Book chapter: A Merry-Go-Round of Confusion, Exchange, and Messiness. On the Documentary practice of Roy Villevoye and Jan Dietvorst —  2017

TitelEvidence, an Art Book by Roy Villevoye and Jan Dietvorst
EditorAndrea Cinel
Published by Argos Centre for Art & Media and Jap Sam Books, Heijningen NL

More info: Evidence, Art Book

The very moment you want to film reality it escapes, vanishing into thin air, mutating. In the 1990s there emerged an interest for the documentary gesture in various art disciplines. It is no coincidence that as this interest appeared, there also arose a form of criticism with regard to Eurocentrism and postcolonialism. The documentary gesture breaks loose from a postmodern trend where works of art essentially present signs referring to themselves in order to return its gaze to the “world” (Balsom and Peleg 2016). What results are hybrid docu-fiction formats; using essayistic, ethnographic, and observational strategies that situate the traditions of the documentary film in a new context, including the spatial environment of museums and art galleries, the authors thus create new forms.

Jan Dietvorst and Roy Villevoye’s work is connected to this tendency. In this article I confront their work with a documentary cinema of romantic conservatism, or the so-called taxidermic ethnography we find in Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and in countless conventional (mainstream) documentaries (Rony 1996). With their work, Dietvorst and Villevoye precisely undermine these taxidermic ethnographic strategies by derailing and subverting the viewing mechanism of these strategies and the ensuing power relationships. The result is a merry-go-round of confusion, complexity, messiness, and exchange.


Taxidermic Ethnography: the Cinematic Conservation of “Primitive” Humans

Nanook of the North is often considered to be the first (ethnographic) documentary, and was made by Robert Flaherty in 1922 in Canada, in the Inuit community. Its main character is Nanook (whose real name was actually Allakariallak), and also shows his so-called family (in fact selected by Flaherty from among the women and children of various families), their quest for food (the famous seal hunting scene was completely staged and no seal was involved), and their purported first contact with white people (wasn’t Flaherty white?). In fact the—admittedly—poetical film is a construct from beginning to end.

This needn’t be problematic as such, but what is subject to criticism is that the director catapulted the actors back in time to present them as “primitive” humans. He had the “actors” wear clothes that were of a much earlier style, and he portrayed them as ignorant about technology (the famous scene in which Nanook licks a gramophone record is symptomatic in this respect), which also had the effect of visually associating them with animals. Of course, the viewers were unaware of these dramaturgic interventions. According to professor Fatimah Tobing Rony, who teaches film and media studies, these strategies constitute taxidermic ethnography: it seeks to make what is (likely) dead appear as if it were still alive. The vital organs are removed and a display is created that provides the illusion of life in order to set up a spectacle for the Western public (Ronny 1996).

The paradox of this documentary cinema of romantic conservatism resides in the fact that filming the subjects as if they exist in an earlier epoch creates an illusion of a previous time. As the anthropologist Johannes Fabian has pointed out, this form of rhetoric establishes the white anthropologist and filmmaker as the savior of the vanishing community—the so-called “salvage anthropologist” (Fabian 2002). He or she thus creates the illusion that we can observe Western history in action. Fabian astutely notices that such a salvage anthropologist actually mixes up time and space: by traveling a long distance in space, he or she pretends to look equally far back in time. A particularly problematic consequence is that the “other” is presented as not being in contact with the West. Thus the “other” can be discovered, studied, and often also exploited. This construction is also true for Nanook of the North, as well as for numerous conventional and mainstream documentaries.


Exchange as Art Form

Jan Dietvorst and Roy Villevoye’s exhibition Evidence, in Argos Centre for Art and Media in Brussels, causes these various aspects of taxidermic ethnography to resonate with each other. Since 1992 Roy Villevoye has traveled almost every year to the Asmat in Papua, the Indonesian part of New Guinea: “Going there, you are confronted with essential questions of your own existence. As an artist, it’s as if you start all over again” (Villevoye and Dietvorst 2005). According to curator and essayist Sven Lütticken, Villevoye has developed an art of exchange with the people of Papua, with whom all relationships are by necessity characterized by asymmetry and inequality (Lütticken 2005). Since 1998, both Villevoye and Dietvorst have traveled frequently to the region. us/them (2001) is the first film they made together. It was the start of a cooperation that now comprises twenty films. In sharp contrast with Flaherty, Villevoye and Dietvorst do not place themselves outside the world they depict—instead, they question their own presence in it.

