(Press Release from the exhibition: Jesper Just: Continuous Monuments, West Den Haag, Pay-Bas, 2017)
Let us start at the beginning. If it had rained a bit more often, if they had been allowed to build that dam, if they had not lost that damned court case, would it all have turned out well? Would they have been allowed to stay at Llano del Rio? Maybe it was also a mug’s game after all: who would ever think of starting a commune in a Californian desert? I mean, if you cut off the water supply, tumbleweeds would in no time begin rolling through the streets of Los Angeles. However, it was not because of their ideals, and the design of their colony was also very progressive. Their kitchen-less houses had built-in furniture and heated floor tiles. They had common kitchens, childcare, restaurants, schools; all meant to reduce the amount of housework of women. But it was the rain, or rather that drought, that ruined them. And of course, that cursed dam.
Over the past few weeks, I have submerged myself in a research about the relationship between architecture and utopia. To be honest, architecture is a new area for me. I’ve always found it such a typical male domain – stones, building, functionality – I feel more comfortable with debates about the body, identity, emotions (‘typical female’ subjects, I can hear you thinking). My first essay about Jesper Just, written ten years ago, was exactly about those subjects: about the role of emotions, about gender, and how Jesper wiped the floor with the existing conventions and created room for things intangible and ambiguous. However, over the past decade, Just’s work has developed in another direction. No more dancing, singing, crying men, but buildings, cities, structures. And yet, his work has not changed that much, but that I only found out in the process of time.
Back to the beginning, to Llano del Rio, a place north-east of Los Angeles. In Just’s film Llano (2012), we see and hear a downpour of mythical proportions. The rain is coming down in buckets, literally as the water comes from the pipes of a rain machine, a machine that is used to create showers of rain in films – after all, we happen to be near Hollywood. The scaffolding on which the rain bars are hanging, is set up around the half-crumbled walls of a building. A strapping woman piles up the stones one by one, as if she tries to repair the ruin. But the rain never stops, it keeps on pattering. What could have saved this place, is now destroying it. And the woman keeps on going with her heavy, useless effort, her Sisyphus labour.
On Wikipedia I read that the commune Llano del Rio was founded in 1914 by the socialist politician Job Harriman and designed by the feministic architect Alice Constant Austin. Although Harriman claimed that they had succeeded in converting the utopian ideals of socialism into a concrete practical system – from a dozen dreamers to a thousand determined doers – the dream fell apart in 1918 when they lost the court case about building a dam, due to which there was no longer any water supply and everyone had to leave the commune.
Jesper tells that his interest in the socialist commune is also related to the history of his own family. His grandfather worked as editor for a Danish communist newspaper, and because of that he was imprisoned by the Germans during the Second World War. In 1989, his grandfather also witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the battle between the capitalist West and the communist East Europe. For Jesper, at that time a young adult of fifteen, this might also have been the starting point of his interest in architecture and built structures, being the representatives of an ideological system.
Sites or buildings always form the point of departure for a work by Jesper Just. In fact, they often play a key part, as an autonomous protagonist besides the actors or actresses who are present in his films and who are equally wordless. Servitudes (2015) is a good example; in this film the One World Trade Center in New York is both the setting and a film character in itself. The film follows a girl while she is moving around the skyscraper. Her body is reflected in the mirroring outside. She taps on the glass façade with a small stone, examining and also a bit teasing, as if she is challenging the monumental building to play a game. A duel between a young girl, marked by a physical disability, and a masculine monument of cold, hard steel and glass. The title Servitudes reveals that this is all about a power struggle. The underlying constructions that are put in position are: body and architecture, femininity and masculinity, time and space. ‘The man is space and the woman is time’, is what I once read in a book of which I have forgotten the title and name of the author. I do remember that the universe itself obviously had to be bisexual.
Jesper Just describes the One World Trade Center as a ‘prosthetic’, an artificial substitute that reminds us of the original Twin Towers at this spot and, at the same time, makes their absence visible. A monument for a city with phantom limb pain. Although the contrast between the urban space in Servitudes and the natural landscape of Llano could hardly be greater, there are definitely similarities between the works. In both films, constructions as physical memorials of an ideological range of thoughts are the main subject. The socialist utopia of Llano del Rio, which might not have stood a chance to succeed at all, is now a ruin. One World Trade Center stands shining in full glory, but also evokes a feeling of loss and absence. Utopias often have a somewhat uncanny atmosphere, in my eyes, as they allude to an ideal society with perfectly happy people forcing others to share their happiness. So, it’s a good thing that the female protagonists in Just’s films do not take the slightest notice of this and choose their own path.
