A different perspective, Ilse van Rijn 2009

                                                                                                                            Read also: Tricks of the Trade / by Sophie Berrebi

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The Austrian-American botanist, author and explorer Joseph F. Rock arrived in the town of Lijiang in southwest China in 1922. He remained there for almost thirty years, studying and documenting the animist culture of the local population, the Nakhi. The Nakhi people are no longer an isolated tribe: Lijiang has seen an influx of Han Chinese, who have exploited the cultural contrast with the surrounding region and turned the town into a tourist attraction. These profit-driven characters moved into the Nakhi’s traditional timber dwellings with slate roofs and donned traditional Nakhi costume. They gave the original inhabitants concrete apartments in the new part of the town. The Nakhi thus became a curiosity, without ever being put on display in the flesh.

Almost eighty years after Rock, Saskia Janssen also stayed in Lijiang. She analysed the situation there and translated it into several works that combine to provide a faceted portrait of the place. Intrigued by the cultural transposition that has occurred there, Janssen committed field recordings she had made in both sections of town to a gramophone record: East/West, Paradise in Reverse (2005). Like a traditional east/west dichotomy, the old and new town shall remain far removed from each other even though both quarters are known as Lijiang, in the same way as it will never be possible to listen to the A- and B-side of an LP simultaneously. However, if you take in the sounds, sharp timbres and songs on the record, then there proves to be no actual difference between here and there, left and right: East/West, Paradise in Reverse is an ode to that same tangle of cultures and describes what at first glance seems like a cultural falsification. Our romantic notion of an ‘unspoilt culture’ might need some modification, according to Janssen. Even culture is subject to ‘evolution’. If they ever existed, the original, paradisaical or ‘ideal’ conditions will never again be attained, and perhaps that is not even desirable, seeing as the Nakhi themselves do not mourn the ‘loss’ of a lost past in the least. As the project’s title might lead one to suspect, Janssen’s position is analogous to Robert Smithson’s in his travelogue, ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey’, in which he describes abandoned pipelines and foundations for buildings that, even though are yet to be built, have already fallen into disuse as the romantic ruins of today.[i]    It is a baseless Utopia, or ‘ruins in reverse’. Janssen marked the mountain ridge that divides east Lijiang from west with a garland composed of artificial and natural flowers. The unusually mixed bouquet and its placement provide insight into what the Nakhi and Han Chinese noted earlier: in this paradise we live together and that paradise is now.

 Saskia Janssen at artist residency Lijiang Studios, China  Saskia Janssen, at artist residency Lijiang Studios

The quasi-impossibility of capturing diverse perceptions of a specific time and place in a single image seems to be inherent in all Janssen’s projects, whether in East/West, Paradise in Reverse (2005) or Blaka Watra Spiders (2008), Casting Fortune (2004) or Peter Stuyvesant’s Ghost (2006). In the works themselves this is made evident by the engaged dialogue with the other, the human subjects she is documenting and with whom she at the same time documents a situation. Janssen invites the various participants to take a range of positions, within the work but also with regard to the work. In Lijiang, for example, she created the frontier of flowers with the Nakhi women, while the visitors to Blaka Watra, a drop-in centre for drug addicts in the heart of Amsterdam that she visited regularly, played an active role in the realisation of Blaka Watra Spiders. In this project Janssen translated her experiences and observations at the drop-in centre into images more starkly estranged from the situation in which they originate. For many people Blaka Watra is a rather uncanny place that is primarily frequented by African-Surinamese drug addicts, people who migrated to the Netherlands in the wake of Suriname gaining her independence in 1975. Inspired by experiments with drugs by an Austrian pharmacologist, Dr Peter Witt, and by the manifest compulsion of the drug users to sketch, Janssen asked them to depict a spider’s web and say something about it. Hidden talents and suppressed stories were brought to light and aired: with Janssen’s help the users sketched their own portraits. The images that emerged at a later stage in her studio are reminiscent of the colourful installations by Franz Ackermann, in which the artist’s travels, his stretched conception of time and space, are condensed. For example, Janssen folded huge fans from the drawings on paper produced by Blaka Watra’s visitors and used them to construct slowly rotating, upright ‘wheels’. These works serve as a counterbalance to the sometimes frenetic attempts of drug users to banish the slightest draught from their place of abode. The concentration of the working process is shared in these soaring sculptures, with which the visitor, given the human scale of these works, can easily identify.

