Manicure among the masterpieces: inside Amsterdam’s cultural lockdown fightback

·6-min read
A hairdresser at work at the Van Gogh museum as part of a protest against lockdown restrictions - REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
A hairdresser at work at the Van Gogh museum as part of a protest against lockdown restrictions - REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw

You might call it the theatre of the absurd. Across the Netherlands last Wednesday, world-renowned institutions staged a protest putting hairdressers, nail stylists and gym instructors – alongside their arts – centre stage.

At Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, two hairdressers snipped to the stirring sounds of an orchestral rehearsal of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2. In the self-portrait room at the Van Gogh Museum, a nail stylist painted miniatures of irises and almond blossom on people’s nails – after Van Gogh – while a barber trimmed beards. And at De Kleine Komedie, Amsterdam’s oldest theatre where the idea began, comic acts dropped their punchlines to the snip of two on-stage hairdressers.

This ludieke, or tongue-in-cheek action, was a national protest by around 70 theatres and museums against a regime of coronavirus restrictions that seem to much of the Netherlands increasingly absurd.

Unfathomably to many in the culture world – particularly comedian Sanne Wallis de Vries and actor Diederik Ebbinge, who came up with the action – contact professions like hairdressers, masseurs and sex workers can serve their clients. Shops are open until 5pm each day – or 8pm if they are considered "essential". People can sweat, free and unmasked, in indoor gyms. But a government press conference earlier this month announced that hospitality venues, theatres, museums and the cultural world have to stay closed, after a month of complete national coronavirus lockdown.

Sick of being "the best-behaved child in the class", on January 19, De Vries and Ebbinge coordinated a campaign to make the institutions into temporary "theatre hairdressers" or "museum gyms", exercising their Dutch democratic right to protest – and defying official letters of warning and even local council enforcers at the door in some places.

A customer gets her nails done at the Van Gogh museum, in Amsterdam - REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
A customer gets her nails done at the Van Gogh museum, in Amsterdam - REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw

“The problem is that the cultural sector has had to withstand lockdown for the past two years,” said Jörgen Tjon A Fong, managing director of De Kleine Komedie. “Artists are in dire need of help. So for us, it was time for a signal to our government to say: make us understand why decisions have been made the way they have been made and make sure you give us perspective on what we can expect, even though these are insecure times.

“We are a house of stories and a house of humour and we were approached by artists themselves in order to pay attention to this problem: culture and theatres, but also people working in the cultural sector who are literally at the end of their wits.”

At De Kleine Komedie, in sessions throughout the day, groups of 50 audience members with face masks and proof of vaccination or recovery sat well-apart in the grand auditorium, which also acted as a hairdressers’ ‘waiting room’. Famous comedians including Claudia de Breij and Youp van ‘t Hek performed everything from stand-up to songs and poems while two hairdressers ploughed through customers, working stage left and right – with little breaks so the hair could be swept away. The extra tension, from the constant threat of closure by Amsterdam mayor Femke Halsema, was palpable.

Customers get a haircut during a rehearsal at the Concertgebouw - AP
Customers get a haircut during a rehearsal at the Concertgebouw - AP

Some of the jokes pushed the boundaries too: comparing the national Second World War freedom day to “the day that IKEA opened again”, or jesting about “feeling like Anne Frank with a Netflix account” during lockdown. But the audience response was warm, and deeply sympathetic.

And backed by theatre managing director Mr Tjon A Fong, the show went on. “I believe it’s more than just fun,” he said afterwards. “Taking things into the absurd also sometimes offers solutions to situations that you can’t solve only by talking or sheds a new light on topics. When I studied [in London], it was said that Winston Churchill – and I’m paraphrasing – said, ‘If we can’t fight for culture, or if culture isn’t taken into account, why bother?’”

At the Concertgebouw, the mood was equally bullish, despite an emailed warning from the city council. Dominik Winterling, managing director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, said that while they are rehearsing to perform a streamed concert, there is nothing like performance in real life. “We want of course to draw attention to the fact that the cultural sector is still not open – and we believe that it is being treated unfairly,” he said, pointing out that international studies show fixed-seat cultural venues have a very low risk of spreading infection if safety measures are followed rigorously.

They are also, added Concertgebouw managing director Simon Reinink, specialised in crowd management.

“Our mission is to reach people with the power of symphonic music and this is what we want to do, in front of a public,” said Winterling, the orchestra warming up behind him and 50 seats full of people keen to hear the 45-minute rehearsal. “If you sit in a concert, you are a different person when you step out. This is our purpose – to reach people, inspire them and make their lives a little bit better.”

Across the road at the Van Gogh Museum – where checks were followed, the museum shop was open but the place was deserted apart from 20 hair and nail appointments – it was the same story. Nail stylist Loes Appels signed up because she was convinced there would be no safety risk for anyone and said it was a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ to paint nails surrounded by masterpieces – and a peaceful demonstration she fully agreed with.

“The idea is very simply this: we have a problem with the fact that hairdressers and nail bars and commercial activities can be open, and we can’t,” said Van Gogh Museum director Emilie Gordenker.

“Our mental health is as important as physical health, and we think it’s important to let that be known. We support everything we need to do in order to keep people safe. But this policy just seems contradictory and it seems to favour the commercial sector over the cultural one.

“We are big part of what makes this city special and people come, especially in the case of Van Gogh, not just for the marvellous works of art but for his life story – one of struggle and persistence. That is a theme I think really resonates at this time.”

In the end, the curtain didn’t fall on the Amsterdam institutions and city enforcement officers stayed away. And although I didn’t make it to the front of the queue for a haircut, I remembered again why we go to concerts, museums, shows and events: that feeling of common appreciation, sharing a meal for the soul with strangers, and leaving…feeling better.

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