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Amsterdam Day Two – Out Wandering

Starting Slow

I slept really well, and woke to the street sounds then dozed off some more. I was surprised to find that it was only 10.30 when I finally got up. I’d acquired bread and cheese the day before so breakfast, plus tea and coffee made for a sane beginning to the day.

Gorgeous sunshine greeted me as I hopped back down the three flights of stairs. I’m going without headphones today – partly to be better at evading the streams of wheeled traffic and just to absorb the noise. I felt pretty good about my sense of direction and figured the easy way to begin the day would be something I already knew.

Here Pussy Pussy

The Cat Cabinet

Kattenkabinet Inside the Kabinet

Het Kattenkabinet is a damn sight easier to find from this end of town. I remember it being tricksy last time we were here. Today it’s just three canals and a bit left away. If you haven’t been here, and like cats then you probably should go. It’s a three storey canalside house entirely devoted to cat art. I have two motivations for being here, partly I do adore cats and second that there’s usually at least one real cat lounging about the place.

An astonishing range of artists have donated their work or seen it passed on to the cat house, including Picasso. Despite the great art I think I’m most drawn to the advertising posters and metal signs that litter the first floor landing. Much of the Kabinet is like this, artwork piled up the walls, narrowly obscuring the beautiful decoration of the house itself. They’ve added quite a lot since I was here last, despite the top floor not being open today. That’s okay – they’ve got a skinned cat up there and I don’t really want to see it anyway.

Cat posters Maneki Neko

Amongst the sculptures and frequently odd paintings I finally found a beastie. This big delightful grey tabby was fast asleep and barely moved when I started stroking him. Turns out he likes atomic nug-nugs and we spent a few purring minutes before moving on. It’s a shame the Katten Kabinet doesn’t do a full catalogue of all the bizarre things they’ve acquired over the years. I snagged just a few postcards, as we already have the programme from a previous visit.

Cat 2 Cat 1

Before ambling out again I met the other pussy cat – rather older, a little skin and bones beastling with a throaty purr. It’s a quiet and peaceful haven from everything. I love the place. They’ve got a limited selection of their vast collection on their website, plus you can take a virtual tour and see some better pictures than I can take.

Shopping and um… Shopping

Not much buying though. I ventured up to Damrak, along the route I’m now familiar with, alternately turning off the main road and following the parallel side streets. The shops are of course, exactly the same as everywhere else, plus shops full of touristy clog keychains and crap that would embarrass even Blackpool. I found nothing that I wanted… other than a couple of useful things like a candle (to light even the darkest night).

I did stumble across The English Bookshop which is a very well stocked version of The Works, but very pleasant to poke around. My real destination was Damrak 66 – the site of the Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibition.

Everybody Needs Somebody

Body Worlds: The Happiness Project

Body Worlds

I suppose everyone’s familiar with the Gunther von Hagen‘s strange anatomical sculpture – except it’s not really sculpture since it’s all dead people. You aren’t allowed to take any photographs, so all I have is this lovely flying pig from the reception area. The title of this exhibition is Happiness. It’s six floors of body parts, sliced and peeled, presented with the aim of understanding human happiness. Mental. Yet beautiful. I’ve been interested in the functioning chunks of meat that make up the human body since finding Gray’s Anatomy on my Dad’s bookshelf when I was very young.

This exhibit takes you on a journey through the parts of the body – the nervous system, the organs, the vascular system, musculature, reproduction and sex. Oddly the plastination process (all the ‘models’ are referred to as ‘plastinates’ rather than people – I guess they aren’t really people any more) makes everything look completely fake. It is both deeply moving and disorienting. I loved the bodies and limbs stripped down just to a webwork of veins. They even have a whole duck pared back to the veins and arteries, presumably just because it looks cool.

The first human we see is a gentleman whose head has been cut in half and opened like a book, so you can see his calm, peaceful expression and fine blonde eyebrows before peering directly into his brain and mouth. I kept expecting him to open his eyes or smile. None of the other plastinates were quite as affecting, though several were much more disturbing – the lady leaping out of a rock, leaving behind her hair and skin for example.

Endless upbeat positive messages appear around the gallery, exhorting us to enjoy what we have, to strive for interpersonal relationships and to do what makes us happy. It is undoubtedly uplifting, even when being shown the spread of lung cancer and the stages of embryo development from one to twenty four weeks. It’s especially strange to be looking at the plastinated foetuses, including one nestled in its mother’s womb and realise that I’m looking at a series of dead babies in jars.

I completely agree with the materialist sensibilities though – we are our bodies, our feelings and pains are entirely physical whether located in our brains or our past. Failing to grasp the essential nature of ourselves – as a complex machine made of meat leads to the horrors and inanaties of religion and new age cod-philosophy. Our bodies wear out, or we break them, and we die. Looking at dead people makes you feel more alive. I think.

It’s not an enormous exhibition, but there is so much to read and absorb that I spent an hour and a half in there. For a while I was following Bill Bailey about (he’s got a show in Amsterdam this week), and was avoiding some noisy Americans. It’s nice to find that people don’t assume I speak English (which I do, but poorly) and that’s invaluable for avoidance of humanity. It’s possible I haven’t learned anything from this exhibition!

I only bought a copy of Von Hagen’s Animals Gallery, since I’d seen enough of men stripped back to the muscles in their cheeks, but retaining their eyebrows (a bizarre and hilarious affectation).

A great start to the day… now for drinking.

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