Ilse van Rijn: Polder Cup, 2011

Disordered play

The facade of the Witte de With art institute in central Rotterdam was adorned with a grass-green banner featuring images of meadows marked with white lines and criss-crossed with straight ditches. Together, the meadows formed four football pitches, one large and three smaller, and the chalk lines appeared ragged compared to the perfectly straight lines of the ditches. The ditches divided the playing fields into asymmetrical blocks that were dotted with hollows and bumps. The banner invited passersby to participate in a football match in the polder, but the unconventional playing fields were a warning that the rules would have to be adapted to suit the situation.

Passersby were confronted by the changes to the rules and the disruption of recognisable scenes. The football pitches re-divided the familiar landscape of parcelled polders, and the ditches and the marshy ground that characterise this typically Dutch landscape determined how the game was played. The announcement of the work at Witte de With also resulted in the art institute itself becoming a subject of discussion – and being redefined again. Not only did the ‘scenic landscape’ on the large banner contrast starkly with the architecture of the institute, but the large ‘poster’ for the sports event also implicitly rechristened the Centre for Contemporary Art as the official information centre of the tournament. This is where potential players could sign up, and the bus that transported the participants to and from the playing fields in Ottoland, in the Graafstroom district, departed from here. The events at the Witte de With were therefore part of Polder Cup, a project developed by the Spanish artist Maider López (1975) and commissioned by SKOR in collaboration with Witte de With.

Potential participants could sign up for the football tournament as individuals or with teammates. Each Polder Cup team chose its own name and shirt. Referees ensured that the matches were played fairly and a ‘ringmaster’ called out who should be where and at what time. He announced the score after each round, with quarter-finals being followed by semi-finals and then the final: ‘and the winner is….’ As well as being demarcated by the white chalk lines, the boundaries of the football pitches were delimited by real corner flags and real goalposts. Balls that ended up in the ditches were recovered with nets and missed shots were retrieved from the banks using canoes and oars. Spectators shouted encouragement from the stands and there were plenty of sandwiches, cakes and soft drinks. The entire occasion was carefully coordinated, with very little left to chance. This attention to the organisation of the tournament ensured that the players could fully immerse themselves in the game.[i] Ditches could be leapt during breaks as a form of recreation. The atmosphere was superb, and the weather was onside; in one of the videos López shot of the day, two tractors can be seen chugging past against a background of clear blue sky.

On the one hand the game activated and actualised the geometric polder landscape of ditches and meadows, investing it with a degree of individuality. The event transformed, in De Certeau’s words, a stable and incontrovertible ‘place’ (lieu) into a dynamic ‘space’ (espace).[ii] On the other hand, as López’ footage shows, locating the football games in the polder resulted in a drastically other appearance of the expansive landscape. Indeed, the familiar polder landscape was briefly traversed and interrupted by the game. The players could put aside their everyday concerns and lose themselves in the moment. As in all López’ works, the players, game and setting of Polder Cup were placed against an ingenious backdrop.

Although the public nature of the event or the overwhelming shared experience of her projects might almost make you forget it, the visual component is vital to López’ work. Formally speaking, Polder Cup is reminiscent of Ataskoa (Traffic Jam, 2005), a project situated in the mountains of Spain’s Basque Country. Following an appeal in newspapers and on the radio, as well as a flyer and poster campaign, 160 drivers and their cars assembled close to Mount Aralar (Intza, Navarra) on 18 September 2005. The vehicles blocked the road for four hours on this particular Sunday.[iii] The absurd traffic jam formed a colourful, glinting garland at the foot of the mountain. Like Polder Cup, Ataskoa was staged in natural surroundings, actualising, embellishing, emphasising and interrogating the landscape. The seemingly spontaneous activity derives its power from the participation and cooperation of individuals.

By taking place during the 2010 World Cup, Polder Cup served as a foil to the official football tournament. It criticised the spectacle that sport has become, and its nonsensical practical context and daft rules (by professional standards) parodied the official game. In Polder Cup the tall grass, the pollen and the squishy ground restricted the players’ movements. The ditches not only transect the pitches, but the presence of water also meant that the official rules of the game have to be ‘rectified’. Players were not allowed to leap over the ditches, which meant a defender could never move to the opposite side of the pitch. Consequently, the players had to discuss and revise their tactics and devise new strategies in the heat of the moment, without them being formalised. Moreover, all the pitches were different, which produced new forms of interaction between the attackers and the defenders of a given team, as well as between the competing teams, resulting in a new (football) language.

