The Little Tower of Drienerlo

Het Torentje van drienerlo 

Question: What does the Torentje van Drienerlo (the Little Tower of Drienerlo) have in common with the voice of Kermit and Ernie in the Dutch version of Sesame Street, TV celebrity Sjef van Oekel and the legendary Dutch radio show Ronflonflon?

Answer: They all share Wim T. Schippers as their spiritual father.

In 1979, the year of its ‘birth’, the icon of the campus that is the Torentje van Drienerlo was a controversial artwork. It wasn’t just the work itself that caused a lot of discussion; it was also the decision-making process and the outspoken way artist Wim T. Schippers had of expressing himself.

‘I’m looking forward to hearing the reactions to the Torentje,’ said Schippers when his work was unveiled in 1979, ‘but I think I can guess what they’re going to be. At first there’ll be some resistance, and people will moan about the cost. But if I came back in a year’s time and wanted to dismantle it they’d stop me, because they’ll have grown used to it.’ His words were prophetic.

Over the years the Torentje van Drienerlo, that sunken icon in the pond in front of the Vrijhof building, has become a well-loved fixture on campus. Fortunately, the artwork was a good deal more durable than the Pindakaasvloer (Peanut Butter Floor) Schippers sold to the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum in 2011, but it shares the same unmistakably absurdist tone.

 When the technical college was still new, it was governed by the ‘1% rule’: one percent of the construction budget was set aside for art. The art committee at the college consulted an advisory committee from the central government about siting a large-scale art project in the water outside the Vrijhof building. The committee interviewed five artists, including Wim T. Schippers, who suggested tipping a lorryload of kale into the pond. That proposal put him out of the reckoning with the art committee, but then what did they expect from an artist who had caused a furore in 1962 by emptying a bottle of fruit cordial into the sea at Petten?

Nonetheless, Wim T. Schippers did ultimately get the job, thanks to a mysterious ‘strategic phone call’. Both staff and students viewed his new provisional design – noticeably lacking in kale and now featuring a miniature church tower rising from the water – as the best of the bunch. But there was also a good deal of criticism, and the THT Nieuws (newspaper of the technical college) was overwhelmed with all the letters to the editor. The project was seen as too expensive (coming in at a total of 140,000 guilders) and unoriginal (already in the summer of 1979 holidaymakers had sent home postcards featuring sunken towers), and people were concerned about the fish that would die when the pond was emptied to allow construction to begin.

In the face of all these objections, the Torentje was successfully unveiled on 16 November 1979, although the event was disrupted when a protester (actually, as it turned out, an actor hired by Schippers) caused a stir by shouting about the money wasted on this ‘artwork’. The artist himself hoped that the sunken tower would generate all kinds of urban myths – as indeed it has. For example: ‘Where the pond is now, this used to be the site of the village of Drienerlo until it sank into the peat.’ Some people see the artwork as a representation of the triumph of science over religion; a few sarcastic commentators have also suggested that the Torentje symbolizes the financial situation the college was in at the time.

The Torentje is somewhat less edible than his original idea for a statement with kale, but Wim T. Schippers ultimately achieved his goal: to create an artwork that is still inspiring crazy stories four decades after it was unveiled.

The canon is constantly evolving and is open to debate and discussion. Is there an event, feature or key person you think should be included?

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