The new Zaanstad Penitentiary in Westzaan was opened in 2016. This high-tech building replaced the outdated Bijlmerbajes (Amsterdam) and De Koepel (Haarlem) prisons. Michiel Kluiters was commissioned by the government to create artwork for three of the complex’s courtyards, under supervision by the Central Government Real Estate Agency.
Thirteen objects that are reminiscent of screens now stand in these courtyards, obstructing the view of the building and gardens. The technological security features that surround the inmates and the building have resulted in fewer wardens patrolling, for example, the corridors of the complex. The inmates walk through areas of the building unsupervised, while the technology ensures that certain doors do (or do not) open for them. From one of these corridors, you can see out over three enclosed gardens and across to the cells on the opposite side.
In order to prevent inmates from signalling to one other, measures to obstruct sightlines had to be put in place for those corridors. This was therefore an architectural project with a view to solving a problem, and thus functional in nature. Simultaneously, as an art commission, the obstruction needed to be interesting and result in a work of art.
Although these objects block sightlines, they still suggest spaciousness as your eye runs across their sloping surfaces or is drawn into their corners. There are openings where the shapes are stacked on top of one another, and there are perforations in the plate metal material, which collectively suggest bird-inspired abstract shapes. Depending on the direction of the light, the perforated shapes make parts of the impenetrable surfaces transparent.
‘These shadows or silhouettes are meant to be transient elements that briefly come into contact with the architecture. In Zaanstad, birds, the brief and only visitors to the interior gardens, and the static architecture are polar opposite identities that seek each other out for fleeting moments. Naturally, the size of the little holes was dictated by the strict security requirement that the transparency they create wouldn’t allow faces to be recognised.’
In the overwhelmingly colour-neutral and uninspiring complex, the various colour combinations of the grouped objects catch one’s eye. Because bright signal colours were out of the question, the result is a surprising combination of original blended colours. The colour combinations vary depending on the window they are viewed from, and improve orientation within the complex. With his past work as a springboard, Kluiters tackled the project by focusing not on the garden, but on the architecture that borders it: in this way, you focus on an architectural interior space rather than a garden.
The shapes of the screens that he designed are a direct reflection of the architecture. They are modular, and in each case consist of two book-shaped panels stacked on top of one another, one which you view head-on, and one into which you look.
The inward facing and outward facing ‘folds’ are alternately at the top or at the bottom. Both book-shapes are held in place by a stand that looks like that of a banner, giving the objects a demonstrative and temporary character. Sightlines did not merely determine the shape of the objects, but also played an essential role in where they were placed. As a result, they have been set up in front of corridor windows so that they only obstruct the view of the cell windows, but not of the walls.
This way, part of the garden and its backdrop remain visible. In addition to the suggestion of perspective within the shapes themselves, there is also the actual sense of perspective created when you walk along the corridors past the windows. Kluiters: ‘The objects look different from every angle, making them dynamic. This sensation is magnified by the objects being set up in a row. Despite the modular shapes, you can create different views by positioning the objects at different angles to one another.’ Due to the location in which they were to be placed, the shapes and the way they were fashioned were largely influenced by practical requirements. The artwork needed to be almost entirely maintenance-free for 25 years.
The panels are, in addition, simple to set up and move, have minimal anchoring, are dismountable and – on account of the modular shapes chosen – have clear production costs. During the design phase, Kluiters searched for a dynamic shape with potential for variation. At the same time, he wanted the design to radiate peacefulness and a certain degree of restraint.
The project matched the spirit of Kluiters’ past body of work: architecture and the way people perceive it. ‘For me, the nicest thing about this piece was the fact that people were only sharing the space with one another visually, but weren’t able to step into the physical space.Because the viewing direction is so precisely determined (by the windows), the gardens, surrounded by the buildings, can be viewed as dioramas.
You can therefore manipulate this highly-controlled viewing angle. Architecture, viewing direction, perspective and manipulation: that’s what my non-commissioned work is about too. And despite the practical requirements and objectives this project entailed, the objects look like real sculptures.’