“It’s just freedom, simply freedom,” a female artist says in the opening scene of If Paradise Is Half as Nice, a documentary directed by Marieke van der Lippe that premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival today. This unnamed woman has recently arrived at an abandoned, concrete flatland in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, along with the titular troupe of artists who spent the following five weeks making site-specific installations together.
IPIHAN, as that troupe is known for short, began in 2012 when Rotterdam-based artists Pim Palsgraaf and Daan Botlek decided to go off to Leipzig, Germany, to shake off the frustration of their studio practices. There, they found an abandoned building that they decided to inhabit and make art in for a few months. After a successful, impromptu exhibition in the space, the duo decided to continue and expand this anarchistic creative retreat. Since 2012, Palsgraaf and Botlek have invited a small group of artists to inhabit various abandoned spaces in towns and cities across Germany and the Netherlands, often in disused factory buildings.
In van der Lippe’s 30-minute documentary, none of this history is explained, yet the spirit of the mission—its practiced ease—is evident. The film focuses on a 2020 iteration of IPIHAN’s project in which they invited artists to a wasteland of concrete and a few cement walls. Lacking any shelter or structure, the artists spend time constructing a tent and other living quarters. The artists’ bohemian lifestyle is captured in footage where they’re shown building, laughing, cooking, and singing together, even taking care of one of the artist’s infant child. Their commons is a dirty pond that has formed in the sunken middle of the flatlands, where they swim, lounge, and create work in a serious and peaceful quiet. One artist collects and dries seaweed that has bloomed in the stagnant water; another levels a laser across the surface to gauge the topography as a performance artist sets a tadpole on a sailing voyage in a floating plate with some water and fruit flies.
The tension inherent in sharing a space like this does not get a lot of attention from van der Lippe, though we’re clued into it by a passing line from Guus Vreeburg, IPIHAN’s resident historian: “I’ve noticed it more than once at these IPIHAN meetings: endless whining.” The artists’ names aren’t introduced and only a few personalities break through, adding to the difficulty in understanding the social dynamics at play. But it is hard to grow frustrated by this detached style as it seems to match the relaxed mood permeating the whole project.
A calamity of nature eventually punctures the sense of abounding ease. During a thunderstorm, the artists gather under the tent to discuss Rotterdam’s status as Covid becomes a more serious force on the city. Law and order arrive in the form of white painted lines meant to direct the flow of traffic around the space as they prepare to exhibit their work. Though they’re prevented from sharing the unique pleasures of the space with more people in the form of a combined party/barbecue/exhibition/hangout, that was seen earlier, the free-spirited vibe quietly triumphs as the credits play over a scene of the artists dancing together around a fire.
Palsgraaf and Botlek are aware that what they’ve put together is special and worth sharing, even worth analyzing. If Paradise Is Half as Nice marks one of four times the IPIHANs filmmakers were invited to document the collective, which also has Vreeburg as their historian. Yet, as this documentary shows, the project is small, documenting a local scene far removed from the appetites, compromises, and capitalistic values of the international art world. It’s obvious that this provincial nature is the success of those involved with IPIHAN, who have found a way to make space to live and create together for free, expecting only freedom, if only for a little while.