15 Questions for Danish Video Artist Jesper Just
Name: Jesper Just?
City/Neighborhood: NYC (Commutes between the East Village and Greenpoint.)
Current Exhibition: “This Nameless Spectacle” at James Cohan Gallery, 533 West 26th Street, New York, through October 27.
Your exhibition at James Cohan gallery features a single-channel video, “Sirens of Chrome,” and a two-channel work, “The Nameless Spectacle.” What are the challenges and benefits of working with multiple channels? When is it better just to use one?
In “This Nameless Spectacle,” my use of two channels was inspired by the moving panorama and specifically the stereorama. Both of them are cultural products that can be viewed through the lens of the 19th-century exhibitionary craze, which works well with the spatial layout and cultural history of Parc des Buttes Chaumont in Paris, where parts of the piece were filmed.
In general, I guess you could say that I was examining a very specific culture of viewing: One that has to do with seeking orientation through an all-encompassing view, while simultaneously seeking out the disoriented feeling, which an overwhelming spectacle may give you. It was also about an experience of viewing that’s at once pleasurable and nauseating, or rather where the nauseating feeling presupposes the pleasurable, and vice versa.
The piece has two panoramic screens, ratio 1:4, facing each other in a way that the spectator gets physically and psychologically caught between the two central characters and their respective spaces. The fact that you’re not able to take in both screens at the same time forces you to navigate between the stories and chose what you want to see. And that might be uncomfortable, because to a certain extent it means that you’ll be missing out.
In “Sirens of Chrome,” I wanted to examine different conventions and a different relationship. It was very much about spectatorship — female spectatorship in particular — and the role of African American women in movies and the history of the US economy as such. Because this piece wasn’t about individuals, but rather about the females as a group and that group’s cinematic representation, it made sense to me that I keep it condensed — formalistically, by using only one screen, and story-wise by confining the narrative to the inside of a car and the inside of a theater.
In the piece, I alternate between two views: On the one hand I adopt the women’s point of view and become an inclusive observer of the spectacle they’re taking in through the windshield of their car; on the other hand, I’m being an onlooker, observing their spectatorship through my own lens. And those two views, however different, are so intricately intertwined in the context of the locations used in the film and the characters at play.
The music in your films is striking, often dense, and atmospheric. How important is music to your films?
I have used music a lot in my work, often to break with the social or cinematic conventions of a particular scene or situation. As a language, music is so intuitive. We get the feeling and the story that music tries to tell us almost instantaneously, which is why it’s such an evocative tool, and even more so in the interplay with motion pictures. But once you mess with that relationship between music and moving images, by making odd pairings, you might create an entirely novel atmosphere, which can be hard to decipher. And I like that. I like the idea that your emotions can suddenly become unintuitive, if that makes sense. That said, I think you can create that unintuitive space in a number of different ways. My latest video, also in the show, has no music at all, but instead a very particular soundscape of artificial rain in the desert.
You are known for subverting the common tropes of Hollywood cinema — obscuring gender roles, eschewing clear endings, slowing things down. What is your favorite big Hollywood movie? What is your least favorite? Why?
The way you ask the question makes me want to highlight “Fatal Attraction” and “Disclosure” as my least favorite big Hollywood movies. I actually did my first video piece on Michael Douglas, titled “Victim-As-Hero, or: Michael Douglas, a Social Loser,” which came about after I studied the roles Michael Douglas has played throughout his career. Especially in the 80s, it seemed that more often than not he played the part of a victimized family man tempted by a fatally attractive and independent career woman. It was so formulaic it bordered on stupid.
In “This Nameless Spectacle” I had the pleasure of working with Marie-France Garcia, who is a notable French singer and actress and also openly transgender. And before we set to work, I was in serious deep water because I wanted to explore her on- and off-stage personas, but I definitely didn’t want it to turn into some kind of meaningless portrayal of queerness. Because that, in my view, is really one of the pitfalls when you start working with characters that either fall within our outside traditional gender norms — be it in Hollywood, fashion, or the art world. In that regard, I actually think “Orlando” and “My Own Private Idaho” are two Hollywood movies that actually managed to examine and portray less traditional gender roles without becoming predictable or by overly romanticizing otherness.
A big congratulations on your nomination to represent Denmark at the Venice Biennale in 2013. What do you have planned?
Thanks! I can’t tell much; I’m just getting started. I will be collaborating with British architects Caruso St. John and New York based Project Projects. That much I can tell you.
You make films all over the world — in New York, Paris, Detroit, and, soon, Los Angeles, to name a few. How important is geographical location to the films you make?
I usually begin with a place and the conventions related to it, social and cinematic, from which my work evolves. When you start digging into the history and narratives specific to a given location, you begin to see how it informs your perception of the space — how you view it, think about it, and act towards it. I’m very interested in the idea that a location can perform, just like people and characters perform.
What project are you working on now?
What’s the last show that you saw?
Freeman/Lowe at Marlborough in Chelsea.
What’s the last show that surprised you?
Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim.
What’s your favorite place to see art?
Louisiana Museum, outside Copenhagen.
What’s the most indispensable item in your studio?
What’s the first artwork you ever sold?
At age ten, I sold one edition of a cartoon called “Flubber.”
What’s your art-world pet peeve?
“The Last Supper” remakes.
What’s your favorite post-gallery watering hole or restaurant?
Lucien in the East Village or The Half King in Chelsea.
What’s the last great book you read?
“City of Quartz” by Mike Davis.
What international art destination do you most want to visit?