Unseen Amsterdam: “Like a living organism, it is changing its structure”

This article was originally published in issue #7887 of British Journal of Photography magazine. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.

Taking up its annual residency in Amsterdam’s former gasworks, Unseen returns from 20 to 22 September with a three-day programme of festival activities based around an art fair in the spectacular rotunda of the city’s Westergasfabriek.

And it’s this unique mix that most appeals to Unseen’s new artistic director, Marina Paulenka, who regular readers of BJP will know as the founder of Zagreb photofestival, Organ Vida. “It consists of two seemingly opposite components, which coexist with and complement each other – a fair and a festival – both with a strong focus on new and emerging talents, and showcasing works that can’t be seen anywhere else… including more than 80 artist premieres.”

Appointed this spring, she arrived too late to affect much of this year’s programme, though she is currently helping organise three days of talks at Unseen’s Living Room venue, and is co-curating an exhibition devoted to Tabita Rezaire, “whose work navigates architectures of power – both on and offline”, says Paulenka, reflecting on “identity, technology, sexuality, health and spirituality”.

K4 Ultra HD II, from the series K4 Ultra HD, 2018 © Inka & Niclas, courtesy of Dorothée Nilsson Gallery.

Among the 53 galleries participating at this year’s fair, 19 are new, including Gallery 1957 from Ghana and Nature Morte from India, both of whom are presenting solo booths, respectively devoted to Joana Choumali and Bharat Sikka. Across the yard, this year’s ING Unseen Talent Award finalists will be on show, challenged with responding to the theme, Nature of Change, with the help of a coach, artist Adam Broomberg.

The finalists are drawn from Futures, a platform supporting emerging photographers made up of 11 members across Europe, including BJP, PHotoEspaña, Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Centre and FoMU. Each member has selected a minimum of five photographers to join the platform in 2019, inviting them to Amsterdam during Unseen to take part in networking and educational activities.

Five artists have been chosen from this growing group for this year’s shortlist, including two previously featured in BJP’s Ones To Watch, Ulla Deventer from Germany and Karolina Wojtas from Poland, alongside Elena Aya Bundurakis (Greece), Irene Fenara (Italy) and Kevin Osepa (Curaçao). In addition, 70 publishers will take part in the annual Book Market.

From the series Abzgram © Karolina Wojtas, one of five shortlisted artists in this year’s ING Unseen Talent Award.

Beyond Westergas, the city’s many galleries and museums offer plenty more photography-related distraction. Foam is devoting much of Canal House Museum space to The Netherlands’ first major retrospective of the work of Brassaï (13 September to 04 December), showing 170 vintage prints alongside a selection of drawings, and documentary material.

A 15-minute walk along the Keizersgracht takes you to the Huis Marseilles, which is staging the latest leg of the touring show, Berenice Abbott: Portraits
of Modernity
(07 September to 01 December). And Eye Filmmuseum has an exhibition of the work of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (14 September to 06 December), including his acclaimed Polaroid photographs, at its landmark building, a free ferry ride from Centraal Station.

A still from Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal film from 1979. Image courtesy of Eye Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.

“Unseen is now in a transition period,” says Paulenka, talking about the challenges ahead. “Like a living organism, it is changing its structure, strategy and approach. Throughout this transition period, I am most excited about getting to know the team and experiencing Unseen first-hand to see how all of the moving parts come together at the event. One of the challenges is balancing the needs of artists and other industry players, such as galleries, curators, critics and collectors. The market is changing – and photography as a medium as well – and Unseen needs to reflect and adjust to this to ensure it is on the right path and able to continue putting artists first.”