On his twitter profile Otto Berchem calls himself a ‘convivial artist’, an apt description for someone whose practice tends to mimic situations and contexts in which humans encounter, observe and respond to each other, often exposing their inherent awkwardness and sometimes blatant ineptitude. Although not part of the group of artists often referred to as ‘relational’, his work certainly shares some of their characteristics. He is of a similar generation, but of a different provenance.
Originally from Connecticut, Otto reached Amsterdam (where he was a participant at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in 1995-96) via Edinburgh (where he attended the Edinburgh College of Art ) and New York (where he went to Parsons School of Design). I met him when I was working at De Appel, when he helped install the work of one his friends in 1995. In the brief period that we both lived in the same city (I left Amsterdam in summer 1996), no matter what opening I went to or what events I attended, Otto would be there, wholeheartedly throwing himself in the local art scene and deftly inserting his own work into it. Or, as fellow artist Ross Sinclair put it: ‘Otto’s art spots you from a mile off and comes careering down the streets towards you. (…) But here it comes, thundering towards you, arms wide open, lips puckered up, only slightly out of breath – just try and stop it. Then it hits you, but never too hard.’
If he had escaped anyone’s attention, they certainly knew who he was when he presented The Otto Berchem Show, a project initially conceived for the Open Studios of the Rijksakademie in 1995. Each day he hosted a 50-minute-long show, with commercials, a changing set of guests, discussing a different topic in front of a live audience. The guests were artists, some working at the academy, some from outside. The show made the cover of Metropolis M, the Netherlands’ main contemporary art magazine at the time.
Many projects involving some form of participation, exchange or confrontation would follow. In subsequent years there was a sense that his accelerating career warranted a publication. Although I’d moved to London, Otto involved friends as designers in New York (Tsang Seymour), and the book saw the light of day in 2000, published by Artimo/Gijs Stork. It is modest in its format, and the lightheartedness that many of Otto’s project exude (although all of them have serious intent) is reflected in the magazine-like feel of it. It contains an essay by Charles Esche and Lisette Smits, and ample documentation of projects realised. Fourteen years and many projects later, it’s time for another one…