Review: The Netherlands - Off the Shelf by Hans van der Meer


Book Reviews, Photobooks




Hans van der Meer is the kind of person who will look at things - and photograph them - so that you don’t have to. I’m tempted to think that the artist thus performs a public service. But there is more. Van der Meer also not only shows us what he sees and finds, often scenes or things that are so incredibly mundane that most people wouldn’t look twice (assuming they’d even look once), he also talks about them, revealing relevance where we usually don’t expect to find any. Who would look at two women having a chat in one of those nondescript city centers that are common in so many small European cities? And who would then study their particular environment, taking in each and every detail, however mundane it might be? Well, Hans van der Meer did just that, with The Netherlands - Off the Shelf.

The book starts off with a catalogue of stuff that you might need provided you wanted to build your own generic Dutch small town: trash bins, benches, banners, security cameras, bike racks, etc. There are names and numbers, which has me think you could probably order everything, provided you track down a supplier (which can’t be that hard online). To imagine that the artist actually not only identified all these items in his photographs, but also researched and then catalogued them has my head spinning: At the same time I’m somewhat impressed and equally frightened, imagining the determination needed to perform this task that cannot be anything other than gruesome and unbelievably boring.

All these different elements do exist somewhere, in other catalogues. City planners, no doubt, make decisions about what to put where based on what I imagine must be recommendations by experts who specialize in creating public spaces. There must be experts who specialize in designing those public spaces! As a matter of fact, considerable attention to detail goes into much of what surrounds of, however mundane we think it is. It’s likely that many readers of this website are such experts, knowing everything about something that everybody else considers to be incredibly boring and/or mundane. This is our modern world, after all - the noise in the media notwithstanding, for the most part an incredibly mundane and tedious enterprise. So we might as well pay more attention to it.

Having catalogued all these things, Van der Meer then shows us photographs, many of them, of Dutch city centers, one more mundane than the other. Exchange the language in the signs, and any of those photographs could have been taken on the other side of the Dutch-German border (where I grew up). Of course, we are conditioned to consider any of those places as boring. If you’re a tourist it’s unlikely you will decide to visit them. But then isn’t part of our collective problem that we have adopted the tourist’s view of things as a kind of benchmark? Might we not gain something from paying closer attention to all those things around us that we don’t notice, because we’re either too familiar, or we deem them not interesting enough?

The viewer will have to bring the willingness to look to the table when dealing with The Netherlands - Off the Shelf. If you want to be entertained then in all likelihood this book won’t satisfy you much. But if you want to have a world opened up to you that is all around you - unlike that artificial entertaining one that is so prevalent in the media - then you’re in for a treat. Mind you, the book is perfectly boring, at least for a while. You will have to adjust your mindset, and you will start noticing all those things you might have taken for granted.

Leave it up to Hans van der Meer to show us the strange world we live in, the world we’re so familiar with that we never care to look at it much.

The Netherlands Off the Shelf, photographs and text by Hans van der Meer, 240 pages, Ydoc, 2012