The question arises: what game was it exactly that was being played in López’ Polder Cup? Like Ataskoa, this work not only demonstrates what a group of individuals can achieve as a group, but also reflects on the here and now and on the traditions of a specific game or on sports in general. Furthermore, as in AdosAdos (2007), in which López and the Friends of the Guggenheim created a temporary gallery for the museum in Bilbao, Polder Cup places the institutional structure and limitations of the art institute under scrutiny. In Polder Cup this is achieved through the use of the green banner and its implications for the Witte de With art centre. In the case of AdosAdos it was done by giving each of the Friends a large panel to carry that was apparently made from the one of the materials that was used to clad the museum itself, namely titanium. López arranged the participants in an elongated shape alongside the building. In this way the Friends’ financial support was reflected in a structural (in the architectural sense) counterpart. In Polder Cup the football game is reduced to endless negotiation. It is a wink at the notorious Dutch bureaucratic culture, also referred to as the ‘polder model’ to which the polder landscape setting refers metaphorically.

One might say that Polder Cup presents a playful model as well as a serious proposal. The work intervenes in our workaday, accepted reality. The game brought together individuals with different backgrounds and perspectives – the amateur footballer and the art lover, the villager and the urbanite, the artist and the curator – and all of them were at the mercy of the unusual rules specially created for the event. The diversity of players highlights issues surrounding autonomous action and personal motivation to participate. But the football tournament also demonstrates that conventional forms and situations (urban or rural public space, a game or organisation) can be approached and adapted in unexpected ways.

Polder Cup can therefore be regarded as a blueprint for change. But it does not present just a single topic. As a conceptual game it is also a representation. First and foremost, in a football tournament ‘the actor is his audience’ in the words of the German artist Franz Erhard Walther,[iv] with whose work López’ is often compared. But Polder Cup also addresses a wider audience. In a sense, it breaks down one of the four walls that guarantee the closed character of a football tournament and ensure that the player can focus seriously on the game. A duplication takes place: in Polder Cup the supporter of the match is replicated in the viewer who looks at López’ images of the event. This undermines the characteristic structure of the game and its ‘seriousness’ is brought into doubt in a humorous way.

The viewer of the photographs and films of the football tournament is also undermined. Whereas the unusual staging in the images suggests a film set, the photographic and filmed material itself – related as it is to football cards and sports coverage – suggests that the viewer is a fan sharing in the aftermath of the tournament. Once again, it becomes clear that opposites have only an apparent existence. When opponents are brought together, they overlap and are capable of disrupting fixed structures and breaking open conventions. The game of football remains an effective metaphor for signifying this disorganising role. In the words of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, ‘ball games will be with us forever because the ball is freely mobile in every direction, appearing to do surprising things of its own accord.’[v] Categories no longer exist in Maider López’ Polder Cup, in which the contrasts create entirely unexpected twists and turns.


Ilse van Rijn

April 2011



[i] ‘Play fulfils its purpose only if the player loses himself in play. […] seriousness in playing is necessary to make the play wholly play’, in: Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method. Continuum, London/New York, 2006 [1975], p. 103.

[ii] Or: space is a practiced place. [italics  MdC] De Certeau, Michel, The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1988 [1984], p. 117.

[iii] Although it does not concern public transportation, the beginning of De Certeau’s chapter ‘Spatial Stories’ is nevertheless relevant in this regard: ‘In modern Athens, the vehicles of mass transport are called metaphorai. To go to work or come home, one takes a “metaphor” – a bus or a train.’ De Certeau, 1988 [1984], p. 115.

[iv] Franz Erhard Walther, lecture De Ateliers, Amsterdam, 19 April 2011. Rosa Martínez has already compared López’ work to that of Walther, see ‘Maider Lopez’, in: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Collection. Tf. Editores/Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Madrid/Bilbao, 2010, pp. 476–79.

[v] In: Gadamer, 2006 [1975], p. 106.

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