Blog: Images that are there, and images that are not

By Saskia Monshouwer

In the shady intimacy of the screening room of LAB111, on 26 May Cracking the Frame Presents and LIMA presented the closing event of CTFP’s month-long program. It started with a presentation of works by Donna Verheijden: A young graphic designer, videographer or ‘shadow bender’, as she calls herself in a visual essay she published, making interesting short films composed from the mass media images that she collected. This was followed by two short films by Roy Villevoye, a visual artist who distills the topics and motifs of his works from the encounters he had with the Asmat people, one of the many social groups of Western New Guinea or Papua, the former Dutch New Guinea, now a province of Indonesia. To create his works, ViIlevoye uses images of their world as well as memories of his trips through the Papuan jungle.

The evening kicks off with Donna Verheijden’s sparkling ‘fountain of images’ as Heidi Vogels describes the artist’s work as she introduces Verheijden and her films to the audience. It is a characteristic of all three films that are shown: Land of Desire — Happy is the New Black (2016) and two teasers, one of an earlier work All the World’s a Stage — Ways of Seeing (2013) and one of her latest productions, Prison.  All three of them are rather personal works, although they entirely consist of found footage, readymade materials, images and texts. A flood of images taken from films, fashion shows and advertisements passes by. Meanwhile you are brought into trance by artist John Berger’s self-confident sonorous voice: He made a series of educational television programs in 1972 in which he introduces the viewer to theoretical concepts about images and film, and Verheijden borrows his texts.

Land of Desire — Happy is the New Black starts with the voice of Jean Luc Godard philosophizing about the meaning of SMS, that might also read ‘Save My Soul’ instead of ‘Short Message Service’. The compilations are stunning, partly criticizing, partly admiring the glitter of the mass media. It seems as if she is absorbed by these golden, beige and cognac-colored moving images, presenting a staged world from which there is almost no escape. During the Q&A she talks about Plato, delineating his metaphor of the grotto in detail. There, in the souterrain of the world, lives a group of imprisoned people, staring at the shades in the outside world, that they will never really know. The interesting thing about Verheijden’s films is their ambivalence. It is not quite clear whether she loves to be seduced by these glamorous images, or whether she hates it.     

There is an unexpected interesting link between Verheijden’s philosophical questions and Roy Villevoye’s film topics, because his films raise ethical questions about their reality content. Borrowing many images from a distant world, you are never sure if what you see is real. You need this doubt considering the fact that he often uses images from his memory helped by photographs or films. Introduced by Theus Zwakhals from LIMA, Villevoye tells about his travels to Western New Guinea. There he met up with the Asmat, a group of people with a relatively close connection with the Netherlands. They developed not just by colonial expeditions, but by anthropological studies articulated by Dr. A. Gerbrands , who became curator and adjunct museum director at the ethnological museum in Leiden. Since then the Asmat are known by their Bisj poles and sculptures of ancestors to be found in many museums. Some of artists are known by name.    

Villevoye set out to visit the Asmat and stayed in touch with some of them over a long period of time. At first he was trying to exchange information and knowledge about art. Then he concentrated on the stories of the people he met. In The Double (2015), a film he made with Jan Dietvorst, the camera follows the process of how a hyperrealistic sculpture is constructed by a prop maker. You see how someone Villevoye met on his travels is made. The process is rather aggressive, and the storyline suggestive because we only learn about the person through the voiceovers. You realize that this person is an eccentric man. And when you hear he lived with the homeless in New York you are also aware of his strong ethics. Slowly his personality evolves. 

The second film is about a missionary woman, Sister Majella Hoppenbrouwers, 86 years old, that worked in the Asmat country from 1956 to 1961. She talks about her experiences, while a seamstress produces a remake of the working habit she wore during her missionary years. Images of her waiting to finish the dress are followed by historical footage, captured by Pater Kessels in the time she was there. It’s always fascinating to watch original images: Asmat in dancing costume, maybe dressed for war or funeral festivities, although you have no idea what they are doing. Sister Majella talking about that time she went with Pater Kessels down the river and encountered village people mourning the dead of a leader. In the man’s house, a communal ceremonial building where women are not allowed, she saw his wives say him farewell in a traditional way that shocked her deeply. Again, this film is interesting yet disturbing. Not the fact that religious people are telling their story, nor that the Asmat are almost naked: It is the exotic. Although Villevoye emphasizes in his presentation that the exotic is meaningless to him and that he wants to show aspects of Asmat society as it functions, the people he introduces keep on being strangers, men and women of another world. I am sure it’s not Romanticism, and one artist is not enough to successfully effectuate whatever form of neo-colonial exploitation, but in spite of that the relationship between the artist and his Papua friends still don’t seem like fair exchanges. They feel like alien encounters. 

Is that wrong? No, it’s not, although it differs from other stories of blackness that were told during Cracking the Frame Presents. I liked how Rana Hamadeh carefully and slowly makes way to a new vision on aliens in her works. I enjoyed Randa Maroufi's courageous approach of the lives of young Moroccan men and woman that meet in her film Le Park (2015), consisting for a large part on reconstructed images found on internet. The film self-evidently takes you into an unknown world. Unfortunately I missed out on one the three dinner screenings and had to see A Third Version of The Imaginary by Benjamin Tiven at home. It is a special film that visualizes many implications of a world determined by images. I was told that curator Alena Alexandrova gave a sharp analysis at the dinner screening. With the focus on images that are there, and images that are not — one of the themes of Tiven's film — I close my short series of reports. I learned a lot, met many interesting people and saw memorable films, and I hope to do so again at future editions of Cracking the Frame Presents.