Arnoud Holleman

Amsterdam — Saturday 04 December, 2021
nl / en

Onkenhout

galvanized bronze, text


customized sculpture by Nico Onkenhout (early 1970's), 2008
additional text and photography in Roma publication no. 121 (full text below images)

exhibition:
Questioning History - Nederlands Fotomuseum Rotterdam, 2008 Curator Frank van der Stok


Roma publication
Roma publication
installation view, Nederlands Fotomuseum
installation view, Nederlands Fotomuseum

Full text:
We're sitting by the open hearth, a good bottle of wine half empty. "I've got something for you", my mother says as she gets up. "Cos I've been tidying up again." She's almost 80 and her house has become a collection point for the household effects of aunts and uncles who all died childless. She sits back down with a stack of postcards. "There are so many postcards that don't mean a thing to us. There are enough collectors, so I will be able to get shot of them; but I was wondering whether these might be of any interest to you."
She tops up my glass while I take a look at the postcards. There're five, all of them of pre-war depictions of Amsterdam. One of them shows Dam Square, taken from the Great Industrial Club towards the de Bijenkorf department store. At the spot where the National Monument now stands you can see a patch of grass bordered by flowers.
"How odd," I say. "Such a sleepy little public garden where the monument now stands. Smack bang in the middle of the city centre. So twee and not the least bit metropolitan."
"Yes, it's a time we can barely imagine now," she says.
The conversation dies down and we stare into the fire.
Then out of nothing, she says: "Once I was in love with a sculptor who worked on the monument."
"Oh?" I say. She doesn't usually make this sort of confession.
"Nico," she continues. "At this party once, sometime in the 50s. You run into someone and the spark just lights. But you know how it is with men. I never heard from him again."
"Nico who?" I ask her.
"Onkenhout."
Staring at the picture of the garden on the postcard I catch a glimpse of my mother in a version of her life that she never lived, one in which Nico had gotten in touch, after that evening out. Perhaps now she'd have a different surname and be sitting by a different fire drinking wine with a different child. In a moment that feels like an oedipal short circuit, I experience something impossible: that I never existed.

When I get back the next day I Google the man who dumped my mother. There are only five hits. I can't find out anything about his being involved with the National Monument. He probably only helped out with the practical side of things, did some chiselling on the letters of the poem or some such, but the credits for the different parts all go to others. The overall design is by the architect J.J.P. Oud, the three central groups of sculptures by John Raedecker, the two watchful lions by his sons Han and Jan Willem Raedecker and the reliefs for the provincial coat of arms on the back are by Paul Grégoire. In the post-war era of the great monument builders, Onkenhout seems to have done the minor work. A year after the unveiling of the monument on Dam Square in 1957, his Zeeland Bench was placed on the Weteringcircuit. The bench had sculpted elements; an expression of gratitude from the victims of the Great Zeeland Flood of 1953 for the help from Amsterdam. If one cycles past now, it's nothing but a hangout for the homeless and the junkies. In 1964, the year I was born, Onkenhout created Work and Intellect reach out their hands to each other, in commemoration of the opening of the Haringvliet Bridge. Onkenhout is also listed somewhere as a medal recipient. He died in 1989 at the age of 71.

One of these five hits links Onkenhout to the present. There's a statuette by him on eBay of the pre-war children's character Dik Trom. I make an appointment, and the woman whose doorbell I ring tells me it was left to her as part of her parents' estate. Her father, a village notable, had been involved with erecting a statue in honour of Dik Trom's spiritual father, by Onkenhout. The smaller version of the statue, which now stands before us on the table, has been in the woman's family home since the 70s, but she wants to get rid of it because she's always thought it to be an ugly monstrosity. Dik Trom, who's always getting into fixes, is sitting back to front on a bucking mule. Because, as dumb as he is, he's still the only one in the village who can ride the obstinate beast that belongs to Bertel the trader. And that's how Onkenhout has depicted him: with his feet wrapped in the reins as he hangs on to the mule's tail for dear life.

The statuette is made of bronze; it has a brown-green patina and is smooth. I think it's ugly too but I buy it anyway, for 250 Euros, stick it in the boot of the car and drive to Hoofddorp. The original is approximately two metres high and stands in the parking lot at the local shopping centre, which just as the statue stems from the 1970s. Onkenhout worked terribly hard on the profile, but en face the statue deflates into a lifeless symmetry; while contorted forms would perhaps have been a more obvious choice for a bucking mule. Dik Trom's head is rounded and he has scarcely any facial expression. Everything is two-dimensional. Even the prominent display of the mule's arse at eye level, which one might expect to have caused a disturbance to the public order, has been executed without any sense of danger. Everyone can carry on with their shopping in peace.

The statuette stands on the mantelpiece in my studio. The smoothness of the bronze and the fine portrayal of what is an already corny subject are the things that make the thing increasingly difficult to have around. And above all I'm loyal to my mother. In the months that follow I ask myself what the statuette might need to soften my irritation with it. One day I stick the statuette in the boot of my car and take it to a metal finisher's. After a 52-hour electrode bath, a new layer of copper a couple of millimetres thick has irreversibly coalesced around Onkenhout's bronze. At the protruding parts, irregular bulges have developed, which one could never mould with the hand. The bill for the chroming and electroplating currently stands at 1250 Euros and that's where I'm going to leave it. The statuette looks quite a bit better now.

A year and a half later, a biologist comes to visit my studio and remarks on the statuette. I tell him about my act of iconoclasm. In return he tells me about a breed of horses where the stallions shit on top of the turds of the weaker males to underline their superiority within the herd.