Remembering Robert Jasper Grootveld

A friend told me about a funeral the other day which had happened in Amsterdam last week.

Robert Jasper Grootveld, one of the founders of the anarchist Provo group that livened up Dutch counter-culture and brought real changes to Dutch society, died in February, and was given a weird and wonderful send off which was covered in the Dutch media with as much hunger as his actions were in the 1960s.

I was so glad.

I met him on several occasions, some time ago, and, for a brief period, in the way of professional friendships, I think I really could say that we were friends.

Time passes and life moves on. I hadn’t seen him for years but he was always somewhere at the back of my brain, remembered fondly with a smile but also as someone with the art of challenging so many of my assumptions and of taking me out of my comfort zone.

I often told people about our time together, bizarre, comical and challenging.

They called him The Magician and that indeed was his genius.

He was an artist anarchist with the panache of a circus entertainer, not bothered by the trappings of material comfort but very bothered about such issues as the environment, the destructive powers of multinational industries, and the hypocrisies of the ‘establishment.’

There are many stories on public record about how, starting in 1965, the Provos made a permanent change to Dutch society. Previously tight-lipped, over-respectful to authority and without many rights to demonstrate publicly, Robert Jasper, became the central focus of a series of so-called Happenings which changed for ever, the relationship between the public and the authorities in this now remarkably liberal country.

They invented the idea of the ‘White Bicycle” – a series of cycles, painted white, which were free to use throughout the city – and, of course The Happening – a gathering of people opposed to the establishment in events of street theatre subversion. The Happenings spread round the World in the late Sixties taking their place in the roll call of influences which led to the international student riots against the Vietnam War in 1968.

There are many stories about these Happenings which will not fit into this space but the most famous and in many ways the beginning of his story as a performance artist was his demonstrations against the cigarette industry.

There is a statue of a little boy in the centre of Amsterdam which was erected with money donated by the tobacco industry and this fired Robert Jasper’s sense of outrage. He was a chain smoker and remained one even to his death in an old people’s home where he survived alternating cigarettes with sessions of breathing through an oxygen machine but he thought it was deeply immoral to celebrate cigarettes with the image of a child. So he started holding his Happenings around the statue where crowds would emulate his ceremonial coughs with a chant of Ugh Ugh Ugh and where giant mock cigarettes were set on fire.

He had spent 60 days in prison for writing the word Cancer round the city on cigarette hoardings and when he came out, he started the Saturday night Happening around the little statue. It was, of course, illegal but his subversive joking gave him a power beyond the police’s powers. Even, in fact making the police his unknowing accomplices.

Robert Jasper told me what happened: ‘The Lord Mayor of Amsterdam forbade the happenings, so one Saturday evening there was this loudspeaker announcement from the police. They shouted through the neighbourhood of the streets of the inner city: “The Happening is forbidden. There will be no Happening.” And people in the pubs, just standing there, thought: “Oh yes, this is Saturday, let’s go to the Happening”. So thousands of people went to the Happening because of the police.’

Years later, when I met him, he was on a new project; he was building floating islands made out of large squares of discarded polystyrene tied together with string and planted with foliage.

Industrial waste was transformed into mock tropical islands, or were they serious, you never could tell. He floated them out of Amsterdam by the canal system and tested them out on the ‘open seas’ of those Dutch inland lakes. The polystyrene would strain and shift revealing the water underneath. Traveling on them was a terrifying experience so, when it came to the time when I had to take a film crew out there, I omitted to tell them the true nature of this ‘boat.’ If they had known what they were taking on, they would never have agreed to come.

It was an indelible moment, when our boat caught site of the floating island. “What the f*ck!” shouted the cameraman.

It was my birthday as a matter of fact and as we approached the island, all fear and horror left the crew when a bear-like man came out of the small bamboo hut waving a bottle in the air and singing: ‘Happy Birthday to you!’

