02. August 2016 | von Marcel Henry Kommentieren


Erasmus of Rotterdam is being celebrated all over Europe this year: in his native city on account of his supposed birth year, 1466, and in Basel on account of the publication of his iconic New Testament in 1516. Also being celebrated all over Europe this year is the centenary of the birth of Dadaism. This could be the link between Europe and "Stultitia II — Floating folly" by Florian Graf, a waterborne sculpture that links Basel, where Erasmus died in 1536, with Rotterdam, where he was born. The Dada movement that began in Zurich during World War I was driven mainly by migrants from warring nations and local artists. With Europe in ruins they lamented the loss of those essential European values that had first been promulgated by the Humanists of the 16th century and especially by Erasmus of Rotterdam. The two World Wars of the 20th century were in fact the worst attack on Humanist values ever experienced and those who witnessed them could not but yearn for a peaceful society such as the one outlined by Erasmus's friend Thomas More in his famous book "Utopia".

Erasmus was living in a time of great strife – as did the Dadaists and as we do today – when he published his "Praise of Folly". Perhaps his most widely read work, "Stultita laus" – as it is called in Latin – was written in 1509 shortly after Erasmus arrived in London as a guest of Thomas More. In this work, Stultitia, the personification of Folly, praises her impact on all sections of society and proclaims the legitimacy of even the most senseless human acts, just as the Dadaists celebrated folly and nonsense in their works and performances. Erasmus might therefore be seen as a precursor of the Dadaists, who by overdrawing certain aspects of human behavior tried to generate the critical consciousness needed for peaceful and harmonious coexistence.

As the German philosopher Bazon Brock once said in a talk at the Cabaret Voltaire, Dada is probably the only good way there is of dealing with daily life. This brings us back to Erasmus and the Sculpture "Floating Folly". Erasmus once recalled the words of the Latin author Horace, who opined that there should always be a portion of folly mixed into our actions.

This is the quote displayed on the pavement in front of the Rathaus in Basel.

Erasmus did this regularly in his own writings, and this is what Florian Graf picks up on in his wonderful floating sculpture "Stultitia II — Floating folly". Like Erasmus himself, Graf’s project also encountered stormy times; after all, handling Folly is no easy undertaking. First it was a huge struggle to find an appropriate and affordable platform for the sculpture. And then, Saint Peter – incidentally the main character of Erasmus's text "Julius exclusus" – took against the us, sending weeks of rain that caused water levels in the Rhine at Basel to rise and rise. Despite these setbacks, the raft was launched as planned on 15th June with a panel discussion between the mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, the Erasmus specialist, Christine Christ-von Wedel, the general director of SRG SSR idée Suisse, Roger de Weck, and Judith C. Wipfler as moderator. I for one will never forget that first debate on the float in Basel. That morning I had received a phone call from our special guest’s assistant, who told me that M. Aboutaleb reserved the right not to set foot on the structure if he did not judge it safe enough. But everything turned out as intended and the sky was smiling on the harbour when the debate got underway later that afternoon. It was like a gift from heaven, or perhaps the intercession of Erasmus himself. This meteorological folly – there was a lot of suspense in the run-up – so fired the imagination of those present that many bridges were built between the work itself inspired by the spirit of the great Humanist and contemporary Europe with its current debate about migration and coexistence.

Discussion on the floating sculpture "Stultitia II — Floating folly" in Basel

The floating sculpture "Stultitia II" left Basel on 1st July – when water levels were at last low enough for it to start its journey down the Rhine. After further adventures en route, it arrived in Rotterdam where the performance ended with another panel discussion on 12th July, the anniversary of Erasmus’s death.

Discussion on the floating sculpture "Stultitia II — Floating folly" in Rotterdam

But if the Basel-Rotterdam-Performance in a sense celebrated the end of Erasmus's own words, it also marked the beginning of the long history of his reception and the inspiration that has been drawn from reading and studying his works. The floating sculpture "Stultitia II" is thus further proof of the enduring fascination of Erasmus's words. As an ephemeral artistic monument in praise of folly it is also a verbal monument to respectful and peaceful coexistence by contemporary thinkers, scientists and politicians. The chance to celebrate this with people from Basel and Rotterdam was a great honour, for as Erasmus himself once said: it is debate that connects cities with cities, kingdoms with kingdoms and nations with nations.


The mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, visited the city of Basel with a delegation of 35 people from 14th to 16th of June 2016. (The mayor of Basel, Guy Morin, will return the compliment when he visits Rotterdam on 4th September). The idea of linking Basel to Rotterdam came about in January 2015 when the media were still packed with reactions to the attack on Charlie Hebdo. During the discussion in Basel, Ahmed Aboutaleb, a practising Muslim who emigrated from Morocco to the Netherlands at the age of 15, took a clear stance against Islamists. While immigrants need not give up their roots, he said, on coming to Europe they must be the ones to make the effort to integrate. He condemned explicitly all forms of violence. Aboutaleb often quotes Erasmus and champions the respectful and harmonious coexistence of people from all backgrounds and walks of life. Right from the start, the project "Erasmus MMXVI" set out not only to study Erasmus, the historical Humanist, but also to highlight the topicality of his values and attitudes in the world of today. Bridging the geographical and historical divide and injecting an awareness of history into the discussion of migration and coexistence in the 21st century has ultimately proved a most worthwhile endeavour.

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