The Netherlands may be renowned for its history of 17th century Old Masters such as Rembrandt or Jan Steel, but Amsterdam is a city rapidly shaping the international conversation around contemporary photography. Unseen Amsterdam, for the sixth year running, has been shaking up the art world by showcasing emerging talent and unrepresented artist groups, letting young artists engage with new audiences in unusual ways.
Steve Musgrave chats with 28-year-old Artistic Director of the fair, Emilia van Lynden.
Emilia Absolutely, more than happy to do so.
E: I'm half English, half Dutch and grew up all over Europe. I studied History & Art History with a specialization in 17th century Baroque Italian architecture, a slightly unconventional precursor to contemporary photography. I'd been to the fair as a visitor in its launching year of 2012 and was blown away by the power of contemporary photography. So I started out as an intern but soon moved into exhibitor relations and 'content development', as it was called back then. As head of artistic affairs I combined working with the exhibiting galleries and overseeing the content of our public program and speakers program. Following some restructuring within Unseen earlier this year I now share the co-director position with Sean Farran, our Business Director, which means that as Artistic Director I am utterly focused on the creative development of Unseen as a year-round platform for emerging contemporary photography.
Artist Nadine Ijewere alongside her works on display at Unseen 2017. As seen on our Instagram account @artdotworld
E: Well, the fair is just one element of Unseen, which was launched in 2012 as 'a fair with a festival flair'. In 2015 we launched a 10-day festival alongside the fair. This year we rebranded our event in September to become Unseen Amsterdam, a multi faceted event including a fair, exhibitions, a book market, talent awards and much more. To me a successful fair would be a mix of things. It's really important that our exhibitors receive all the support to be able to create the best possible presentations and meet the most varied audience in order to grow their network of critics, curators, publishers, and influencers beyond a Dutch audience. Last year our figures for international professionals visiting the fair was at 31%, I hope to have pushed it up to a third this year. During the four days those relationships give their artists more visibility and sustainability in the years to come. Unseen Amsterdam as an event also strives to be hugely accessible and lower the threshold of audience we welcome. If we meet our ethos and mission of showing our visitors the diversity in techniques and processes within contemporary photography today, that's what makes a successful fair. We want visitors to be able to interact with the artists and exhibitors directly, we very much stimulate that the artists are physically present in order to spark in-person conversation and criticism. Of the 142 artists showing at the fair over 90 were present, which is very special. Unseen has always been about putting the artists first.
E: From 2013 onwards we've invited four artist-run collectives to show work on the periphery of the fair. The Westergasfabriek building is circular, with physical niches that housed their works. Audiences were so intrigued to see what these artists were doing that it began to feel limiting to only invite four collectives a year, so we added a second 700 sq. m building dedicated solely to the artist initiatives. There's a growing number of artists working with the medium of photography and not enough galleries to help sustain their careers, which means we've been seeing a shift towards artists banding together and taking matters into their own hands. They help each other in becoming more of a structured and fortified unity, that can help them become more sustainable. As players in the art industry it's up to us to also reflect that within our setup and program. That's why we invited 13 international collectives from all over the world: Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia, Columbia, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and many more. These groups have either not found gallery representation yet or have made a choice to work without it, nonetheless they're able to engage with a larger audience here. We're thrilled that every collective sold work during Unseen Amsterdam 2017. I really believe the commercial side of the art industry needs to reflect and adapt to what's happening in the art scene.
UNSEEN Art Fair in Amsterdam, courtesy Hans Paulie
E: There's a few photography fairs out there, and they've been increasing in past few years. But Unseen Amsterdam is distinctly niche, we have always needed to stick to both our name and our strict concept. Our exhibitors can't show works older than three years. Fifty percent of every presentation needs to be emerging talent and there's a maximum of four artists per gallery. We want focus on solo and duo presentations. Photography is naturally a medium that is viewed as a series, we would rather show a body of work than an individual image. Three years ago we brought into life the Unseen Premier concept, which is a work that's never been seen physically presented to an audience at a fair, gallery or institution. I was slightly skeptical at first, expecting perhaps ten or twenty of our 160 artists would show a Premier, but this year 95 of the 142 artists showing were presenting truly novel works, which is extraordinary. What puts Unseen in its unique positioning is the fact that we don't show vintage or modern, we really focus on whats happening right now, looking towards the future of the medium instead of its past.
E: There's so much more Amsterdam has to offer that goes far and beyond the 17th century, there's plenty happening within contemporary art that makes Amsterdam so exciting. We have phenomenal academies throughout the Netherlands – in Utrecht, the Hague, in Amsterdam… There are a lot of phenomenal students coming here from all over the world. In Amsterdam alone we have two world-class contemporary photography museums, FOAM and Huis Marseille, so it's been important for us to have laid our foundations in Amsterdam in order to show our visitors and the world just how much diversity and quality is coming out of the Netherlands right now. I consider our mission very in line with the characteristics of Dutch culture, we're very internationally minded and open to the change.
E: Contemporary art is overwhelming in its variety and its themes, we want to give our younger audience the tools to engage with it all. We bring out a magazine Unseen Magazine which is distributed worldwide a month prior to the opening in which we publish interviews with our artists about inspiration and process, that way people can prepare to discover what interests them most. We have an evening we organize for all the young patron groups that include free tours of CO-OP, the Fair, and the book market, and our lecture series Unseen Living Room often gives the podium to young artists. Importantly, parts of our programming is free and outdoors, so that even those who may not want to cross the boundary into the fair by buying a ticket can get an idea of what Unseen is about and take part. Many of the events are also run by students. Last but not least, the price point. We show emerging talent, and because emerging talent is far more affordable than established talent the prices can often be below €1000. And yes, they do go up to €50,000 , but there's so much in between that it makes for an accessible starting point for any budding collector.
E: Not completely, we're constantly exploring ways to tell the stories of these artists throughout the year. For me that currently means lot of travel; I'm just back from Estonia and am heading to Italy to continue spreading the word about our artists and programs. We're looking at organizing other physical events throughout Europe whilst also doing more activation online in the months to come.
E: That's a horrible question (laughs) I wouldn't want to say something corny
E: Well, I suppose my word would be diverse