They do so quite literally in Showcase (2017), a glass display case with a selection of objects that refer to museum exhibits by discoverers and anthropologists. But unlike the display cases of the latter, this one presents a seemingly absurd combination of objects, such as plastic slippers, a threadbare bag, and a rusty roll of barbed wire next to a skull, a satellite telephone, and some jewels. The links between these objects are left unexplained. The only thing that becomes obvious is that the selection is the result of a subjective association that clashes with every form of taxidermic, encyclopedic, linear revision of history and cultures.

Villevoye’s life-sized wax sculpture of a missionary with a white cockatoo on his arm and holding a glass (The Things They Carried: The Missionary, 2013) perhaps also refers to the displays in ethnographic museums and to taxidermic conservation. But instead of presenting a supposedly “exotic” specimen, we are confronted here with a Western white man. The taxidermic metaphor is also negated in Villevoye and Dietvorst’s film The Double (2015), which shows how the sculpture was made. We see a workshop where the sculptor is working meticulously on the sculpture, while in a voice-over people speak about their first impression of meeting this “missionary,” who thus slowly comes to life.

This documentary confusion is even greater in Voice-Over (2014), a film Villevoye made in Papua. In an observatory style, the film records how a tree is felled in the tropical rainforest. The trunk is then turned into a sculpture to pay tribute to Rodan Omomà, a friend of Villevoye who recently died. In the film we not only see the process of making the sculpture, but a voice-over also allows us to hear the artist engaged in a business dispute with the manager of an art gallery. The telephone conversation between the two is particularly ill-tempered. The viewer doesn’t really understand who is right or what the disagreement is about. But it is obvious that the artist feels he’s treated unfairly. And it is confusing that this injustice is edited in parallel with the creation of a sculpture that honors his friend. Two very different forms of human interaction are linked here: one is intimate and intent on harmony, whereas the other is economic and seeks conflict. The confrontation can bewilder the viewer. Is the dispute about the sculpture? Is Roy discussing financial matters while we, as viewers, feel with him the loss of his friend? How can these two worlds be compatible?

Instead of hiding the paradoxical, contradictory, and confusing elements of their exchange—as Flaherty did—in Evidence the artists present messiness with all its vagueness as it is to the spectator.


Clumsiness and Uncertainty as the Basis of the Documentary Tradition

In my view, the confusion that characterizes Villevoye and Dietvorst’s work is typical of what the documentary gesture can signify. Though from a historical point of view, the documentary film is often associated with objectivity and truth, I firmly believe that the documentary tradition has always been anchored in uncertainty, dispute, and contamination. In 1926 John Grierson was the first to use the term “documentary,” which in his view involved “a creative treatment of actuality”(Grierson 1926). But he also noted that the definition was wanting: “Documentary is a clumsy definition, but let it stand” (Grierson 1932–34). It is precisely this clumsiness, however, that has been the heart of the documentary since its beginnings. Grierson’s definition is also quite open with regard to possibilities, interpretations, and meanings. Criticizing his documentary colleagues, the surrealist filmmaker Jean Painlevé, too, refers to an open definition, formulated in 1947 by the World Union of Documentary Filmmakers: “Documentary is any film that documents real phenomena or their honest and justified reconstruction in order to consciously increase human knowledge through rational or emotional means and to expose problems and offer solutions from an economic, social or cultural point of view” (Painlevé 1953).

It is quite refreshing to reread the documentary descriptions of these pioneers against the backdrop of the developments the documentary has undergone. Whereas these definitions proclaim a great openness, the (mainstream) documentary confirms the conventional power structures in a format adapted to that end. The taxidermic format of the documentary Flaherty initiated lingers on in countless (mainstream) documentaries. Despite the socially committed or critical attitude many documentary filmmakers take, documentaries arguably often underpin a large-scale epistemological enterprise that is closely linked to the project of Western colonialism. What’s more, as artist and theorist Hito Steyerl claims, (mainstream) documentaries often criticize unfair power structures on the content level, but fail to do so with regard to form. By invariably using authoritarian or explanatory strategies, these films imitate the aura of the courtroom seeking to separate right from wrong (Steyerl 2011).

