Post-cinematic Affect

Jesper Just extends his film across the many rooms of Kunsthal Charlottenborg to tell stories about the architecture of the body, and sensory exhaustion in our present day.

Jesper Just, Servitudes, 2015. Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2019. Foto: David Stjernholm.

SFilm gives us a sense of what it means to live in the 21st century. Not a deeper understanding of the human condition and existence in our present, but just a feeling. A direct pinpoint sense of how it’s all connected. Fortunately, emotions can be significantly more exciting and complex than many of the other roads to insight offered by reality. Emotions also offer a more surfable surface of possibilities, a motherboard of potential rather than just brief dips into the soup of life. This is the undisputed strength of film media.

What makes us fall love with people we have not yet met? Films do. Why do we cry at the sight of a child who throws a screaming fit in a shop because it wants new socks, but can’t get them? Because we have the grand master of film music, Ryuichi Sakamoto, ringing in our ears. So many things are conditioned by movies, and so many things become movies. Cinema constitutes a way of being in the world, for brief moments as well as in the long term. Film is something we can always create simply with our brain and our sense of sight, walking down our street with a Spotify account, vaping on popcorn-flavoured juice. As a young artist recently pointed out: film is this set of eyes you have in your head.

Kunsthal Charlottenborg is currently showing Jesper Just’s cinematic installation Servitudes (2015), which consists of eight equally long sequences taking up all the exhibition spaces at the venue. All of the sequences were filmed in and around One World Trade Center in New York: the tall shining skyscraper which now stands in for the fallen twin towers.

Standing by the entrance of the exhibition, we immediately realise that Just has also tampered with the architecture of Charlottenborg. In order to explore the exhibition, we must step onto a rattling metal ramp which continues into the dark. Just effectively cancels out and resets the semi-grandeur of the exhibition rooms, instead tying them together with this scaffolding structure hovering a couple of metres above the floor. The structure serves a dual role: part contextual scenography, part navigational device, it ushers visitors along from one room to the next with a metallic clanging, never letting them come into actual contact with the architecture. The entire edifice is, by the way, designed for wheelchair access, and this focus on bodily ability is a recurring topic in Servitudes. From the scaffolding bridge, we look down upon on the first sequence of the film, in which a woman is trying hard to put some clothes on, but finds herself more and more entangled in the resistant garments.

Moving on, we literally move through a film: on either side of the footbridge, a film is projected onto layers of semi-transparent fabric. The result is akin to moving through a waterfall of digital film, like an intelligent pixel from the construction phase of the still-empty World Trade building, which is soberly displayed within this sequence. The next projection shows a girl slowly hitting a rock against the terrorism-proof building. Her feeble attack nevertheless manages to leave marks on the reinforced glass, her actions seemingly aimed at achieving a sense of musicality while testing the building’s resistance to wear.

Having come this far, it gets increasingly difficult to ignore the vacuum-like atmosphere that pervades many of the sequences. I consider whether to experience the works in a more specific manner, or take some other action to fill the prevailing sense of emptiness. Perhaps this sense of vacuum is produced by the typology of prosthetics and loss postulated by the 9/11 context. Thus, the historical shadows of loss, grief, and bruised imperialism which loom large over the new building play a major role in the film. But as an observer, I still struggle to communicate with the gravitas of the material. Perhaps I simply expected, unduly, to be bombarded by radioactive emotions? Fortunately, the work seems relatively devoid of narrative directions, leaving me free to move on in pursuit of bliss. Doing so will, among other things, bring me face to face with a woman trying to eat corn on the cob while wearing a mechanical exoskeleton that whirrs and hisses, by turns helping and hindering her movements. Engaged in eating this Spartan meal, she flirts with me – in dystopian fashion – across the strange temporal currents of fiction, reminding me of the desire between man and machine introduced by Blade Runner in 1982.

Jesper Just, Servitudes, 2015. Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2019. Foto af David Stjernholm.

The longer I spend perusing the exhibition, the more I realise how the scaffolding forms an ersatz architectural prosthesis connecting the physical and social capacities of space itself – an interim, event-culture causeway suspended between the hard white walls and the cold metaphysical projections of life imposed on them by the films. The artist himself calls One World Trade Center a prosthetic alleviation of the loss of the two original towers. Perhaps I myself might get away with interpreting the footbridge as an infra-critical allegory for Charlottenborg’s position as a kind of popular cultural rescue vessel attempting to ferry between the elitist art-cultural market and a growing parliamentary fascism that seems to have taken hold in even the best Social Democrat.

Compared to the last time I properly saw a work by Jesper Just, it seems as if his films have become more controlled and less expressive, dialled down in terms of emotional scope, and extended further in terms of narrative. This, of course, hinges on the fact that the installation aspect has grown exponentially, apparently enabling a more extensive orchestration of the cinematic content.

Pushing the film out into many rooms and letting the content speak directly to the experience itself allows a very subtle, almost passive, interaction with the live image – a way of navigating inside the depicted world that is elegantly supported by the synchronised audio. Throughout the exhibition, we are followed by a specific soundtrack: piano pieces from Chopin’s Opus 17, dosed with Xanax to sink into an adagio slowness. Dark and distant, it merges subtly with the real sound from the various films.

The vast final projection shows a woman inside one of the World Trade Center’s luxuriously appointed upper-floor apartments. Taking in the neoliberal view of Manhattan with a desperate and hopeless look, she launches into a delightfully slow monologue brewed from a beautiful mix of mindfulness nonsense, hashtag poetry, and thematic key phrases. She speaks about déjà vu, and about how “the first time is always the second time”; such as when two identical towers are both hit by two aircraft of the same model. She continues in this manner all throughout the film, conveying snippets of a manuscript about the body’s taxonomy, standard perversions, and contemporary jargon.

“The sensory exhausts the essence,” she finally stammers with awkward difficulty. That sentence hits the mark, remaining with me as an apt headline for the entire exhibition: we experience a kind of exhaustion with the sensory and existential extravaganza so often seen in Jesper Just’s works. And finally, I find myself standing in a space: a hyper-cinematic space that I don’t want to leave; a person I don’t want to abandon; a city and a nation on capital-fictional crutches, and which seem desperate for help, but are unable to listen. The sensory has certainly exhausted the essence. I realise that the vacuum which seemed so frustrating before is in fact the post-cinematic feeling of the West’s inner ruin externalised, turned into a space we can look at, and inside which we can walk around and feel.

Jesper Just, Servitudes, 2015. Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2019. Foto: David Stjernholm.