoven remembers hearing about as a 10-year-old: the bombing of Dutch politician Aad Kosto’s house in 1991, a protest against Kosto’s anti-asylum stances. “Members of RARA wanted him to feel what it was like to be a refugee,” says Pothoven.
For his play, Pothoven created a composite character (to protect the anonymity of RARA members) who decides against participating in the bombing. “It’s about someone who doubts,” he says. “It was the most difficult thing I’ve written. It’s hard to get in the mind of someone who is doubting.”
Pothoven hopes the character’s ambiguity allows new entry points into this sensational historical event. “When you call someone a terrorist, you push him away,” he says. “You don’t have to listen. You learn much more from the group if you can empathize with them.” In the play, the character concludes that the attack on the politician’s house is wrong. But Pothoven says it’s a “layered critique” of the group’s actions.
This appeal for empathy proved controversial in Pothoven’s native country. In a 2020 exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Pothoven presented a different script that dramatized events surrounding RARA’s 1985 firebombing of Markro, a chain of wholesale traders that was importing goods from South Africa during apartheid. The monologue was broadcast in the exhibition space and — illegally — over the air using a radio transmitter originally built by a member of RARA.
As part of the exhibition, Pothoven also created a life-size reproduction of the teak facade of a house RARA members lived in, using material recycled from five ships belonging to the Dutch East India Company in the 17th and 18th centuries. The objects functioned as both historical relics and constructions that asked viewers to reexamine history through material culture.
“There was a lot of controversy about the show,” says Pothoven. “It was even discussed in the House of Parliament by a right-wing politician arguing that the arts should not be further funded.” It was also widely discussed in the mediums, including an article in the right-wing publication Elsevier Weekblad under the headline “Stedelijk Museum offers space to ‘useful idiot’ of terror club RARA.”
“People were fuming,” says Pothoven. “I didn’t know the reach of an artwork could be so big. A whole new generation got to know about RARA.”
Pothoven grew up in a small Dutch town as the youngest of six children. “I come from a rather right-wing, conservative family,” he says. “It took a long time to carve out my own space.” After attending art school in Amsterdam, he moved to New York City for love — and an M.F.A. at Parsons School of Design, where he studied fine arts and political science and began to formulate political positions and integrate them into his art. He joined protests during the Occupy Wall Street movement and drew inspiration from American thinkers and activists, whom he saw as sharpened by a more brutal political system.
“People were quite shocked when I came back,” he says of his political emergence. “My family thinks I’m a radical.” While Pothoven says he has a hard time labeling his politics, he finds himself motivated by injustice and has participated in a range of protests and demonstrations for causes such as racial justice, women’s rights, and climate action.
Pothoven visited Provincetown before returning to Amsterdam after graduate school and was a FAWC fellow in 2013-2014. The town did not escape Pothoven’s political critique, including the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum’s celebration of the Mayflower landing. “It was the beginning of a disastrous time in history,” he says. “I think it should go.”
He became fascinated by a photograph taken before the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone of the monument in which onlookers casually milled about. He installed a grandstand in FAWC’s Hudson D. Walker Gallery inspired by the one in the photograph and invited readers to recite a text that reimagined a “dynamic and inclusive past” and “celebrated the moment before Provincetown was stuck with this thing.” Apparently, the exhibition didn’t result in any locals enraged by this Dutchman waltzing into town and poking the community’s sacred cow.
While Pothoven will be discussing his work at the FAWC fellows showcase, he’s not yet sure about showing any accompanying objects or materials. “Maybe there is no object; maybe the objects will be the photographs,” he says, referring to images of the 1991 RARA bombing taken by photojournalist John Schaffer. But he’s still committed to the gallery setting as the space for presenting his work.
“What I like about the gallery space is that I can communicate this history in a different way than a historian or a journalist,” he says. “I can be more flexible with the form I choose.”
Pothoven doesn’t see the project — in whatever form it eventually takes — as an extension of his political activism. “But documenting this history is still a political action,” he says. “Whose history is told and how you tell history are very political issues.”