Review of “Episode III – Please Enjoy Poverty” by Renzo Martens
“Episode III – Please Enjoy Poverty” by Renzo Martens
Copyright 2009 Aline du Rocher
Renzo Martens, a white Dutch artist, has created a film of eighty-eight minutes,
edited from two years of filming in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from
2002 with a hand-held video camera entitled “Episode III – Please Enjoy
Poverty”. The public had a chance to encounter both Martens and his work at the
same time in February 2009 at the Wilkinson Gallery in London. This event was a
screening of the film followed by a discussion with the artist chaired by JJ
Charlesworth, editor of Art Review magazine.1
In the following essay, I will be examining Martens' work and talk using Said's
contrapuntal reading strategy as an analytical framework in order to discover new
narratives. This strategy was developed by Said from Adorno's contrapuntal
exploration of music in society. The counterpoint could be defined as the
relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and
rhythm and interdependent in harmony; their simultaneous presentation making a
whole (Magome, 2006:67). The socio-aesthetic discourse as a contrapuntal
reveals suppressed voices and hegemonic power (Magome, 2006:70) in a work
of art in a particular social and temporal context. This reading strategy 'exposes
the elements of colonial discourse hidden by the text' (Emerling, 2005:221) which
can be absent but nevertheless dominant (Silverstone, 2007:86). To further the
musical metaphor, one could say that there are dark, hidden voices echoing
behind the artist's voice to make this work a harmonious piece for some and a
cacophony for others.
‘Episode III’ features a sculpture in pink and blue neon light displaying the
message ‘Please Enjoy Poverty’. This is shown being transported along a Congo
River on a raft from camp to camp in areas under the protection of the United
Nations where Non Governmental Organisations, international media and
Médécins sans Frontières operate. Martens used his sculpture as a 'relational
form' (Bourriaud, 2002:11) to create dialogue. While preparing one of his
The film was funded by the Dutch Foundation for the Visual Arts and the National Committee for
International Cooperation and Sustainable Development, a Dutch think tank devoted to these
issues. It received other institutional funding from both the Netherlands and Belgium (Guerin, F,
performances, consisting of lighting the neon sculpture using a portable
generator and filming the reactions of the locals, Martens explains the text of his
sculpture to a French-speaking villager: 'Non, c'est pas 'pauvreté' c'est 'poverty'
parce que c'est pour le public, ca doit être en Anglais' (No, it isn't 'pauvreté', it's
'poverty' because it's for the public, it must be in English). He defines his
performance as an 'emancipation project' and characterises it as confronting the
western press and what Martens calls the 'aiding industry' (ArtReview.com,
2009a) with the fact that they exploit not the country's natural resources like large
corporations do but the very poverty of the people. He says that it is a very
lucrative business from which the people of DRC don't benefit. In a reaction
against this exploitation, he decides to train and help a couple of local
photographers to become press photographers.
Martens teaches these two young men how to get the most profitable images of
degradation and horror, such as a starving child in a hospital. After having
chosen the most unhealthy and therefore fragile child, the doctor undresses him.
The child is crying, naked, and being manipulated and handled like an object.
The vision is unbearable. 'Here you see the ribs' explains Martens to his two
apprentices showing them the best camera angle. He explains in the post-
screening discussion that 'yes, it is painful for them, it was painful for me and now
I hope that it is painful for you'. He makes his point to the viewing audience
through humiliation and exploitation. Labelling his work an 'emancipation project'
is nothing more than cynicism. He is there to teach the uneducated, to show them
how things should be done. The two photographers execute his orders and
Martens becomes dominant in a master-slave relationship (Patterson, 1985).
These two men are instrumentalised by Martens, like any other ‘master’ is has
‘acquired them to serve his self-interest’ (Patterson, 1985: 173-4) according to
their skills. The two photographers became his ‘subalterns’ as defined by Spivak
(Emerling, 2005:229). They are under his hegemonic power, this power of the
white man who knows, who is going to teach them how to exploit suffering for
profit, just like the white photographers portrayed by Martens in the same film.
The way the artist treats a child in a hospital is more than simply offensive but
hides the violation of the most basics human rights. Article 5 of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights states ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to
cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’. Martens has treated the
sick child in the most inhuman and degrading way, forgetting that he is a human
like himself, ‘equal in dignity and rights’ (Article 1). Furthermore, Martens
explained that he will not share any of the profits generated with the poor people
he filmed because ‘This makes the exploitation of filmed and photographed
poverty a perfect double (analogy) for rubber, coltan or slave labour’ (Roelandt,
Martens says that he can ‘do nothing for these people’ (ArtReview.com, 2009a).
