In Danish-born, Brooklyn-based artist Jesper Just’s installation “Intercourses” at the Danish Pavilion, he brings together three components—architecture, film, and sculpture—to explore notions of space, memory, and cultural and physical displacement. The artist constructed raw concrete walls that wrap around one side of the pavilion, leading viewers around and through the back door. Inside, a film unfolds on five channels throughout the space. In its various segments—shown on screens from three to 50-feet long—three different men wander through the streets of a decaying Paris. But details appear that challenge the understanding of location—street names and advertisements are in Chinese characters and crumbling stairs lead to open bamboo fields. In the written material, visitors learn that the film’s location is a suburb of Hangzhou, China, where a functional replication of the real Paris exists, complete with its own Eiffel Tower. (Read more about the Paris copycat here.) Immersive, beautiful, yet eerily complex, the installation leaves many feeling dreamily perplexed.
Artsy’s Marina Cashdan caught up with the bleary-eyed Just in Venice the morning after his preview party (held in an airport hangar on the island of Lido.) See what he had to say about the walls he laid down around the pavilion, components of the installation you can’t see, and why he puzzled his own country’s cultural minister.
Marina Cashdan: Can you talk about architecture as a character in your installation?
Jesper Just: When you approach the pavilion, these fragments of walls might not make sense at first. They relate to the building but they also have their own integrity; they are somewhere between sculpture and architecture. At first it looks like something that is excluding you, because you have to walk around the building to find the entrance; but then it becomes something that leads you through the work, and it becomes very much related to your body.
MC: A mediator in some way?
JJ: Yes, a mediator in relation to your own body. And we cut the films to make a narrative loop; there’s a very small narrative in each film, but the development is only happening once you go to the next film. So you make the decision about the development with your body in this structure. And the architecture is helping and also, again, excluding you a little bit; but you have different options.
When I first was invited I was thinking that I had the impossible pavilion because it’s a combination of two highlights of Danish architecture: Neoclassical and Modernist. Put together, it’s a weird clash that doesn’t really make sense. A lot of previous [Danish] artists, when they’ve shown here, have shut down parts of the Modernist part because it’s got all these weird, small rooms that are very unusable for contemporary artists unless you work with prints or a certain kind of sculpture.
MC: I noticed that “Denmark” is not visible on the façade of the building when walking down the main path in the Giardini. Was that so that visitors don’t confuse the original entrance with your new entrance, or was that a statement of some kind?
JJ: It’s kind of a statement. In fact the [Danish] Cultural Minister was a bit puzzled at first [laughs], but then once she found her way into it she was digging it. She had an interesting speech about the whole thing—she saw it as this image of Denmark closing itself in, maybe turning its back to the rest of the world, which is something that is happening.
MC: You have stalks of bamboo planted along the wall of the entrance and throughout the installation. Does this refer to the Chinese village in the film, replicated after Paris, that plays the main role in your film installation? Or does it refer to something else?
JJ: In a way it was relating to the building beer bottles in the walls of the structure. I wanted to find another element that could have this kind of poetic element. Maybe “poetic” is the wrong word but having something come out of these walls that makes them less …
JJ: Yes, I hope.
MC: Going back to the beer bottles that you placed in the walls during construction. I heard that this is something Danish bricklayers used to do. Can you explain?
JJ: I don't know if it exists in other countries, but in Danish [folklore] bricklayers would do this to revolt against evil developers: If they were mistreated by the developer, the workers would leave this little signature [of building glass bottles into a wall] that would—when the wind was hitting in the right direction—make the structure sound haunted. It’s called the dead bricklayer. But I don’t think you necessarily need to know the reference; it’s just about being the mediator for these three three men, connecting through structures that are at first artificial and hollow but then become these empty beer bottles.
MC: Can you talk about the collaboration with design studio Project Projects?
JJ: The Arts Council really wanted something for people who didn't have the chance to come to Venice—not a streaming of what’s going on but something that would add a layer to the work. The whole artistic concept of that project is Project Projects’.
MC: The symbol that they devised, or this graphic symbol, where did that come from? How was that conceived?
JJ: Well, first we were talking about if the title of this whole piece should be in Chinese type, and then I worried that it wouldn’t exist in English or in another language, so we would have to explain it in sentences to convey the same meaning. For me, it felt like it had become too much about China, and it’s not about China necessarily; it’s about this idea of making a replica of something.
MC: Can you talk about these towns in China that replicate other cities around the world? Was this one in Hangzhou the first you heard of this type of architecture?
JJ: There are hundreds of these places. I first stumbled upon Palm Springs, outside Hong Kong, and I wanted to look at that through American eyes as kind of a study. But then Palm Springs, especially in this form, is so washed out because it’s like pastiche on a pastiche on a pastiche, and then it didn’t really become a process of anything—it was just kind of nothing.
MC: Can you talk about the state of decay in this work? This aspect is very much present in the pavilion, the physicality of this pavilion, but also in this town, this replica.
JJ: [The town] is like a ruin in progression because it’s still being built, but it’s also falling apart, because material is so cheap. And here I wanted to give you the idea of being uncertain if it is something that is still under construction or something that is falling apart or if it’s permanent.
MC: Are there any details that viewers should be thoughtful of or take notice of or that people could overlook?
JJ: Of course I don't want to tell people how to experience the work. But there are obvious details like the connection between the sculptural elements and the very autonomous films. The sculptures were made with grow lights for the plants that are in there. The purple light spills onto these black-and-white images. In a way, that connects the installation, and it was something of a challenge. But also, most important for me is the physical experience and that you get walking through—you can see the show and get the essence maybe in one or two minutes or you can spend 50 minutes as the films are altogether 50 minutes. But because it’s these loops with not so much actually happening in itself, you can quite quickly walk through also and get something out of it.
MC: Did you do anything to the garden of the pavilion or did you leave it as is?
JJ: I just wanted to have that place also as kind of a found place so I didn't do anything out here. It was very hard for the workers to make it a bit sloppy, they always wanted to clean up so that was maybe their biggest challenge to just leave it.
MC: In total, you’ve spent a few weeks here in Venice installing the pavilion?
JJ: Yeah, back and forth several times.
MC: So you've gotten to know Venice? Is there any place that you would recommend that you've found that has become your Venice spot, maybe for a coffee, an aperitif, or dinner?
JJ: I've gotten to know the inside of this pavilion and the security guard outside at three in the morning! [laughs] I've been back and forth between my apartment, and then the Lido, and then here. But hopefully this weekend I will get to experience something.
MC: Have you seen any other pavilions and if so, what’d you think?
Installation photographs by Alex John Beck for Artsy
Film stills: Jesper Just, Intercourses, 2013, film stills from 1 of 5 parts. Each film approx. 10 min. Courtesy of the artist.
Idee di Pietra in Gstaad, Switzerland