If we consider Janssen’s presentations then these also convey the idea of time and space as something essentially heterogeneous. In Smithson’s work the configuration of an unambiguous ‘place’ is immediately called into question, as is already evident from the terminology used to refer to the time-space vector,[ii] but according to Ackermann the absence of the static locus has now deteriorated into a general feature of existence: ‘From place to passage: the physical movement is getting more and more existential.’[iii] The beholders of East/West, Paradise in Reverse found themselves in the midst of a constellation of, among other things, the gramophone record that could be listened to quietly via headphones, photos of a reconstruction of a shamanistic altar from 1922 that was installed in east as well as west Lijiang, and a video recording of an ode to the old town performed by two female nightclub singers.[iv] Thanks to this multitude of images in the exhibition space it was not only possible to re-embody Lijiang and provide a representation of the place that Janssen felt was faithful, but the visitor was at the same time able to find a personal inroad into the ever-spreading network that was implicit in the condensed presentation.

Janssen explains that at the outset she never knows what or who she will happen upon in the situation that she is portraying. The ingredients and eventual form of a project are dictated by the actual encounter with the place and the interaction with the people who determine the situation. You might describe her as an orchestrator/director, though never of languid pawns, Janssen hastens to add. The conversation, that organic interplay of question and answer, statement and response, is an integral part of her approach. Within the dialogue Janssen’s curiosity can prevail. Besides, in this dialogue there is a place for the commensurate interest of the other in her. For is not the artist, like the drug user and indigenous peoples, a classic eccentric, a singular and marginal figure in a society regulated by codes, rules and fixed categories? Charles Baudelaire, that poet of modern life, has already sung the praises of wine and drugs, art and travel,[v] as well as the transience, which should not be underestimated, of what is nowadays termed their beauty.[vi] If one attempts to tie down or institutionalise this facet then it evaporates. Likewise, in Janssen’s work ‘pure reality’ reveals itself to be rarefied or ephemeral and, as noted, is impossible to capture in a single image. The continuous discourse that she pursues is typified by a comparable fleetingness on which it is well-nigh impossible to gain a hold. It is this spoken and inherently temporary element in Janssen’s work that lays bare the onlooker’s story: clichés are revealed and ways of thinking are qualified and even undermined, thus exposing the vacuity of truisms in particular. In Janssen’s view, the state of uncertainty, the radical ‘other’, offers unexpected and ever-changing perspectives and horizons.

The ‘other’ is never far away. It is the flip side, the always invisible countenance of every human being. Janssen’s incessant quest for what ‘normally’ remains hidden, of which the conversation is an important component, is comparable with the approach of the film director Werner Herzog. That this quest sometimes leads to seemingly contradictory works might be confusing for the public, but is in fact of secondary importance. ‘What do you dream of?’ was Herzog’s ultimate, spectacular and at the same time extremely intimate question that is repeated time and again.[vii] ‘What is your secret performance, act or special trick?’ is what Janssen asked the inhabitants of the Staatslieden neighbourhood in the city of Almere in Flevoland. Draped in red voile and wearing a black wig on her head, Margarita responded to Janssen’s challenge by belly-dancing on a windswept street corner in Casting Fortune. On the super-8 film with which Janssen recorded this teenager’s performance and other acts staged by local residents the contours soften; the medium employed lends an unprecedented hue of nostalgia to this relatively modern location (Almere was less than thirty years old at the time). As an intermezzo between performances a fortune-teller makes prophetic pronouncements about the neighbourhood, which is deemed socially problematic: ‘The neighbourhood is like a chameleon on a rainbow. The mind must be empty for it to be able to see clearly.’

The fact that predominantly rational discourse clouds the gaze and erases reality is evident in Peter Stuyvesant’s Ghost (2006), a site-specific project realised in New York. The slave songs recorded by Janssen, sung and recited by Ebby Addo and Totty Telgt, both of them visitors to the Blaka Watra drop-in centre, could be listened to at telephone booths in the East Village where the ancestors of the two were most probably forced to work as slaves by landowners. A history obscured, deliberately or not, is rendered discussible in Peter Stuyvesant’s Ghost, the trance of the songs transporting you to another reality. ‘Remember me, remember me,’ the singers hum aloud. Everybody sings their own song about their own lives. Cultures and personal histories are chronicled and corrupted, according to Saskia Janssen. Behind each and every façade there are stories hiding; nothing is what it seems.

Ilse van Rijn

November 2009



[i] Robert Smithson, ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey’ (1967), in Jack Flam (ed.), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1996), pp. 68-74.