Several villagers ask him if he will return to show them the film and Martens tells
them that he won’t, that he is impotent to help and that they should try to be
happy in spite of their circumstances (Millar, 2009). In addition, Martens gave
false hope to the local photographers, knowing that the project was doomed to
failure even before it even started. When talking about this project, he simply
'We start some development project, of course a development they are not
really there to develop but to secure everyone's interest so at the end they
all fail because they are not meant to do anything else but fail'
Behind the teaching and the emancipation project, there is an entire chorus of
hidden voices. Echoing the denunciation of the exploitation of the DRC's wealth
and poverty, there are the spectres of victimisation and the over-simplification of
the all the issues related to post-colonialism, modernity and globalisation by
Renzo Martens describes his film as a 'performance of the discourse of the white
man' by being 'both the observer and the perpetrator of the Africans' exploitation'
(Artsreview.com, 2009a). He is deliberately provocative, 'indeed offensive in
some parts' (Nash, 2009). This is a relatively new genre of what one might call
the 'distressed (or distressing) documentary' (Nash, 2009), which Mark Nash
(2009) defines as a form of documentary made to 'provoke, irritate, indeed
perhaps enrage the audience'.
The artist presents himself as willing to do ‘good’ and as taking a stand against
the state of an area of the world using his art to denounce what the political
consensual discourse has made invisible, acting within the framework of
consensual categories and tending to bring the artistic powers of provocation to
the ethical task of assisting the most vulnerable people (Rancière, 2005: 198).
'Martens is right, misery has to be shown to the public as a first step to any
possible solutions' (Roelandt, 2009). To do so, he has chosen one of the most
devastated countries in the world. Ravaged since King Leopold II of Belgium's
arrival there in the 1870s, millions of people have died from violence, famine and
disease (www.cia.gov, 2009). The artist might have chosen this country because
of this. He has been to war zones before, including Chechnya in 2002 with his
filmed performance project “Episode I: What do you think about me?”
The current work, ‘Episode III’ is an 'interesting work of art because of the
question[s] of [...] spectatorship it raises' (Nash, 2008). The viewer's involvement
is reinforced by the filming and the editing techniques used by the artist. Two
years of filming has been edited down into eighty-eight minutes, creating a
seamless flow of actions across time and space and creating two narratives. The
fact that the film has been edited means that choices have been made by the
artist between what is included and excluded. Using subjective point-of-view
shots as a natural-seeming eye-line shot, the viewer feels part of the scene, an
effect that is amplified by the use of a hand-held camera. Furthermore, the eye-
line shot camera angle emphasises a sense of commitment of the artist to show
what he sees and to share how he feels with the viewer. The viewer becomes
emotionally involved. One couldn't not share the sense of injustice against the
ignominy, starvation, death, rape and violence portrayed. The artist has reduced
the distance between the artwork and the audience so much that complicity is
created. Any criticism of this artwork tends to become self-criticism and a denial
of guilt. The viewer is faced with a work that becomes similar to a sacral work of
art of the past (Groys, 2008); one to worship. Trapped by the guilt of inaction,
feelings of responsibility and impotence against such an injustice, the viewer is
led by the artist into an uncomfortable place where a 'suppressed voice' can
heard, where a 'hegemonic power' can be felt. The imperialist discourse of the
artist emerges. Said defines imperialism as 'embedded in colonial discourse'
serving 'as an important tool for creating the colonised subject' (Emerling,
Renzo Martens, often uses 'we' instead of 'I' when asked a question about his
project. It suggests a sense of community of thought, which doesn’t exist in the
context of this interview. The following examples show that he includes all of the
'There are a lot of industries supported by our military; on the other hand
we have this Aid industry who tells them to grow peanuts and how to
better their lives' (ArtReview.com, 2009a).
By 'we', he implies not 'them' - the poor black people in the DRC - but 'we', the
Westerners, the not-so-poor, the educated, the one who tells ‘them’ what to do.
On the other hand, he defines 'them' as being told what to farm and how to live.
He defines who 'we' are by our otherness from 'them'.
'The only people, white, that we see in the media in Africa, are the ones
who are helping and aiding Africa... and involved in other things as well,
they are impossible to film because they wouldn't give you a guided tour of
their diamond smuggling or...'
His discourse is consciously or unconsciously ethnocentrically rooted in
European culture and reflective of a dominant Western worldview. By calling it
simply 'Africa', he erases the existence of multiple distinct African cultures and
traditions and creates a homogeneous mass to which stereotypes can be
applied. Said's Orientalism (1978) refers to this process as “Othering”.
A second point to made from this extract is that the white aiding Africa are yet
another stereotype: reinforcing the idea of the people of the DRC as 'subaltern'
subordinate, inferior and without agency or voice. The artist positions himself
outside the colonialist discourse, fashioning the whole of Africa according to his
own world view and value system, establishing his hegemony over the Other.
