Erwin Olaf’s acceptance speech
on the occasion of receiving the Johannes Vermeer Award, state prize for the arts
State Secretary, Chairman of the jury, jury members, ladies and gentlemen, all my family, friends and relations - and especially all the foreign guests who have taken the trouble to be here tonight: I want to thank you all so very much for your attendance here on this very important night of my life.
I’ve always been blessed, all my life, but I’ve felt it even more since I learned, a few months ago, that I was to be awarded the 2011 Johannes Vermeer Award.
I will honestly admit that, although I’d heard of the prize, I didn’t exactly understand its significance when the Jury President, Mr Halbestadt surprised me with a phone call.
I was late again, cycling on my way to the studio. After he had informed me that I was the Johannes Vermeer Award laureate, it struck me that for less than 2,500 euros, I really don’t stop cycling. But I said that I was very honoured. Mr Halberstadt replied: “You’re not just being honoured, you’re also going to get 100,000 euros.”
Never before have I stopped cycling so fast, and I had to lean against a former branch of the ABN Amro bank - how appropriate - to recover from the emotion that overcame me.
Slowly but surely, over the next few months and especially after a dinner with the entire jury at the president’s home, I was filled with a great sense of gratitude and recognition. And although for some years I’ve been more than happy with the position I occupy in the national and international world of photography, now too the last of those feelings of being ‘misunderstood’ has melted away, like snow in the sun. I hope it stays that way for a long time, because it's a wonderful feeling!
I think that winning such an important and elevated prize is not just recognition for me as a photographer and part-time filmmaker, but also recognition of staged photography as a whole. I consider it an appreciation of the craft of shaping and recording the imagination of the creator. A recognition that has not always been there in the world of contemporary art photography, where documentary photography has long prevailed as the saviour.
It’s very beautiful too, but it is a shame that most collections in Dutch modern art museums are crammed with genuinely sad looking girls in front of neutral backgrounds, in which there’s just a single wall socket to indicate this is really reality that we’re looking at. The idea of the socket I’ve therefore eagerly adopted in many of my recent works, in order to show the sincerity of my emotions. After all, it was Picasso who said: “I steal wherever I can”, so who am I to disagree?!
Fortunately, the Groninger Museum and the Hague Museum of Photography are pleasant exceptions. And with the advent of Foam Museum in Amsterdam, there is - finally - movement in the often rigid, old-fashioned and hermetic world of contemporary fine art photography.
Since the official announcement of the Johannes Vermeer Award 2011, several people have looked at me askance, especially when they heard that State Secretary Zijlstra would be present here to hand over the prize.
He is, after all, the man who is held responsible for the very considerable cuts to the arts. This is a deeply sad affair, and I am actually extremely surprised and pleasantly astonished that the Johannes Vermeer Award is considered so important as to not be a victim of the cuts. I see this as an acknowledgment that such a distinction must exist for the arts, as it does in literature. I hope that this prize may become the PC Hooft Prize of the arts! There are so many valuable and internationally recognised artists of Dutch origin who deserve it.
And that brings me to a consideration that I would like to share with the State Secretary. I don’t think you are the monster that some people are trying to make you out to be. I certainly do not walk in the march of civilization. You are right that there should be an occasional re-evaluation in the hazy world of the visual arts. For such a small country and language, there are perhaps too many educational courses for artists. And now it seems as if more people want to be on stage than in the audience. Everybody is a star. And in museums perhaps there are too many curators, who have been sitting looking out the window, lifelessly waiting for seemingly never completed new buildings.
In my field, photography courses - both privately and publicly funded - annually spit out hundreds of graduate photographers. We are overwhelmed with applications for internships in my studio. And frankly, the last years show that prospective foreign interns often technically outstrip their Dutch competitors. The quantity of Dutch education has increased, the quality - unfortunately not.
And if I must choose between the elimination of subsidies for a number of organisations and museums, or enabling the 24-hour nappy in elderly homes and institutions, I find upholding human dignity more important than upholding some struggling art business.