[ii] Heterotopias are ‘works that “simultaneously represent, contest and invert.”‘ See Suzaan Boettger, Earthworks. Art and the Landscape of the Sixties (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2002), p. 46.

[iii] Nicolas Bourriaud (ed.), Altermodern. Tate Triennial (London: Tate Publishing, 2009), p. 42.

[iv] The exhibition was staged at Ellen de Bruyne Projects in Amsterdam, 15 October-19 November 2005.

[v] For example, in the series of poems titled ‘Le Vin’, ‘Le Poison’ (L’opium agrandit ce qui n’a pas de bornes – Opium magnifies that which is limitless), ‘Les Phares’ and ‘Invitation au Voyage’, respectively, in Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal (Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 1972 [1857/1861]).

[vi] Charles Baudelaire, ‘Le Peintre de la vie moderne’ (1863), in Claude Pichois (ed.), Charles Baudelaire, Critique d’art (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1976), pp. 343-384.

[vii] From God’s Angry Man (1980) about Dr Gene Scott, an American TV preacher, to Encounters at the End of the World (2007), about the hidden world of scientists in Antarctica.

Tricks of the Trade

Tricks of the Trade Sophie Berrebi, 2004

In Saskia Janssen’s 2002 video Greenhouse Sleepers , anonymous faces, enlarged to a monumental scale, slowly sweep across the frame of the image projected onto a wall. These figures are almost motionless, awkwardly posing amidst potted plants on a revolving plywood platform. Some are seated, others stand alone or in small groups, rubbing shoulders and exchanging glances. Their posture commands silence and stillness. Apart from a feint smile, a discrete sign of boredom or tiredness, the participants of the scene seem both empowered and petrified by their role. But it is not easy to say what their act is about. Dressed in everyday clothing, they turn slowly, displayed amidst a few scattered props: cardboard boxes, plastic garden chairs and blankets.

Greenhouse Sleepers, a film by artist Saskia Janssen

These objects evoke pictures of refugees and displaced people, instantly connecting the projected image to the domains of photojournalism, press reels and documentary film. However, while these slowly moving images seem to be unmistakably anchored in a tragic reality, the evident artificiality of the participants’ pose, the carefully arranged props and the creaky sound of the revolving stage create an uncanny atmosphere. In oscillating between obviously composed images and the suggestion of spontaneity, the video provokes us to question representation and the gap that exists between archetypal images and their real-life referents.

In their state of static display, the ‘greenhouse sleepers’ recall those playful pyramids made from people piled on top of one another, holding legs and arms. They also call to mind images of people crammed atop public monuments during demonstrations, virtually masking them behind banners, graffiti and bodies. Effectively, demonstrators momentarily replace them with monuments of another kind, contingent and fugitive. Whereas press photographs document facts, offer proof and probe a reality that will inevitably be called into question by another image, monuments, in whatever form they take, freeze meaning into fixed, unquestioned forms. While there is always another document and another image to continuously rewrite history, monuments are unchallenged ‘images’ that remain stationary, providing archetypal representations of a story that is henceforth unquestioned. Although monuments are supposed to trigger collective memory, they often end up reifying history, by replacing an already shaky concept with a frozen simulacrum.

Like human pyramids or instant monuments created by demonstrators, Greenhouse Sleepers is a paradoxical object that combines the contingent character of the visual document with the permanence of the monument. A strange oxymoron, this work, like most of Saskia Janssen’s projects, eschews any straightforward interpretation instead playing with conventions and registers.

Saskia Janssen, set photo Greenhouse Sleepers

In Grass Plot Shoot (Purmerend), 2001, a group of teenagers was invited to perform in front of the camera at their usual meeting place, the football field near their school. Dressed in the latest fashion, they chat, laugh and gather around a scooter. The stereo plays ubiquitous pop music. Two girls make several attempts at an R&B act . As they hang around, several of the kids climb the high fences surrounding the field, and remain there, their backs to the fence, facing the camera. The chatting and laughing goes on as if nothing special was happening, with part of the group magically moved from ground level to mid-air. As the camera scans the field, the trick becomes apparent: tiny hand and feet supports, which are initially invisible, hold the boys and girls on the fences in place.