Behind this provocation, it seems that there is a forceful desire to impose his
representation of the Other, reinforcing his ‘racialised discourse’, structured in a
set of binary oppositions (Hall, 2002: 243).
Post-colonial Africa exists in the consciousness of the general public in the West
mainly as a succession of unforgettable scenes of starvation and genocide.
These images, as in the film, carry a double message: they show simultaneously
that the 'suffering is outrageous, unjust and should be repaired' (Sontag,
2003:63) and they 'confirm that it is the sort of things which happens in this place'
(Sontag, 2003:63). The ubiquity of these photographs and those horrors cannot
help but nourish belief in the inevitability of tragedy in this benighted and
backward part of the world.
The 'white' are stereotyped as working in the media, in aid or smuggling
diamonds. One can assume that the 'white' are doing all sorts of 'other things'
that Martens chooses not to disclose. It appears that he doesn't see himself as a
member of either the 'black' or 'white' stereotypes. However, Said emphasises
that commenting on a 'colonised culture cannot remain neutral and can't stand
outside of a consideration of imperialism' (Emerling, 2005:221).
Groys (2008) gives an interesting explanation for why an artist might generate
suspicion. According to him, when an artist is presented as a design surface, like
any other media celebrity, he or she creates suspicion. To gain trust from the
audience, the artist must create a moment of disclosure - a chance for the public
to look through the surface, a kind of self-sacrifice, a kind of calculated self-
denunciation. According to the economy of symbolic exchange (Marcel Mausse
and Georges Bataille), individuals who show themselves as being bad and mean
get the most recognition and fame.
In front of the audience of the Wilkinson Gallery in London, Renzo Martens has
confessed 'I am both the observer and the perpetrator of the African's
exploitation'. He, like many of us, has been taught that his liberation requires him
to tell the truth and to confess it to someone who is more powerful (a priest, a
psychoanalyst or an audience) and that this truth-telling will somehow set him
free (Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1982). He confesses imagining the self as a refuge
beyond the reach of power (Chow, 2002:115) but in acknowledging it Martens
does not legitimise it (Fox, 2009).
'All in all, the way I am there, it's ... it's...objective more than anything... I
don't think that it is crazy or artistic... I think it is objective' [...] 'as I say, my
role is that film is to be as close to objectivity as one can get. Truth, I just
call it objectivity' (ArtReview.com, 2009a)
When looking at Martens' description of his work as objective and true, one can
refer to Rancière (cited in Nash 2009) who states that 'writing history and writing
stories come under the same regime of truth', situating the artist's activity as
'border crossing' between the domains of reality and fiction (Nash, 2009). His
claim of truth is equally challenged if one refers to the journalistic documentary
tradition where the truth is subject to manipulation and construction by the author
who, whether on or behind the camera is 'forcefully calling the shot' (Williams,
2005:62). Martens’ relationship to the amateur photographers and any other
persons within the film might be fictional, created through editorial construction.
Whether it is the truth or a fiction, he knew that a request for official aid agency
sanctioned press cards would be denied to the two photographers, they would
face complete disappointment and this would make compelling viewing for a
western audience. It seems the artist has an almost pathological commitment to
the artwork, to the degree that he will ruin lives and court disappointment to
elucidate a cynical logic of engagement and make a point about the impotence of
engagement (Millar, 2009). However, therein lies a fundamental issue about the
unreliability of the edit. The viewer has only the closed tautology of the artwork on
which to make judgements.
“Nowhere is Martens completely clear about his own position, or so it has
appeared in the discussion with the audience. He often feels himself a
voyeur, or someone participating in the exploitation of the poor. At other
times, he sees himself as an outsider, or indeed, he is motivated by an
extreme, personal involvement with the victims and is truly trying to help.
In each case, by putting the issue of his own position at the heart of the
entire film making process.” (Roelandt, 2009)
‘The only difference arises - and this is where I part company - is that as a
modern day Swift, Martens presents his depressing assessment not to the
British ruling class but directly to the African people he meets, and we
witness their visible shock and depression implicated as we are in this
cruel deception.’ (Nash, 2008)
His work has generated, is generating and will generate a fair amount of
comment and perhaps even mainstream press attention. The question is, will he
make a difference to the lives of the people he filmed in The Republic Democratic
of Congo? In the film, Martens portrays himself as ineffectual, impotent and
indifferent to the fate of his characters but in the post-screening talk he reveals
that he is still actively helping the two photographers. He has represented himself
in his work as an artist who does not mind breaching basic human rights in order
to make his point but after hearing him speak, the audience is left suspecting that
this just a public persona. This shows how the work was contextualise by the
event itself and, as in Said's model, how new narratives appear when the artist in
confronted directly by the audience. Viewing Episode III-Please Enjoy Poverty on
its own is shocking but with the artist talking about it, it makes it unethical.
Martens and his work become two contrapuntal themes from which a new
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