The Garden Which is the Nearest to God

This is my favorite thing in Amsterdam right now. It will be open until 6 September. If you live in or near Amsterdam, go.

The artwork, by Japanese artist Taturo Atzu, is “a vast observation platform from which you can see the city as you have never seen it before”.  Balanced on the roof of the Oude Kerk (the Old Church, consecrated in 1306, and located in the famous Red Light District), the scaffolding and platform look to many like a functional set-up, another restoration project in a city constantly being repaired. imageIt is not. It is an inspired, imaginative, and altogether wonderful installation.

I will admit that I’m a little bit biased. I have a “thing” for climbing. Towers, domes, forts – you name it, I’ll climb it. I have no fear of heights, and I don’t mind rickety wooden bridges or endlessly spiraling staircases. And I’ve never gotten to the top of something and looked out and thought, “Meh. Not much of a view”. It is always worth the climb.

When I first saw the Atzu installation from the ground, I knew I had to get up there. Today was a perfect blue-sky day in Amsterdam, a pleasant and breezy 25 degrees. I got my ticket and started up the metal scaffolding.

“…the life we call blessed is located on a high peak; a narrow way, they say, leads up to it.”

– Petrarch

imageThe ascent itself is where the experience of the project begins. For some that could mean conquering the fear of heights. For others, the exertion of the climb is said to clear the mind, and let thoughts flow freely. It is “a literal form of transcendence”.

The objective of much of Atzu’s work is to bring monuments that are normally remote into closer proximity. At the Oude Kerk, the viewing platform surrounds both the roof turret and the weather vane, and allows you to interact with them in a totally new way.

imageThe sunken area around the turret creates a bench, of sorts, from which you can really look at the turret, and the bell and mechanisms within it. You can study it, see how its shadow plays against the stark whiteness of the platform.

The weather vane, in the shape of an angel blowing a trumpet, is housed in the small building at the far end of the platform, closest to the street below. And it really is a house; it’s decorated as a simple, living room, with a couch and some books and a few framed pictures hanging on the walls. And there, in the middle of the coffee table – though actually still rising up from the roof of the church – is the angelic weather vane.

imageThese features of the church, which are integral to its design and lend meaning to the space, are normally only seen from far below…and then only if people walking by can take their attention from the, umm, attractions of the Red Light District.

Fortunately for those of us who are looking up, this exhibit is still not very well-known. On a late Friday afternoon, I shared the viewing platform with just a handful of others, giving the space a stillness that is impossible to find in the crowded streets below. imageThe artwork simultaneously brings you close to objects normally unseen – and to the church itself – and also expands your view to encompass the entire city.

The volunteer docent on the platform told me there had been some controversy from the neighbors about this project. The issue was less the project itself, and more the desire of the community to maintain – protect? – the church as a small oasis of quiet and calm against the throngs. I can respect that, but at the same time, I believe that this installation expands that oasis, and elevates it. The space that it creates is not one that will be sought by rowdy stag party mates or school children.  The people who are drawn to this “garden in the air” will, I hope, find what I found: a moment of peace and wonder and stillness created by drawing near to that which is normally out of reach.

Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

(A note: the text in quotes is taken from the very interesting and thorough brochure from the exhibit, written by Rieke Vos. It quotes not only Petrarch but also Louis CK; how many essays about church art do that?)

4 thoughts on “The Garden Which is the Nearest to God

  1. Pingback: The Six-Month Mark | Terrifically Lost

  2. I went yesterday, such a new perspective on the city centre and seeing my old place from above. I keep wondering if I’m biased when I say that Amsterdam is one of the most beautiful cities. But after yesterday I was once again convinced…

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