Annegien van Doorn at Foam by Kerr Houston

So maybe your duties have lightened in the summer, or you’ve got a hard-earned week or two off, and maybe you have a ticket to somewhere in hand. And maybe you agree completely with Irina Costache’s assertion, in The Art of Understanding Art, that reproductions “cannot replace the experience of seeing art in person.” You thus spent, let’s say, part of the spring following Jonathan Latiano to Gallery Q, or standing riveted before Camille Henrot’s video at the BMA, or mourning the passing of sophiajacob. But now you’re off. It could be to anywhere, these days – to Seoul, for example, or Istanbul, or Buenos Aires. But let’s say that you have a ticket to Amsterdam, and that, as you stroll the city, you wander into Foam, the city’s bright young museum of photography. And suddenly your trip snaps into focus.

For it’s one of the fundamental pleasures of travel, isn’t it? To see something new, and worthwhile, and fully unexpected. And Foam 3h – a wing of the museum that is devoted to the work of “talented young photographers” – currently delivers, with a beguiling show by the 30-something photographer Annegien van Doorn. Consisting of three videos, four large photographs, and a discrete installation, the show is modest in scale. But it combines an acute attentiveness to detail with an impish playfulness in generating an atmosphere of delightful possibility and surprising complexity. By taking relatively banal domestic objects – plastic cutting boards, or a canister of air freshener, or a pack of ball point pens – and placing them in unexpected roles or positions, van Doorn reimagines pedestrian quotidian reality, inflecting the everyday with qualities that range from humorously graceful to coyly sinister.

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Consider, for instance, Domestic Science, a 2’53” video that is the most ambitious work in the show. In rapid succession, we see 34 different scenarios, in which everyday household items are subjected to pressures or placed in constrictive settings. A door groans ominously as it swings toward a tube of Colgate on the floor; soon the tube, pressured, emits a slow ribbon of toothpaste. Two eggs are placed delicately in the armpits of a faceless woman – who then presses inward, cracking them. A plastic bag holding a slew of oranges gives way, yielding a tumble of fruit, and a cylinder of processed potato chips is inverted, revealing a tenuous column of crisps – which soon topples over. Shot, for the most part, in a neutrally objective manner, the video seems to document an earnest series of idle experiments: what would happen, we can imagine van Doorn thinking, if I were to drop this bag of flour, or to place this chocolate rabbit on that heating element?

At first glance, then, the video might seem to relate to the currently modish field of thing theory, or object-oriented ontology. I’m thinking, for instance, of Jane Bennett’s accent upon the vitality of things in Vibrant Matter: upon, as she puts it, “the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.” In a basic way, van Doorn is also interested in the native tendencies of objects: in their propensity to resist, or find the level, or give way. But, as we watch, we soon realize that in fact most of the shots cast the objects in a decidedly passive role. These things are not, to use Bruno Latour’s term, actants; instead, they are squeezed, or dropped, or heated, or crushed. They are, in various senses, wasted (and in fact the video can also be read as an exercise in domestic profligacy, or consumption in the name of a hollow ideal). Objects, here, are used, and in ways that deny or ignore their conventional natures.

Van Doorn’s video thus bears at least a faint resemblance to Fischli and Weiss’ seminal Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go), which also devises alternative uses for a range of ordinary objects, such as tires and candles. But in that video, the objects are given both a place and a purpose in a larger, uninterrupted chain of motion: in one continuous shot, we see the objects setting each other into motion, and generating a wittily seamless narrative. Van Doorn’s video, by contrast, offers a series of staccato shots that are shorn of any truly meaningful interrelationship. These are isolated experiments, you might say, governed by apparently arbitrary strictures. They are thus nearer in spirit, at day’s end, to some of Bruce Nauman’s early videos – of the artist bouncing balls, say, or walking along a taped line in an exaggerated manner. For van Doorn, the domestic environment is, like Nauman’s studio, a laboratory of sorts – but if this is science, it is a repetitive and futile science. Objects are pressured and their responses documented, but with no obvious grander end in mind.

But wait. For just as Domestic Science begins to resemble a glossary of emptily destructive terms – as objects are shattered, compressed, burned and pulled – it also begins to suggest an alternative, and more pointed, reading. After all, the domestic sphere is traditionally a female sphere. And passivity, too, has long borne female associations (as Catharine McKinnon once put it, “‘passionlessness’ – sexual acted-uponness as female gender definition – was the price of women’s admission to Victorian moral equality”). Viewed in such a light, van Doorn’s abused objects acquire a plaintive air of tragedy: they quietly testify to centuries of sexual oppression. Domestic Science might thus be productively viewed as a distant cousin of Mona Hatoum’s Home, in which a series of glistening kitchen utensils are connected to wires and electrified – thus introducing a violent aspect into what Hatoum has called the “wholesomeness of the home environment, the household, and the domain where the feminine resides.” In the end, though, while Hatoum sought to disturb the tidiness of traditional terms such as home and family, van Doorn seems more centrally interested in insisting upon the possibility of active female agency. After all, it is her arms and knees and booted feet that crush and squeeze the pictured objects. She is, at once, scientist, editor, and actor. And any sense of victimization is thus offset by a willful appropriation of responsibility.

