hART #90 | Close Encounters – Johan Grimonprez

Translation from the original Dutch article.

Jan Dietvorst and Roy Villevoye
in Johan Grimonprez-exhibition S.M.A.K.


Much has been published already, also in hART, regarding Johan Grimonprez’ retrospective ‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards’, which is currently running at the S.M.A.K. in Ghent. Grimonprez invited a number of other video artists and television makers, amongst whom the Dutch duo JanDietvorst and Roy Villevoye. But what exactly are their works doing in this exhibition?

Alexandra CROUWERS

In the eighties Grimonprez resided as a cultural anthropologist in the inlands of Papua New Guinea. His film ‘Kobarweng’ (1992) consists of historic image and audio fragments concerning the first encounters between European colonists and the local population, which at the time was still firmly set into a stone-age culture. Since 1992 Roy Villevoye is travelling regularly to Asmat villages in the Indonesian province of Papua. In 2001 he starts to cooperate with artist and publicist Jan Dietvorst. Together they work on an ongoing series of films in this region. These seem to be documentary by nature but they dismiss journalistic conventions and lack guiding background information like voiceovers. As a result the viewer is forced to draw his own conclusions from the images he’s presented with: a reference to the experience of explorers first meetings with new and puzzling cultures.


Papua people seem to be extremely practical. This is not very strange considering the circumstances they’re in: they live in a barely pervious jungle, food is at times scarce and the laborious political interaction with trans-migrants from other, overpopulated parts of Indonesia compels them to be inventive. Villevoye and Dietvorst attitudes are also pragmatic: how to communicate as a Westerner – and as an artist – with this group of people in order to achieve an artistic result (a film, a photo or a sculpture)? Much criticism on their work is connected to accusations of patronizing neo-colonialism. This has to do with the fact that the duo sometimes gives money or goods to those that play a role in the work process. Critics consider this to be an equivalent of mirrors and beads but it is actually based into an attempt to maintain an equal relationship with their subjects, beyond the evident economical inequality.

In the film ‘The Video Message’, through the camera lens directed to Villevoye, we see a man explain how he had a dream in which the spirit of an ancestor warns him how the use of his person for one of Villevoye’s sculptures might lead to certain death. The man asks Villevoye for an additional amount of money on top of an earlier agreed upon and paid sum in order to pay off his forefather’s displeasure. The stereotypical Western response is something like: “Sure, the man is making up a story for financial benefit.”

The man, however, is indeed very much aware of the fragility of his urgent request. He too is struggling with the ‘economy’ in the relations between him and these Westerners and in his clear formulations he’s searching for solutions to solve a to himself very real problem: he’s forced to ask a friend who lives thousands of kilometres away to make a sacrifice that would save his life. Once this man was invited by the two artists to visit the Netherlands (about this trip the film ‘Owner of the voyage’ from 2007 was made) and he knows Europa is filled with useful materials (cargo) and money. At the same time he values the mutual respectful relations, both with Villevoye as with the spirits of the forest. These ever present ancestors do not perceive cash to be relevant.

This web of social relationships, which are often economical but also charged with cultural history and magic, is representative for the subjects of Villevoye and Dietvorst’s films.


All of Grimonprez’ works contain an almost subliminal message that scrapes against the supernatural in general and specifically many science-fiction-like complottheories. As a contrast the works of Villevoye and Dietvorst are particularly ‘earthly’. Within Grimonprez’ universe ‘Kobarweng’ might as well be regarded as a concealed reconstruction of a supposed historical close encounter between aliens from another planet and earthlings. This reduplication of meaning in the images – and in the editing – is almost nonexistent with Villevoye and Dietvorst. They visit the Asmat, but also look for situations in India and the forests of Northern France, in order for them to have the need to redefine everything they know. For them traveling to, staying with and the interaction between themselves and exotic cultures is a way to review all presumptions about what would be ‘normal’. This is what is conveyed to the viewer. Above all the works of Villevoye and Dietvorst are revolving around the relationships between people.

In between the frames of Grimonprez’ films in which connections are being shown through a kind of superior context zapping, shreds of obscure contemporary myths that barely have anything to do anymore with human reality can be found.

It’s as if Grimonprez in ‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards’ attempts to invalidate his own tangled world view by using several external factors. In the exhibition space of the S.M.A.K. this is done by applying the combination of some sort of amusement park aesthetics – preschool-like stools are randomly placed in information corners, light bulbs are used as lighting – with the excitement of a cinema experience.

The choice for the works of Villevoye and Dietvorst contribute to this disruption by an unusual lack of ‘meaning’: what you see is what you get. This charges the exhibition with a scientific culture relativism and credibility, averse to political agenda’s or conspiracy theories.

By the way, the additional amount of money was paid to the man from ‘The Video Message’. Unfortunately he has died. Whether this might have had something to do with the man’s displeased ancestors I’ll gladly leave up to Grimonprez.