Unlike mainstream filmmakers, I argue for embracing the documentary as a form that puts the messiness of the-reality-on-screen at its heart. The documentary format involves a complex mix of representation, performative interactions between maker/subject/viewer, and a reflection on what reality could mean in this context. It continuously questions the relationship between the creation of images and the paradigm (of philosophical reality) it relates to. As Steyerl writes: “The perpetual doubt, the nagging insecurity—whether what we see is ‘true,’ ‘real,’ ‘factual’ and so on—accompanies contemporary documentary reception like a shadow. Let me suggest that this uncertainty is not some shameful lack, which has to be hidden, but instead constitutes the core quality of contemporary documentary modes as such . . . The only thing we can say for sure about the documentary mode in our times is that we always already doubt if it is true” (Steyerl 2011). It is precisely this documentary messiness Villevoye and Dietvorst confront us with.


Verticality in Documentary

Since the 1990s many artists have presented documentary work in a spatial context—the so-called expanded documentaries (van. Dienderen 2016). These forms arouse interest in the world of visual arts because of its preoccupation with that which is referred to—also in anthropology and cultural studies—as the politics of representation. This involves, for example, the questioning of conventional power structures that are preserved in certain formal rules. Villevoye and Dietvorst’s works undermines this type of formatting as it is anchored in a formal playfulness. As visual artists, Villevoye and Dietvorst relate with great freedom to the documentary gesture. In Evidence, for example, they place images, cabinets, and objects side by side with photographs, video screens, and screenings. In doing so they pose the question what the on-screen-reality can mean: “Often documentaries work up in a high tempo to reach a certain goal, usually some conclusion or denouement. For us, this is disingenuous. We think that in doing so the subject is not done justice. We don’t seek in [the] first instance to answer questions—what we want is to raise questions” (Villevoye and Dietvorst 2005).

The three-dimensional set-up of the documentary gesture provides the viewer the opportunity to take his or her time, to find links, and thus do the editing oneself. Evidence therefore invites the visitor to explore what the avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren (1917–1961) called the vertical regime of film. According to Deren, the horizontal experience of film is linear, narrative, character-driven, and one in which one action in the film leads to the next. In contrast, Deren proposes creating a vertical element in the montage of the images to explore poetry, the in-between spaces, and depths: “Vertical film structure probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and its depth, so that you have poetry concerned, in a sense, not with what is occurring but with what it feels like or with what it means” (Deren 1953, in Sitney 1970).

Thus, Villevoye and Dietvorst invite us not to seek the linear, horizontal relationships, but to plunge into the vertical depths, where we find a messiness that is typical of the relations that in the course of the centuries have developed between the West and its “other”, between representation and reality, between the white man and his exotic counterpart. This jumble of links, associations, and paradoxes, in which the makers have also incorporated their uncertainty about this relation, contrasts sharply with the illusion and the myth of the dichotomous relation between the “us” and “them” Flaherty presented. Our globalized, contemporary world, in which distance and time are not interchangeable, is ruled by chaos, vagueness, and filth, and yet there’s also intimacy, love, and friendship. In Villevoye and Dietvorst’s exhibition, the taxidermic functioning of conventional documentaries is highlighted and critiqued, and room is made for these confusing, complex relationships. Vital organs beat again; life is spoken into sculptures; and this confronts the viewer with a bloody, vibrating mass.

Villevoye and Dietvorst: “In our film The New Forest a half-naked Papuan, wearing something that hardly resembles a pair of trousers, steps out of the forest. As he’s coming closer, you notice that he’s wearing yellow Dutch clogs. A little later, he explains [to] us what these clogs are and why the Dutch used to wear them. He adds that he bought this pair himself in the Netherlands and that they are the ideal footwear when it has rained. This is what you call breaking with conventions. A set of tenacious expectations about primitive savages in an exotic surroundings is completely shattered. And this is done by someone about whom we thought we knew everything. That’s how the world is: confusing, complex, hilarious, and unparalleled. That’s what we want to show in our films” (Villevoye and Dietvorst 2005).





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