Viewed in the light of sexual politics, the video’s pacing and iconography also acquire more focused significance. After all, Domestic Science, with its recurrent spurtings and oozings and fragmented views of the female form, seems intent on recalling a compilation of pornographic money shots. It is, in a blunt sense, orgasmic: plastic tubes distend, cola rockets out of a bottle, and viscous fluids proliferate. But if there is thus a sexual dimension to the video, any sense of developing desire is curtly deflated, through the central display of sadistic violence and wastefulness. Sure, two shots near the end of the video – a balloon rising from an open drawer and a cocktail umbrella blown open by a hair dryer – momentarily suggest a note of optimism, or uplift. But they are then followed by a smashed cake and a punctured orange. The climaxes documented here are, for the most part, flatly destructive; they leave broken objects and useless piles in their wake. Ejaculation effects only dissolute torpidity.

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A deconstructed eroticism also characterizes a nearby photograph entitled Rollade, which depicts, in cropped form, a girl in tights, in a hammock. The compressed cloth gathers in a pattern that distinctly evokes the labia. Are we looking, then, at an example of what is sometimes called fishnet porn? Not quite – and the ambiguous angle, the surreal pattern of the weave and the doughy, randomly condensed forms point to the limits of fantasy. Rather more subtle, by contrast, are two photos entitled Don’t Fuck with my Porcelain. While an MFA student in Barcelona, Van Doorn apparently rented an apartment that included a cabinet of china, along with a stern note warning renters not to touch or alter the contents. In a sort of minor détournement, Van Doorn soon began to defy the absurd requirement, impertinently arranging the cups and saucers into soaring patterns. With something like the sly subversiveness of Doris Salcedo, she crafted quiet acts of resistance. In the process, service – the cups and saucers – gave way to possibility.

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That combination of irreverence and conviction arguably characterizes the other works in the show, as well. Shelter, for instance, depicts a stack of cutting boards arranged in a precarious pyramid. Once again, we might read the piece in terms of gender, for the canted boards loosely recall the leaning slabs of Richard Serra – but of course replace his ponderous rolled steel with brightly colored plastic, even as they show more interest in play than in rote domestic labor. Similarly, 2 Minutes shows us an improbable pas de deux executed by two plastic water bottles on a vibrating washing machine. The mundane span of a spin cycle becomes, here, a study in grace and subtle complexity, a sort of tectonic idyll, as one of the bottles slowly wheels about the other, emitting small beads of water that call to mind the sweat of a dancer. And Air Freshener, meanwhile, depicts a green can of Air Wick, nozzle depressed by a chunk of concrete, dutifully discharging its contents in a bucolic sylvan setting. The piece initially feels, in its arch irony, like a Dadaist joke, but the earnestness with which it asks its central question resembles, too, a Zen koan. Can an air freshener actually freshen air? Placed in the open air, rather than in the confines of the home, the canister begins to feel humorously extraneous, or even almost obscene.

Placed in the open air: in this show, van Doorn is clearly interested in recontextualization, and in intervention. (Indeed, she also co-founded an Amsterdam-based collective called Das Banale Ding, which discretely places objects in provocative positions in the urban environment). Her work reimagines objects and space. And so perhaps it is unsurprising to find, on a chair railing in one corner of the 3h gallery, a row of pens placed quietly end to end. Van Doorn told me that, after installing her work, she felt that something was needed in that corner, which was otherwise empty. But one might also think here of Gaston Bachelard, who devoted an entire chapter of The Poetics of Space to corners. “Every corner in a house,” he wrote, “every angle in a room…, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room, or of a house.” Building on that thought, Johaina Crisotomo has argued, in blue canvas, that “for all their discretion, corners are filled with possibility. To dreamers who know how to make use of their silence, they offer up their walls like a pair of outstretched hands.”

Van Doorn, we might thus say, knows how to make use of that silence. The space of an art gallery, or the host of humdrum objects that populate our homes, suggest to her a variety of possibilities by which seemingly given norms can be reimagined, or undermined. As Bas Hendriks, a sometime collaborator, wrote in the slender accompanying catalog, van Doorn “examines the mechanism, discovers how it works and then gives it a different, unintended function.” Often, that emergent function contains a note of playfulness – and in fact van Doorn quotes a passage from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens prominently, on her website. But the resulting works of art are not merely ludic, for they also generate sobering commentaries upon, and begin to propose plausible alternatives to, given realities. For Huizinga, after all, play is necessary to the evolution of civilization – which arises, Huizinga wrote, “in and as play, and never leaves it.”

A tube of toothpaste, a bag of oranges, a canister of air freshener: they may seem like inert givens, sturdy props in a world of predictable uses. But in the hands of van Doorn, the regular is transmuted into the irregular, norms become pliable, and that which we thought we could take for granted now glimmers with the light of alternate possibility.

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Annegien van Doorn: Domestic Science is up at Foam 3h through June 25, 2014.

Author Kerr Houston has taught art history and art criticism at MICA since 2002. He is the author of the book An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2012), and his recent writings range from an article on a metaphorical aspect of the Sistine Chapel chancel screen, in Source, to an extended essay on Candice Breitz’s Extra, in Nka.