But that doesn’t mean riding roughshod all over the world of the visual arts. Internationally, in my opinion the Netherlands has lost quite a lot of ground, but it is precisely the arts and sciences that still have so much to offer. It is our freedom of thought coupled with the craft that has brought many Dutch people from the art world fame and goodwill - plus put a lot of money into the coffers of the Dutch state. If I look at my clients and colleagues, and my portrait list, then I can name many people who, thanks to an occasional boost from the Dutch government, have become world-class companies, artists and entrepreneurs: Rem Koolhaas, Marlene Dumas, Inez van Lamsweerde, Pierre Audi, Rineke Dijkstra, Victor & Rolf, Hans van Manen, The National Ballet, Marcel Wanders, People of the Labyrinths. I could go on endlessly. They and I have all been able to flourish and bloom thanks to a boost (now and then) from the Dutch state. Whether that means an educational course or an occasional financial contribution from the Mondriaan Foundation for example, or a structural subsidy. And don’t think it works only one-way financially. I only have to look at what my studio has paid in taxes since Geert Dales, as former chairman of the Fine Arts Fund, granted me a bursary in 1989. You’ve recouped that money several times over. And I'm still a small earner! And even if it does not provide money directly, then at the very least it earns a lot of respect.
So I hope that you will put that axe into storage.
Because I think that the creativity of the arts in the Netherlands is currently keeping the Netherlands on the international map. It gives us a distinctive style. It advertises our freedom of thought and action, a great thing in a world that is increasingly dictated by the encroachment of restrictive capitalism.
Now, finally, what I'm going to do with that money?
Of the 30 per cent that I can spend privately, I already know: I want to get my eyelids lifted so I look less like an old dog, and abdominal liposuction between the stomach muscles, so I can get a six pack without having to exercise!
What I’ll do with the remaining 70 per cent is still a mystery to me. For several months, various ideas have been playing in my head, but every time I think I definitely know which of the plans is going to win, the doubts return about which of them I should do.
Firstly, I feel the need to examine a classic theme in photography in my own way: the nude. For this, I want to combine photography and film and partly return to the old 19th-century printing technique known as carbon printing. Early this spring, I did an introductory course with my two assistants in Middelburg and I am still impressed with the quality of the output. The problem is that making a good print can take four hours. I’ve failed to find sufficient peace and time for that so far, so the prize would allow me to put the studio on the back burner, so as to quietly print a series of classic nudes.
Secondly, also this spring, I spent two days working on a new idea. A series of staged photographs visualising the world of the Interbellum. In some ways, I feel very moved by the arts and culture of Berlin during the years between the two World Wars. I tried to summon up this world in my studio during two test sessions, but unfortunately I didn’t succeed in capturing what I had in mind. Suddenly I felt the limitations of my studio in Amsterdam.
And when we moved the whole studio to St Peter’s Church in Leiden to work on the photography for the The Relief of Leiden, commissioned by the Lakenhal, I experienced a sudden liberation. The idea is to up sticks and move to Berlin in the spring of 2012, to produce the Interbellum series on location. This would be a very adventurous endeavour, but I'm sure the photography and the content would benefit 100 per cent.
Thirdly, I've been walking around for years already with the idea of producing a book that is different from the usual books. The book should be an old-fashioned annual, and turning over each page should be a celebration. Because I believe that every photographer or artist, in the production of their personal work, has a duty to surrender something of his or her state of mind or motives, the book’s highly autobiographical content will be interspersed with technical explanations of lighting situations or Photoshop files, anecdotes, snapshots and old Polaroids mixed with photos as finally published, a DVD with pictures of parties and films interspersed with instructions on how to build a set or how to deal with a studio full of cold naked people, and so on. A book of interest to photographers and curious people. The design for this project takes an important place, but the content is just as important.
Finally, I have an idea for a short film in combination with some pictures. I got the idea lying beside a pool in which a stupid inflatable octopus floated around in the Mediterranean sea breeze. It is violent and it's about the emptiness of our existence. It takes place in Ibiza. It will have references to fashion and architecture. The child as a new leader will take centre stage. If I talk more about it I will break the magic and not feel like carrying it out, so unfortunately the rest remains a surprise.
Around this time next year, I will have completed one of these four ideas and I would dearly love to show it you then. I will really try to do my best, to show you how very pleased and honoured I am to be the Johannes Vermeer Award laureate.
I want to thank the State Secretary and the jury once again, and I hope that over the years to come I will not disappoint you!
October 25, 2011, Mombasa Kenya.