Review of “Episode III – Please Enjoy Poverty” by Renzo Martens

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“Episode III – Please Enjoy Poverty” by Renzo Martens showed at the Wilkinson Gallery in London 2009

“Episode III – Please Enjoy Poverty” by Renzo Martens showed at the Wilkinson Gallery in London 2009

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  • 1. “Episode III – Please Enjoy Poverty” by Renzo Martens Copyright 2009 Aline du Rocher
  • 2. 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 1 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, 2009).
  • 3. 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
  • 4. 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, E., 2009). 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 said: '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' (ArtReview.com, 2009a). 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 stereotyping. 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'.
  • 5. 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'
  • 6. serving 'as an important tool for creating the colonised subject' (Emerling, 2005:221). 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 audience: '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
  • 7. 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
  • 8. 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)
  • 9. ‘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 meaning arises.
  • 10. Printed material Bourriaud, N. (2002) Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presses du Réel Chow, R. (2002) The protestant ethnic and the spirit of capitalism New York, Chichester: Columbia University Press Dreyfus, Hubert L. & Rabinow, Paul. (1982). Michel Foucault: beyond Structualism and Hermeneutics. Chigago: The University of Chicago Press Emerlin, J. (2005) Theory for Art History: Adapted from Theory for Religious Studies, by William E. Deal and Timothy K. Beal (Theory4). London, New York: Routledge Hall, S. (2002) “The spectacle of the Other”, in Hall, S. Representation : Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices 2nd Edition, London, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Magome, K. (2006) “Edward Said’s Counterpoint” in Nagy-Zekmi, S. Paradoxical citizenship: Edward Said. Lanham, MD, USA: Lexington Books McEwan, C. (2008) Post Colonial and Development. London, New York: Routledge Patterson, O. (1985) Slavery and Social Death, A Comparative Study. USA: Harvard University Press Rancière, J. 2005 Chroniques des Temps Consuels. Paris: Editions du Seuil Said, E. (1979) Orientalism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Silverstone, R. (2007) Media and Morality: On the Rise of the Mediapolis. Malden, MA, USA: Polity Press Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Williams, L. (2005) “Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History and the New Documentary”, in Corner, J. and Rosenthal, A., New Challenges for Documentary. 2nd Edition, Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press
  • 11. Online material ArtReview.com (2009a) “Renzo Martens in discussion with J.J. Charlesworth, Part I” http://www.artreview.com/video/video/show?id=1474022%3AVideo%3A714260, accessed 01/04/2009 ArtReview.com (2009b) “Renzo Martens in discussion with J.J. Charlesworth, Part II” http://www.artreview.com/video/video/show?id=1474022%3AVideo %3A714365, accessed 01/04/2009 Central Intelligence of Agency - The World Fact Book, The Democratic Republic of Congo https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/cg.html accessed 30/01/2009 Davies. L. (2009) Renzo Martens ARTFORUM January 2009 http://artforum.com/archive/id=21955 accessed 26/02/2009 Fox, D. (2009) Renzo Martens Frieze Issue 122 April 2009 http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/renzo_martens/ accessed 3/00/2009 Guerin, F. (2009) Interview with Renzo Martens Artslant.org online magazine http://www.artslant.com/ew/articles/show/4443 accessed 13/02/2009 Groys, B. (2008) The Aesthetic Responsibility Podcast. [online] http://www.friezeartfair.com/podcasts/details/the_aesthetic_responsibility/ accessed 24/02/2009 Kulture Flash Magazine http://www.kultureflash.net/archive/273/RenzoMartens.html accessed 21/02/2009 Millar, J.D. (2009) The Atrocity Exhibition Mute, Culture and Politics After the Net http://www.metamute.org/en/content/the_atrocity_exhibition accessed 12/03/2009
  • 12. Nash, M. (2008) RENZO MARTENS - EPISODE III. Introduction to a conversation with Renzo Martens in Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam http://www.smba.nl/static/en/events/discussion-martens-nash-in- smba/introduction-address-mark-nash-on-episode-iii.pdf accessed 22/02/2009 Nash, M. (2009) “Reality in the Age of Aesthetics” Frieze April 2009, Issue 122 http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/renzo_martens/ accessed 06/04/2009 Roelandt, E. (2008) Episode III - Analysis of a Film Process in Three Conversations APrior Magazine number 16 http://www.aprior.org/articles/34 accessed 18/03/2009 Stabler, B. (2008) Renzo Martens and the Circus of Suffering Proximity Magazine 2008/12 http://proximitymagazine.com/2008/12/circus-of-suffering/ accessed 22/02/2009 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html accessed 19/02/2009