Strangely enough, this rather extraordinary trick is performed and filmed as if it were nothing special. The unassuming quality of the footage is however, significant in itself. Both as a technique and as a style, the film looks back to the tradition of observational or direct cinema of the 1960s. Direct cinema emerged under the impulse of filmmakers like Fred Wiseman, from the desire to break with the narrative codes of documentary practice that were predominant until then. These documentary filmmakers set out rather to present a more immediate and intimate depiction of the real. Taking advantage of lighter equipment that had just become available, Wiseman and others went out to film ‘what was going on’; avoiding reconstructed or staged scenes and voice-over commentary that characterised the Griersonian tradition. In direct cinema, the viewer became a witness of the events on screen, while the filmmaker supposedly served as a neutral intermediary between characters and viewers. As a result, the stories and scenes they presented were enhanced with a powerful reality effect.

Saskia Janssen, video still of Greenhouse Sleepers

The typical features of observational cinema, synchronous sound and long takes, are also present in Janssen’s Purmerend . The action goes on as if the camera was simply left to run, unobtrusively. Following the principles of direct cinema, Purmerend’ s images are meant to be self-explanatory. There is no voice-over, and the film shows real-time events that are left simply to unfold. Nothing is explained outside the frame, not even the teenagers’ strange acrobatic act, which is presented as merely a playground routine. However, when the hand and feet supports holding the children on the fence become evident, the unintelligibility of the image forces the viewer to question the limits of this wait-and-watch technique.

In the realm of documentary film, critiques of direct cinema soon pointed out that the so-called neutrality of the filmmaker and the invisibility of the camera were ultimately an illusion, and that these principles did not, as was hoped, present a more ‘objective’ reality. As for real-time effect, so striking at first compared to the elaborate storytelling of classic documentary, it seemed clear that ‘real time’ was just another way of creating a narrative. In filming the teenagers’ performance as if nothing special was happening, Janssen makes the limits of direct cinema apparent and then works through them. The evidently rehearsed and composed scene suggests a break within the continuum of time, both in real life and in the flow of the filmed event.

The idea of a break in narrative time is probably how we should understand the title – A Break in Drewen – chosen by one of the teenagers of this German village in which Janssen organized and filmed a performance. A project somewhat similar toPurmerend invited participation from the nine reamaining teenagers in a remote village in former East Germany, some 100 kilometres north of Berlin. A break in their usual life, the act – as Janssen calls these projects – enabled them to climb and pose on the facade of the barn facing the bus stop where they usually hang out. The film shows the artists interacting with the youths and moments of idleness where almost nothing happens, with the result that the viewer is in a constant state of expectation, akin to the experience of immersion in a fictional narrative. Towards the end of the film various micro-events come together when, for a brief moment, the teenagers remain still on the facade of the barn, creating a fugitive human composition like a public sculpture.

There is continuity between Purmerend and Drewen : the choice of groups of youths from specific social or geographic environments and the representation of their everyday interactions. What emerges from the juxtaposition of the two projects is however, less an impression of the singularity of these groups than their similarities. Despite the different social and geographic contexts, the teenagers act, move and speak in the same way in Drewen and in Purmerend . And the background of stereotypical pop music, the scooters, the motorbikes and the idleness are the same.

Whereas in letting individuals act naturally in front of the camera, direct cinema aimed at presenting characters in the most individualized and truthful way possible, Purmerend and Drewen can also be seen as conveying a sense of the uniformity of social practices across different countries that rather undermines the notion of individuality. Although it may seem like we are provided with information, in effect, viewers learn very little about kids from Purmerend and Drewen, apart from the fact they are much like kids in many other parts of the world.

We know nothing about what precedes or follows the footage presented. The ‘transparent’ camera that seems to leave the field open to view also conceals everything that is not directly within the field of vision. In leaving her videos open to problems of this kind, Janssen suggests that the very process of exposing the ambivalences of recording and showing images is at least as important as the reality of her interactions with her ‘cast’.

Saskia Janssen, props for performance at Ellen de Bruijne PROJECTS, Amsterdam   Saskia Janssen, set photo Unterbrechung Drewen

The use of a multiplicity of documentary elements such as photography, video, slides or, in the present case, a book, is essential to engage a critical reflection on the image and its real-life subject. For instance, when Purmerend was presented at the gallery Ellen de Bruijne PROJECTS in 2001, the artist juxtaposed edited film footage projected on a large wall with a slide projection of the same scale. In other exhibitions the project might have been documented by small photographic prints. In Purmerend , the carefully framed still images contrast with the apparent casualness of the film. The latter presents itself as a fragment, an instantaneous document showing the flow of events caught as if by chance, whereas the photographs are more ambivalent. Although we know the slides are part of the same sequence, their careful framing, added to the fact that they cut out selected views from the film, gives them a composed appearance. This contributes to the impression that the slides should be read as though they were further clues, or that meaning might be gained through observing them. There is, moreover, an oscillating movement as the photos document the film and vice versa. But the result of this accumulation of visual material, usually reshuffled and organized for each presentation, is ultimately a heightening of the discrepancies between the different genres of stage-photography and observational, verité-style cinema. These factors convey a sense of uneasiness to the viewer: what is really true, what is staged, what is real?

