The Danish contribution to the 2013 Venice Biennial consists of a filmic and architectural penetration of the national pavilion, a work created by Jesper Just in what is termed “experimental collaboration” with the Danish Arts Council. Entitled Intercourses, the project is about penetration, exchange, and envelopments in many areas: national, global, cultural, economic, artistic – and in an administrative sense too.
The theme of the pavilion is “imposturbanism”, a term which designates the phenomenon of historic cities being recreated as replicas elsewhere in the world. Jesper Just has found one such location south of Shanghai in the suburb of Hangzhou where highlights from the exclusive 7th and 8th arrondissements in Paris have been rebuilt as part of a cheap property development scheme. Here Just is telling a story, over the course of four separate video tracks, about three black men who seek out a wordless kind of contact. They connect by listening to the chimneys and walls of the replica city where the wind plays everywhere on bricked-in bottles as if on a ghostly whistling organ. A fifth projection showing grains of sand blowing in the wind accentuates the sense of being in an abandoned building site rather than the city of cities. In addition to this Just, prompted by the Danish Art Council’s Committee for Visual Arts, has modified the entire pavilion by adding an exterior and interior shell of cheap aerated concrete and bamboo plants. This extension of the building is intended to direct visitors along a backwards route through the already rather back-to-front bricolage architecture. Finally, the exhibition includes aspects of global distribution: as part of the project, posters of film stills are currently up in a number of major cities throughout the world. In other words all sorts of “correct” contemporary art devices are in play. Clearly the project has involved gargantuan and highly professional effort and labour. The result is beautiful, and the installation is very well made but the whole experience is a bit dominated by this controlled and slightly “conventional” contemporary art ambience that permeates the entire pavilion.
Despite the exhibition title there is certainly very little unbridled sex in Intercourses, However, the title hints at what may be a wishful artistic reference to the first real – and still most sophisticated – sexual intercourse seen in film history; a scene which was indeed shot in Venice for Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). The entire film – particularly the love scene between the grieving couple, played by Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, with its cuts away from real, nude sex to an eerily elegant post-coital dressing scene – is such an obvious and hence deeply impossible reference for any artist in Venice. Perhaps especially for Jesper Just, who can be said to count classic film’s interplay between the genders, both stereotypical and subtle, as a speciality of his.
Publicly Just has stated that François Truffaut was the actual source of inspiration for the five videos featured in Intercourses. This is also evident in the films’ black-and-white trenchcoat aesthetics, by the unhurried pace, and by driving scenes through a Paris that looks like something out of La peau douce, Without venturing too far out into the lagoon of improbability we may also say that there are close links between the methods of Roeg, Truffaut, and Just. In the 1960s Truffaut specialised in depicting sexual passion without showing any concretely explicit images, but in the 1970s he also praised directors such as Roeg for finally effecting a break with 70 years of filmic lies about how physical love unfolds itself and is experienced. And for showing it as directly as the censors allowed … What is more, Roeg was a cinematographer before he became a director, e.g. on Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 415 (1966).
Obviously we cannot know whether Don’t Look Now is a hidden reference in Just’s project. It just feels that way, and the thought makes the well-known themes of urbanity, architecture, and globalisation that prop up his installation rather more interesting to watch. Quite simply, you feel a need to project some kind of secret explanation or narrative into the smooth and rather institutional offering presented by the Danish pavilion this year.
At its heart the problem is not really the artist’s as such; rather, it resides in the fact that it is difficult to determine how much of the installation is in fact the Arts Council’s project and how much is genuinely Jesper Just’s own. When Just was appointed by the Danish Art Council’s International Arts Committee one of the stipulations made was that the artist must “integrate artwork, architecture, and communication by combining these factors as equal aspects right from the outset of the process”. The Arts Council (and the Danish Agency for Culture) were self-appointed curators on the project. It is true that the artist could “co-operate closely with an architect and a communication/education professional of his own choice”, as was stated when his candidacy was made public by the Arts Council last spring. Even though the Arts Council considered the collaboration “experimental”, the underlying expectations have nevertheless been obvious and in accordance with the demands applying to Danish art institutions these days: Art must, first and foremost, attract an audience. At a biennial it is, of course, also politic to hit a mighty blow in the air to promote the brand of Danish Contemporary Art. At the same time this is a serious art scene event, so it should have enough of an edge to it to keep the various art professionals happy.
Jesper Just has certainly sought to meet all expectations: discursively, production-wise, aesthetically, and audience-wise. Undoubtedly the task has been almost impossible. Fortunately the main damage is done to the less interesting critical approaches, and those have long ago become so obligatory that they cannot possibly have come from the artist alone. The slightly backward-looking desire to return to familiar themes from 1990s discourse critique about urbanity, simulacra, gentrification, and globalisation is one thing, but the very idea of modifying and deconstructing the national pavilions at Giardini has almost become a state-sanctioned imperative: something that is expected as a matter of course. This year France and Germany have swapped pavilions, Lithuania and Cyprus have joined theirs, Hungary have “bombed” away the roof of their building, albeit with a really good political reason for doing so, and yes, Denmark has taken its building from behind, as it were, so that you avoid the American pavilion and is led in through a window and out via the workshop. It is a little difficult to see why this is really necessary. During the emergent globalisation after das Mauerfall Hans Haacke’s political-archaeological treatment of the German pavilion and Peter Weibel’s controversial curating of the Austrian pavilion in 1993 were watershed events that ushered in the context art of the 1990s. However, in the intervening years the things that began as poignant criticism have become something of a mind game; a competition to see which nation comes up with the best idea for deconstructing their own pavilion.
In this way Intercourses offers a neat presentation of a range of globalisation stereotypes: A remorseful old Europe in ruins, brought to its knees by postcolonial guilt and ideological stress exacerbated by a rapidly growing tiger economy. In this sense Intercourses may seem more like a mirroring of the biennial itself than of the world as it is today. We recognise the simplified allocation of global guilt and responsibility and all the stories about victimisation this event tends to generate, and the various states’ decision to step out in front of the firing squad at once is in fact simply playing it safe.
The Danish Arts Council undoubtedly had the very best of professional intentions and did not intend to govern the artistic process in any destructive manner, but even so it is difficult not to worry about curatorial intervention from a state administration, no matter how well-meaning it may be. Once the state begins to recoup the critique of power and discourse, entering deeply into the curatorial management of a commissioned artwork, you certainly begin to think that it is time for art to move on. If it can.
Perhaps that is what Jesper Just ultimately tried to do. The title is certainly rather brilliant and undermines the entire set-up in its own subtle way. As mentioned, it may incorporate a hidden reference to Venice as it appears in film history, to the obscure and obscene aspects of the aquatic city’s canals and labyrinths and so to the entire backdrop for the biennial. If so, this would effect an affectionate filmic and historic anchoring of the work in a time where globalisation, distance, displacement, and so-called non-site specificity is on the agenda. Another thing is that with the word intercourses running at the back of your mind you come to wonder who is actually screwing who in this biennial pavilion. And with what right and what level of desire as it is a characteristic move in Just’s art.
So who’s doing who? China, Europe, North Africa, The Arts Council, the artist himself? Just may seem somewhat curatorially violated, but by leaving the question open he may also have screwed his patron over.