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On Constant: New Babylon

In 1998, Kunstinstituut Melly (then named Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art) hosted an exhibition of the legendary Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920-2005), who was simply known as Constant. This comprehensive exhibition and accompanying publication focused on his decades-long project New Babylon (1959-1974). Constant blurred the lines between architecture and art, and his New Babylon crystallized this: it was an imaginary and certainly visionary future city given over to the pleasure principle.

The exhibition, Constant: New Babylon was curated by architectural historian Mark Wigley and Bartomeu Mari, director of our institution from 1996 to 2002, in close collaboration with Constant. The exhibition comprised a vast series of work, ranging from models and paintings, to books and manifestos. Taken together, the works laid bare Constant’s envisaging of a society of total automation in which the need to work is replaced with a nomadic life of creative play propelled by desire. By consequence, New Babylon introduces a fictional reality in which traditional architecture comes to disintegrate along with the social institutions that it propped up. While optimistic at the start, in the later years of his work on the project Constant began to embed a more critical reflection upon the downfalls of his Utopia, as described in a lengthy exhibition review in the New York Times: “He sketches an apocalypse in black and red: madness, slavery, dehumanization, the dystopian consequences of unquenchable desire.”

This autumn, Kunstinstituut Melly revisits this 1998 exhibition. On Constant: New Babylon presents a vitrine display with archival materials relating to Constant's exhibition, including correspondence, promotional materials and publications. One such document is the exhibition’s educational pamphlet, which prompted audience members to consider how New Babylon can be interpreted in light of the internet’s emergence of the internet, asking: As the world is more interconnected than ever, what does New Babylon say about society today? Is desire and play more important now than ever, and if so, what are the consequences?

On Constant: New Babylon is one of several small-scale displays activating our exhibition archive; these are presented at MELLY. The current presentation is planned in conjunction with a public program organized in collaboration with Het Nieuwe Instituut and Master Interior Architecture: Research + Design (MIARD) at the Piet Zwarte of the Willem de Kooning Academy, both in Rotterdam, on the occasion of the opening of Constant 101.

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