Let’s return for a moment to the exhibition itself. Especially for Huis Huguetan and the Lange Voorhout, Jesper Just has created a new installation consisting of an arrangement of free-standing walls and half-open and half-closed structures, made of cellular concrete. The installation derives its title Continuous Monuments from a series of designs created in 1969 by the legendary Italian architects’ collective Superstudio. This series was a direct attack on the consumer society, on the city with its social inequality and on the dull character of architecture in the 1960s. As steel and concrete boxes began to overrun the cities, Superstudio saw a need to ridicule this spreading of homogeneous modernistic architecture. They proposed that enormous megastructures would stretch out over the earth, across metropolises and pristine natural landscapes, even into outer space. One of their most famous images from that series is a spectacular view on Lower Manhattan that is enclosed by a horizontal monolith. The images of Superstudio are super tempting; they have a ‘trippy verve‘, as the New York Times puts it very aptly. Whereas they also have a dark undertone of sterility, which suggests that modern, man-made objects have the possibility to take over nature and humanity. Il Monumento Continuo by Superstudio is primarily intended as a metaphor for the ills of globalization and the possible outcomes of an uncontrollably spreading modernistic society. This utopia might better be considered as dystopia, or as Superstudio called it, as a ‘negative utopia’.
Just by way of clarification: there are two models to imagine a world changed for the worse: the apocalypse and the dystopia. In fact, these are two opposite future scenarios. The apocalypse, the end of the world, foresees the collapse of the existing order; whereas a dystopia envisions the sinister perfection of that order. The apocalypse is a nightmare of anarchy; dystopia is the nightmare of totalitarian rule.
Besides their provocative and dystopian designs, Superstudio did also offer a hopeful vision of the future. In 1972, they created a series of collages with a striking grid motif, which has become known as the ‘superstructure’. With this grid, they wanted to visualize the web of ‘energy and information’ that connects us during our endless wandering over the planet. That is why the grid has the pliancy of elastic. It can expand and shrink, nestle over something or raise itself up to become a form. With the special feature that it is always neutral in this variety of forms. The internet-like matrix is used by Superstudio as a symbol of ‘democracy’, since all the points of the grid are considered to be of the same value. It represents a state in which all people live a nomadic existence, freed from repetitive work, consumerist desires and hierarchies of power and violence. ‘We’ll keep silence to listen to our own bodies’, the group poetically proclaimed. ‘We’ll listen to our hearts and our breathing. We’ll watch ourselves living.’
Let’s again return for a moment to Jesper Just’s work. An important feature of his exhibition in West is, what he himself calls, ‘the idea of interconnecting elements of the films: space, sound and visuals’. The exhibition is designed in such a way that the architectural interventions, the moving images and the soundtracks of the films are interconnected and thus interact with each other. Images and sounds merge into each other, so new combinations and new compositions are created. By assembling these elements, Just creates a compelling audio-visual experience, in which the visitor is almost physically absorbed. This makes it possible to have another perception of the works, a perception with which a stronger relationship is realized between the ‘poetic wanderings’ in the films and those of the observers.
In his latest film Interpassivities (2017) – originally part of an audio-visual ballet-performance that he developed this spring in collaboration with Kim Gordon, the former bass player of Sonic Youth, and the ballet group Corpus of the Royal Danish Theatre – we see a similar poetic wandering. A woman in a tutu wanders around alone through a vast wide landscape. There is not a single person, not a tree, not a soul in sight. Just a wall, an endlessly long wall. We are back again in California, this time on the border with Mexico. Donald Trump’s dream – and nightmare for many – just stands here, stretching for kilometres. The woman in the tutu, Kim Gordon herself, walks along the wall and taps a stick against the ‘iron curtain’. The film appears grandiose, monumental, also in a cinematographic sense. The framing and camera technique give the film the appearance of a high-quality film production. This is characteristic of Jesper Just’s film style. He tempts you with Hollywood aesthetics, but at the same time breaks away from the classic film laws. His films do not have a narrative, have no dialogues and no plot. They are open, ambiguous, unpredictable.
Llano, Servitudes, Interpassivities and In the Shadow/of a Spectacle/is the View/of the Crowd (2015) all show how a solitary woman enters into an interaction with a building or a structure, and how she uses this in a different way, by tapping against it or beating it like a musical instrument. This other use, and especially the sound, has a tremendously liberating effect; it creates space for something else, for the imagination and poetry. Here we have the connection with the ideas of Superstudio. In the words of Jesper: ‘In a sense, it rearranges the power relations, it dismantles the hierarchy and tries to democratize and equalize things.’
We are back again at the beginning. It is still raining and the woman is still piling up the stones from the ruin. In The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Albert Camus stages Sisyphus as exemplary for the ‘absurd being’. He realizes that the world is irrational and there is ultimately no point to it, but – and that is the core of the human existence – he does not give in to this and creates his own meaning.
The films in the exhibition Continuous Monuments are shown in a loop. They continue seamlessly, without a beginning or end. Thanks to the circular routing, the exhibition itself is also a sort of loop. As soon as the exhibition has closed in Huis Huguetan, it will continue outside, where a film will be shown in the installation on the Lange Voorhout, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In this way, the visitor can walk round continuously – however absurd that might be.
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942
Femke Herregraven, Design Noir, Embracing Worlds Gone Wrong, Sandberg Instituut, 2011
Faye Hirsch, Cinematic Crises: Q + A with Jesper Just, Art in America, September 2012
Anna Tilroe, Superstudio was tégen, NRC Handelsblad, 8 October 2004
Various Small Fires, press release Jesper Just, Los Angeles, October-December 2015
Stephen Wallis, A ’60s Architecture Collective That Made History (but No Buildings), The New York Times Style Magazine, April 2016