The exhibition In the Hold by Vincent Vulsma brings together a series of new works based on a research of the logistical mechanism of the transatlantic triangular trade, its influence on the formation of today’s globalized world and the role that goods like textiles and indigo have played in this history. Based on the bookkeeping of the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie (MCC) preserved by the Zeeland Archives Vulsma converts information from the logbooks of eighteenth-century Dutch slave ships into physical form.
The work Return consists of a series of abstract sculptures of compressed indigo pigment based on the coordinates of the slave ship Vrouw Johanna Cores. One indigo sculpture will be created for each of the positions recorded in the ship’s log during her fourth voyage. The first examples of these are shown at Hotel Maria Kapel. Each time the work is presented, new indigo will be imported, which – compressed into unique sculptures – will represent different coordinates each time, until the entire route of the ship has been visualised as blocks of indigo. In this way, the work creates its own chain and exposes the relationship between the logic of historical trade operations and the contemporary chain of production and presentation within the network of the international art world.
In the Hold focuses on specific links in the historical chain of global trade. One of those links is formed by ‘Guinea cloth’. Guinea cloth was a type of cotton fabric produced in India to be used by slave traders as a trading cargo for export to the Gulf of Guinea via Europe. The works in the series Guinea derive their form from digitized logbook data that have been converted into weaving patterns. The fabrics are woven from unbleached cotton yarn spun by hand in India. Each fabric in the series is unique and is based on the logs of one of the slave ships from the fleet of the MCC. The combination of digital data and processes with the materiality of the raw cotton results in a fabric that is visibly a hybrid of craft and digital processes. The transfer of binary data to the woven fabric is so exact that the fabric can be seen as a form of data storage. The length of the fabric is determined by the digital file size for each ship, and varies from work to work.
With the exhibition, Vulsma examines the consequences of capitalist logic and uses contemporary technological means to carry out the modern methods of quantification and abstraction to an extreme. It leads to a minimalist visual language that can be seen as typical of a Western idea of rationality. However, the minimal form and presentation draw our attention to that which is missing: the people involved with and caught up in this trade, and the many hours of physical labour required to produce the materials used. The modern visual language used to condense the routes and translate them into works in an exhibition space implies a history of violence in which art – as an expression of this same modernity – is complicit. Consequently, the exhibition In the Hold asks questions about how contemporary social, economic and cultural structures are interconnected with the history of capitalism, formed as it is by imperialist logistical systems and the trade in enslaved people. To what extent is contemporary artistic practice complicit in the perpetuation of unequal global power relationships? One thing is certain: the autonomy of the artwork and the neutrality of the exhibition space are no terra nullius to be described or claimed without an understanding of history and the journeys taken to arrive here.
About the artist
Vincent Vulsma’s practice is based on a research of how cultural, political and economic processes are intertwined and come together in both commercial products as well as ethnographic objects and artworks. The artist carefully manages to bring major issues such as globalization and colonialism back to abstractions that show us how much the art world is intertwined with systems and infrastructures that have been defined in the past. In addition, the history and economics of cultural appropriation are important aspects of his practice, in which the relationship between work and artwork is constantly being investigated. With his work Vulsma questions the hierarchical division between material and immaterial labour in a time dominated by outsourcing and digital forms of production.
This exhibition is part of Undercurrents: the overarching research subject of the programme for 2018 and 2019 (see also www.undercurrents.nl). Through its residency programme, exhibitions and publications, HMK aims to question the relation between historic and present-day instances of movement such as colonialism, trade and migration, as well as the infra-structure and significance of mobility within the cultural field, with a special focus on artist-in-residencies.
Image: Indigo refinery, French West Indies, Antilles, engraving from Encyclopedie, ou Dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des metiers, by Denis Diderot and Jean-Baptiste Le Rond dAlembert, 1751-1772, Paris, 18th century.