One immediate answer to these questions would be to present Janssen’s works within the framework of what is often called community-based art, and invitations made to artists to come and work with a specific group, often defined in stereotypical social or ethnic terms. The results of these new forms of public art, which are frequently quite naïve, have been criticized and their limits underlined. The criticism is more or less standard: lack of long-term involvement with a group, innovative ethnography that ends up mimicking classic ethnography or the risk of further stereotyping or singling out a group. At first glance all of these criticisms might be leveled at Saskia Janssen’s projects. But then again this would ignore the props, the sets, the tricks played by the participants and the various formats of documentation that result from the performances presented in exhibitions and books. Janssen’s reflection furthermore suggests that Hal Foster’s reading of the worst motives behind this kind of art – trying to speak for a community, ‘giving’ people a voice – is in fact not really an issue.

Instead of the above, the main concern here seems unmistakably to be the construction of a representation that questions its own visibility and the various modes of interpretation it suggests. One of the most sober expressions of this concern appears in the melancholic Scene Shifters , for which Janssen gathered a group of people encountered in random places, who are all geographically or otherwise displaced. Through the wealth of documentation recalling how these people were brought together in a closed space and what then ‘happened’, the most striking element is the isolation and boredom reflecting the artificiality of their situation. The absence of dialogue, or even eye contact between participants suggests that in reality, they share nothing, not even the project for which they have been cast. The resulting film exposes this void as do the props, which were later presented on their own in the gallery and became as important as the participants themselves. The effect of the empty set, complete with props suggestive of a performance that has just taken place, is double. On one level, the empty set confirms the idea of documentary, live-time, reality events, which once performed, can never be repeated. This further suggests an analogy to performance work in general, where what is left over is the residue of events.

But films and in certain cases, photographs that may be shown alongside the set bring the props to the level of a manipulation of reality, similar to the one enacted in the filmic process. In this process the illusionism of representation is further emphasized. The empty stage recalls Janssen’s stint as a circus performer. Here, the strange lifting devices and bases placed on the revolving stage could as easily become the set for magic tricks, rather than for a melancholic, seemingly haphazard grouping of people that Scene Shifters hinted at. The ambivalence suggested here is entertained by Janssen, who sometimes works with performers of different sorts: bouncers performing splits on a rooftop and cosmonauts demonstrating anti-gravitational stunts in a hotel corridor in Russia’s Star City.

In mixing scientific discourses on gravity with observations on the possibility it may all be a trick, a magical illusion, historical ties with the ‘pranks’ of avant-garde emerge. The viewer may be reminded of everything from Marcel Duchamp’s optical devices to Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void , or Piero Manzoni’s ‘magical bases’. The avant-garde trickster emerged in a context of contesting the traditional aim of truthfulness and beauty assigned to art, as provocative gestures both undermining and giving new meaning to the artist as genius.

Janssen’s attraction to the image of the trickster is, however, to be read more closely within the framework of the construction of representation. The revolving platforms, the hand and feet supports and other props used in her films have seminal importance as low-key but efficient tricks that enable the displacement of reality and the probing of different genres. In presenting the empty stages and props, and revealing the hand and feet supports holding the performers in place, Janssen seems quite literally to pull the human sculptures apart that she has so patiently constructed in her films and photographs. The two processes of doing and undoing go on simultaneously. The rigorous framing of the photographs and the absence of a fixed point of attention in some of the films refer to staged images and verité-style cinema.

Through these different approaches as well as through the various media used to present her work, Janssen probes the interstices of documentary practices, offering a multi-layered approach to the problem of the truthfulness of representation. But even if Janssen alludes to a wide range of fully coded aesthetic practices, her often humorous and sometimes melancholic human sculptures caught on video belong to none of these well-rounded rhetorics. In fact the elusiveness of her practice is in the end her strongest point. The ambivalent way in which she plays around with serious topics and genres but then mocks the détournement itself, casually revealing how the tricks work, catches the viewer off-guard and never delivers a graspable truth.