Nuances That Carry Weight: Jesper Just at James Cohan
Jesper Just This Nameless Spectacle at James Cohan Gallery
September 6 to October 27, 2012
533 West 26th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212.714.9500
When it comes to word count, literature hosts such extremes as Marcel Proust, notoriously, on the high end, and Yasunari Kawabata on the opposite end. The pithy vignettes of the latter, written as early as 1923 and collected in the volume Palm of the Hand Stories, possess a concise, subtle profundity beyond what ordinary structured storytelling can often deliver. It was Kawabata’s impressionistic economy and his gift for poeticizing the unexceptional that came to my mind while watching Jesper Just’s three recent videos on view at James Cohan.
Just has also been compared to some of cinema’s mood masters from Alain Resnais to David Lynch, and these influences are still present but less obviously. Many New Yorkers may have been introduced to Just’s work in 2008 with his four-video exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. For the Cohan show, however, Just has ditched the highly theatrical, daddy-complex-noir of earlier works for a more naturalistic and therefore, for me, far stranger vision of ordinary weirdness. Fittingly, the exhibition’s title, This Nameless Spectacle, is a line pulled from a poem by William Carlos Williams. The quiver of a lip, a glance, the color of a dress; for Just, these nuances carry weight.
So too do each of Just’s locations. The New York-based Dane chose two American and one French site to serve as more than mere backdrops. A fan of the anticipatory tracking shot, Just picks up the action in Sirens of Chrome (2010) with a clunker cruising through a desolate Detroit. But this is no slick advertisement (I had the contrasting memory of Josephine Meckseper’s 0% Down (2008)), no Hollywood chase scene. Having witnessed the passage of its Motor City glory days, everything associated with America’s love affair with the automobile, our historical move out of the industrial age, and the socio-economic reverberations of these phenomena are insinuated here.
This kind of cyclical shift in an area’s function is also found in the other two videos. This Nameless Spectacle (2011) begins in Parc des Buttes Chaumont, which was part of Haussmann’s transformation of Paris from a medieval city into a modern one. An attractive, put together, middle-aged woman (whom some might call a cougar) travels by wheelchair through the park’s grotto, which was once a quarry mined for building materials. After being followed by a monkish hipster, she returns home to one of many sterile contemporary apartment buildings. Conversely, the camera roams the decrepit California desert remnants of a failed, early twentieth-century Socialist colony in Llano (2012) seemingly ‘kept alive’ by a fake rain machine—filmic artifice unveiled.
And what happens in these loaded landscapes? In keeping with his love of the erotic undertone, Just includes quite a bit of writhing. In the car in Detroit, four African-America women take a slow drive to an indoor parking lot where a fifth rolls around on their hood. At first it seems she’s pretending to be hit, but the mood changes from concern to jouissance. This feeling is mirrored in Paris, when the woman rises from her wheelchair only to have what appears to be an epileptic fit. Induced by light flashes from the stalker/hipster’s window, this writhing feels like religious ecstasy. The light’s downward angle and the woman’s open-mouthed smile suggest Bernini’s swooning, sculptural nun in Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1645 –1652). And so what happens in these videos? Not much, and certainly no dialogue or Just’s signature off-kilter crooning. The pleasure is in associations, conjecture, curious details, and loose conclusions.
All this tantalizing, plotless ambiguity is brought to life by Just’s usual technical virtuosity in run-times—ranging from seven to thirteen minutes—perfect for standing in an art gallery. In the case of the Paris video, This Nameless Spectacle, viewers are sandwiched in the midst of the action by Just placing two projection screens facing one another on opposite sides of the gallery’s main space. You can situate yourself in the center or on the sidelines catching simultaneous glimpses of a character’s point of view as well as her face or a wide shot. Throughout the show, Just’s camera lingers lovingly on fingers and toes, rusty tin cans and wet rocks, on emotions born of wondering what is going on and what is to come.