Johan Grimonprez, Kobarweng or where is your helicopter?, 1992 (film extract)
"But the cups never grew to be kettles..."
special guests Roy Villevoye and Jan Dietvorst
opening reception: Thursday, 15 december 2005, from 6 to 9 pm
Erna Hecey Gallery is pleased to present an exhibition of early works by the Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez, along with works by Dutch artists Roy Villevoye and Jan Dietvorst.
For his second exhibition at the gallery, three video works are being shown together for the first time: Kobarweng or Where Is Your Helicopter? (1993), It Will Be All Right If You Come Again, Only Next Time Don't Bring Any Gear Except A Tea Kettle (1994-2004), and Well, You Can't Go To California, That's The First Place They'll Look For You (1993), works which preceded the films Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) and Looking For Alfred (2004-2005).
Kobarweng... is the fruit of Grimonprez's graduate studies in cultural anthropology, during which he spent time in Irian Jaya, the western part of Papua New Guinea. Puzzled by the question "Where is your helicopter?" which greeted him upon his arrival in the remote village of Pepera, Grimonprez soon learned that three decades earlier a team of scientists and anthropologists had dropped down from the sky in helicopters, much to the villagers' terrified surprise. The shock of this first encounter, which forced the New Guineans to redefine their known existence according to the outside world's encapsulation of it, is still visible everywhere; one villager was even named "Kobarweng" meaning "the sound of the airplane," from whence the title of the film. In recounting the history of the collision between two cultures, Grimonprez juxtaposes original documentary footage of the encounter with oral accounts of the indigenous people. It is anthropology, however, and the desire underlying anthropological investigation, that becomes the exotic object to be explored and scrutinized—a reversal best captured by the phrase "We never tell everything, we always keep something for the next anthropologist!" Thus one story is always embedded in and resignified by another.
Roy Villevoye and Jan Dietvorst, invited by Grimonprez to participate in the exhibition, also deal with the problems of anthropological representation, the conventions of documentary filmmaking, and the legacy of colonialism in their work. Since the early 1990s Villeroye's work has focused on the Asmat region of the Indonesian part of New Guinea. The film Propeller (2004) is a kind of detective story about the origins of an aircraft propeller lying in the jungle, in which highly distinct accounts and narrative styles are juxtaposed. While Propeller contrasts mythic storytelling with a scientific search for historical truth, the second film The New Forest (2004), made with Dietvorst, has a very different structure. Stories are also recounted, but this time without any clear progression or goal, except perhaps to destroy the illusion of New Guinea as an untouched, insulated world unto itself.
In It Will Be All Right... Grimonprez again explores the creation of new mythologies and cultural narratives in the wake of Western imperialism, with reference to a peculiar event. A major screening of the Sound of Music was organized by a missionary for the people of Irian Jaya; the viewers identified the landscape of the Austrian Alps as similar to their own, yet also as the place from which the visiting foreigners came. The film weaves together archival footage of New Guinea with images from the Sound of Music, effecting a strange transfer of meaning between Hollywood's fantasy of Austria (in particular the beautiful countryside), the New Guineans' re-imagination of their own environment, and their attempt to envision the homeland of the foreigners.
The intertwinement of landscape and storytelling, and the use of landscape itself as a 'floating signifier' whose meaning is subject to different shifts, is given a new twist in Well, You Can't Go To California... Here the starting point of anthropological investigation is not some far off corner of the world, but the artist's own birthplace. The Flemish countryside passes by accompanied at the bottom of the screen by text from the Flemish writer Louis Paul Boon's novel Chapel Road; the camera zooms into the house of the artist's parents, where playing on the television is an episode from the hit American soap opera Dallas. The Flemish landscape, recalling the venerable tradition of Flemish painting, is thus brought into 'cultural collision' with one of the signature products of the American entertainment industry; the phrase overheard from the show "Well, you can't go to California, that's the first place they'll look for you" becomes like a "Kobarweng" in a foreign land.
As part of the exhibition, Grimonprez offers a reading corner where one can leaf through documents pertaining to the West Papuan people's struggle for political self-determination and the freedom to express their cultural identity. Their voice has been silenced by 40 years of Indonesian military operations, supported by the US-based Freeport mining company and most recently by a pledge of 10 million dollars in military aid from the Bush administration. News reports and political texts, some by John Rumbiak, Supervisor at the Institute for Human Rights Study and Advocacy in West Papua, Indonesia detail the tragic history.
© 2005 Erna Hécey. All rights reserved.