Krijn de Koning: Land
Edinburgh Art Festival, August 1 to September 1, 2013, Edinburgh College of Art

I’m in the outskirts of Amsterdam, looking for the studio of Dutch artist, Krijn de Koning. Haarlemmerweg is a big road roaring with traffic, lined with monolithic office buildings and flats, Turkish snackbars, and one of the city’s more prosaic canals. But just around the bend, I’m suddenly in a leafy land of rustic houseboats and fluffy bunnies, all nestling at the foot of an 18th century windmill. It’s a bizarre confluence of two different worlds, and jammed right between them, I find the artist’s studio.

It all seems somehow appropriate, for a man who likes to make people think twice about the space around them. This is the artist who, with a floating wooden platform, sliced Amsterdam’s famous Gothic church, the Nieuwe Kerk, in half. He’s clearly not easily intimidated.

Although he has worked extensively throughout the Netherlands and France – mostly with temporary architectural interventions – De Koning has never yet shown in the UK. That’s all going to change at Edinburgh Art Festival (EAF) in August this year.

It all started with a visiting fellowship at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA). “I really liked being in Edinburgh,” says the artist. “I really liked the people I was working with, the students, and the people from the School of Art as well.”

Now with an EAF commission to make work for the college’s neo-classical Sculpture Court, to act as a gathering place for events and debates around the festival’s theme of dialogue, De Koning senses a serious challenge.

“It’s dealing with an architecture that is extremely charged,” he explains, “but I do have experience of places that are very heavily charged, like the Nieuwe Kerk, which is an impossible place to do a work, really.”

“And then there’s the architectural scale,” he continues. “I saw student exhibitions there, which were really nice works, but put there, they were completely lost, which is such a sad thing. And then I wanted to have the plaster casts involved, which would make it even more complicated, and then there’s the Art Festival theme. This is an extremely conditioned situation. It’s an extreme challenge.”

De Koning is drawn to the college’s Sculpture Court not just because of its strong architectural personality, but also because of the antique plaster casts on display there. In 2003, he was invited by a museum in Lyon to work with hundreds of such casts. “That completely unbalanced me,” he says, “because in all my works up to that point I had dealt with an empty space, with architecture, with the light coming in, with how people walk in a place, maybe the colours. But not with strong objects, highly charged with the meaning of art history, and then again, very fake.”

But De Koning enjoyed the challenge, and chose to arrange them “like plants in a park”, stripped of their art historical hierarchies and huddled together in junkshop glory. And although he was pleased with the result, De Koning continued to puzzle over it for years. “I started to be more conscious of what I do in my work,” he explains. “I direct a certain physical reality so that people will see something or experience something.”

And that’s what he brings to Land, his installation at ECA. There, he intends to build a low pyramid of wooden platforms which will visually slice the plaster casts in half, as if they are classical ruins emerging from a field of mud.

“We know these objects,” says De Koning, “they are part of our history. But we relate to them with the pedestal. If they are cut, it will confuse us a little bit, and I think that will provoke an alertness, because it will feel strange to see the Venus in half.”

De Koning’s work is often very formal in appearance – like 3D Mondrians to walk through – but ECA’s casts are bringing out his playful side. 

“These three,” he says, pointing to little white lumps in his scale model, “if you cut them there, they are very abstract, like rocks…. And here is this head of a man, and these two horses, and it’s really like he’s managing them, but he’s stuck in the mud. I’m curious if that will work.”

Stripped to its essence, De Koning’s work is all about spatial power games. He owns space; he reshapes it, and “bends attention” at will. ECA will be no exception to this rule. “The whole work extends outside the pillars,” he explains. “That will kill the whole building, and it really needs that. Because if you let the whole thing go outside, it really inures the pillars and it becomes a very large, generous space. It’s an act against the architecture, and it needs that, because it’s too strong.”

Visitors will be free to walk on De Koning’s structure, rising to two metres at its highest. “Here’s a stage,” he says, “so somebody can do a talk here. People can sit here. There are these three places where people can stand and talk – they can have a big argument with each other and there’s a hierarchy also. I have to see how many people it can hold. It’s very exciting but we have to take that risk.”

And that’s the next step – De Koning returns to Edinburgh soon to hammer out technical details and safety assessments, and see if his plans are fit to become a reality. “The train is running,” he says, with a glint in his eye, “but we have to see!”

Catrìona Black, Herald 14.6.2013