A artists’ book by Clifton Meador
Printed by offset Lithography, case bound book
Edition of 100
I was, like so many other people, stuck during the Pandemic. In addition to the relentless doom-scrolling of reading mortality figures, I spent time looking at the websites of museums I could no longer visit.
One site was particularly well-designed and user-friendly, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. As I clicked through the images of paintings, furniture, flatware, guns, metalwork, object de virtu, coins, glass, and silver, I started thinking about the Netherlands in the seventeenth century and the vast wealth that was evidenced in the Rijksmuseum’s collections. I started reading about the Dutch East India company.
Chartered in 1602, the Dutch East India company—or in Dutch, Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie, referred to as the VOC—was the first publicly traded corporation in the world. The VOC was established to commercialize the highly profitable spice and silk trade with India and the East Indies by spreading the risk incurred by individual ships attempting the long and perilous voyage to the east. The VOC aggregated the costs and then distributed the profits of many separate voyages, eventually creating a source of great wealth for its investors. The VOC became a multinational company-state, perhaps the largest commercial organization in history, with its own military forces, fortresses, and quasi-independent city-states across South Africa, India, and the East Indies. The VOC was able to independently wage war, coin money, negotiate treaties, establish colonies, enslave people, massacre Indigenous populations, and create spice monopolies by burning entire islands clear of spice plants.
The so-called Dutch golden age of the 17th century contained massive contradictions: a society that exported extensive, violent colonialism, and at the same time supported many creative practitioners, allowed relative freedom of the press, and provided tolerance for some level of dissent. In this project I focused on using the collection of the Rijksmuseum to suggest this contradiction and to tell, only using objects from this collection, the story of the birth of the VOC and the resultant wealth of the Dutch Republic. My goal was to show how luxury goods, still lives, metal work, objet d’art, and weapons, were the product of an extractive colonialism.
My strategy was to color-separate the high-resolution images from the Rijksmuseum and then recombine images of these objects, to create representations that do not represent anything —an illusion of inchoate, richly crafted objects. The introductory section of the book presents the charter of the VOC, presents some of the conflict surrounding the Dutch presence in the East Indies in the form of contemporary title pages, and then subsequent sections of the book suggests the resultant wealth this colonial project produced. The final section of the book presents chimerical portraits—images of people from the 17th century recombined to make illusory people—overprinted with engraving from the 17th century that document some of the violence associated with the VOC.
I imagined this project as a museum catalog gone completely wrong: reproductions mangled, images misregistered, odd fragments of images recombined from wildly different sources, cropped badly and colors transformed into something from a hallucination. I imagined that in this catalog all text, including the so-important informative, locating captions for the images would be removed. Gone would be the gallant, constraining histories provided by any museum, normally present in the image descriptions, but now entirely absent. The reader would be left to construct their own narrative from this unreal evidence.
And my hope is that the evidence of this museum catalog is so unreliable, so tainted by its own distorted agenda, that the reader is left with nothing other than a vague impression of a horrific cataclysm swimming around illusory objects of great beauty and virtue.
Unseparated images from pages 76-77. This spread was printed in Pantone 801, Pantone 806, Pantone 810, and two different black inks.