I had met him months earlier on my very first trip to Amsterdam. He gave me a guided tour showing me the locations of all his Happenings and ‘crimes.’ Firstly we walked, then cycled and finally transferred to his little home-made battery-operated, open-air truck. It was truly small but there was room in the back for his faithful and, I suspect, long-suffering dog – a gigantic and hairy Newfoundland, I think.

We were a noticeable trio even for this now most unorthodox of cities. Luckily, I have always had a very high embarrassment resistance level. He never knew the meaning of embarrassment.

All the time, he talked, he was full of ideas, explanations, plans. How the World could be changed with the use of ‘magic’ – symbolism and street art.

One day, he took me to a large abandoned warehouse on, I think I am right, the Borneokade, now no longer there. I never knew if he had permission to use it or if he was squatting there but the giant interior was filled with his polystyrene islands.

It was here that he filled me in on the possibilities of making a New World out of industrial waste. It was all around me – all those pieces of packaging that we all so readily throw onto landfill sites.

He was, of course, part eccentric, part visionary and part creative artist.

When I returned to Amsterdam with a film crew, I was never really sure whether Robert Jasper would get his act together for the filming. He did, of course, and he also remembered my birthday with a bottle of lethal Dutch alcohol.

I had bought a ticket for the Netherlands Dance that night much to Robert Jasper’s disappointment. He insisted that, as soon as the dance was over, I should come and celebrate my birthday in his local pub which was just over a few bridges in the centre of Amsterdam.

The dance, it was Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, was great but most memories of it fade next to the events of the rest of the evening.

I wore, for some deeply naive reason, really smart clothes for the dance. A bright yellow seersucker jacket and an equally bright and spotted bow-tie which I only keep now as a souvenir.

As I walked further and further away from the elegant surroundings of the Dance Theatre, I realized just how inappropriately dressed I was and, when I found the bar, it was obvious that I would not be able to creep in unnoticed.

If I had any anxieties as I walked into the densely smoking, darkened space, there were immediately dispersed by not only Robert Jasper but by a whole crowd of Dickensian looking characters all singing Happy Birthday To You.

It was a long night and it was only later that RJG told me that the man I was sitting next to had just been released from prison after a considerable time inside for the murder of someone whose grizzly body parts had been fished out of the canal in various parts of the city. He seemed very friendly though.

When that film project was finally completed, there was a big party in London which was hosted by George Harrison – sorry about the name-dropping.

My bosses only wanted to invite celebrities and were very unenthusiastic about what they saw as a crazy tramp turning up. I managed to persuade them that Robert Jasper just had to be invited as he was central to the whole counter-culture movement – and anyway, I really wanted him to come.

The great thing was George Harrison. He was really thrilled to meet RJG when I introduced them to each other. They spent sometime deep in conversation….well George Harrison behaved perfectly and let Robert Jasper do the talking.

For all the celebrities present, there was no question in my mind that Robert Jasper Grootveld was the real star.

Someone told me he had died last year so I was really sad to learn that he was actually still alive when I went to Amsterdam in November, immediately after I left hospital. It would have been so good to have seen him again.

He died penniless, I guess inevitably and without caring too much, but Amsterdam finally came up trumps and gave him the perfect send-off. Television and the press covered it in detail and the crowds came out as his coffin was floated to the cemetery on one of his wild and crazy polystyrene islands. Well, let’s be honest, the last island could never be quite as wild as his originals. However, it was moving gesture. Oh, and the authorities opened the city’s main bridge for him as he passed. A victory, Robert Jasper.

It was his last Happening.


  1. That’s lovely Wolfie! What wonderful memories of an extraordinary person, by the sounds of it.
    I love Amsterdam. How lucky of you to have been around with one of the people who made it what it is.

  2. Yes Bridge, I do feel lucky to have known Robert Jasper.

    I too love Amsterdam and, because it was RJG who first showed me round, I will always see it as his city, even though I have been there many times since then.

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