For “This Nameless Spectacle,” Jesper Just’s current exhibition at James Cohan in Chelsea (his first with the gallery), the Danish artist has mounted installations of three recent videos. Visually seductive, slow-paced and enigmatic, the short films adopt cinematic conventions only to upset them, confounding viewers’ expectations. The show follows the recent announcement that Just will represent Denmark at the Venice Biennale in 2013.
Two of the works—Sirens of Chrome (2010; 12 minutes, 38 seconds) and This Nameless Spectacle (2011; 13 minutes)—are having their New York premieres, while the third, Llano (2012; 7 minutes, 17 seconds), is being screened for the first time.
In Sirens of Chrome, filmed in Detroit, a black car with one purple door travels the streets of downtown and winds up in the famous Michigan Theater, a once elegant theater turned parking garage. There a fifth woman throws herself on their stationary vehicle, as if she has been hit by it, though we never know whether as accident, suicide or murder.
The dual-channel projection This Nameless Spectacle, with its big screens on opposite walls, presents the story of a wheelchair-bound woman pursued by a mysterious man through Buttes-Chaumont Park, in Paris. Once safe in her high-rise apartment in a housing project, she gets up and moves easily about, only to be struck by a light shining from a distant window across the way. The light, wielded by the man, triggers a seizure, as the woman, played by the French transsexual actor Marie-Claire Garcia, falls to the floor in an extended sequence that is equal parts mortal crisis and erotic transfiguration.
As his inspiration for Llano, Just traveled to the site of a ruined early 20th-century utopian community outside L.A. that had been abandoned partially due to lack of water. There he rigged up an artificial rain shower, in which an obese woman is seen attempting to rebuild one of the structures. That action is intercut with shots of the underground stations that bring water to L.A.
A.i.A. spoke with Just on the opening day of his show, which will remain on view through Oct. 27.
FAYE HIRSCH Tell me about your project in Venice.
JESPER JUST The Danish Pavilion is an interesting mismatch of two of the architectural highlights of Danish architecture: neoclassical and modernist. These are put together with a double facade, almost like a joke. But it’s not, of course. In the ’30s they had this neoclassical building erected with Doric pillars—a pompous entrance facing the little square where the American pavilion is also located. In the ’60s they wanted to make it bigger, because with its traditional, ancient structure, it had become too small for exhibitions. So a modernist annex was added, expanding the building sideways with several new rooms. The old entrance, with its columns, now functions more like an exit, which is kind of weird.
[In comparison] the Scandinavian pavilion is kind of a perfect pavilion of light and passage. It’s so strong that for me it would be hard to work with. Whereas the Danish is . . . it’s impossible, really. But it does have a special kind of intimacy that I think you don’t find in some of the more pompous pavilions. I want to somehow work with this doubleness and intimacy.
HIRSCH You thought very carefully about that split screen in This Nameless Spectacle.
JUST The whole concept was about that split. It came from pre-cinema entertainment—the Stereoramas and Mareoramas of the 19th century. For instance, at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900, there was this big ship, and you could go on board and get the feeling that you were sailing down the Hudson River. You were placed between these 700-meter-long painted, moving scrolls of the two sides of the river. And they even had smells—you would smell the sea; they had brought in sea water. Unfortunately it burned down as a result of the lighting, so it doesn’t exist anymore. But this kind of moving panorama was very common, and influenced the filmmaking that followed.
HIRSCH What are the locations for This Nameless Spectacle?
JUST It takes place in Paris, in the north-partly in some social housing projects and partly in a park called Buttes-Chaumont, which was created in the 1860s, as part of Haussmann’s plans. He had made those big Paris boulevards and destroyed some of the old neighborhoods to make sure the army and cavalry could arrive really fast, if there were to be riots. And the park is also in a way an attempt to control people-in this case their leisure time—with its almost romantic fantasy landscape, with mountains and waterfalls. It’s the essence of nature, but it’s all fake.
I was interested in this built-in narrative of the park, how it opens and closes again. The park is packed on the weekends with locals; it’s not really a tourist attraction because it’s on the outskirts.
HIRSCH Your videos are so empty of people. How you do that? Sirens of Chrome  is really—I don’t want to say postapocalyptic because the buildings are still standing and Detroit is always already postapocalyptic. You don’t even want to use the word.
JUST It depends on the project. I’ve shot films that were more like happenings in the street, getting people’s reactions. These films in the Cohan show are more artificial in a way. It was difficult in Paris to avoid people, because that park is so crowded. But in Detroit we didn’t even block any streets. This is how it was! We shot during the day, all through downtown. It is empty.
HIRSCH In all your films narrative is extremely compressed, in comparison with the pace of the film, which is extremely slow. So a whole story unfolds in a pretty short time, but very slowly, visually. Is this intentional?
JUST When I start, it’s all over the place. I have these elements that I feel are interesting and I kind of force them together. There’s always a text, but in the beginning it’s just a lot of notes. And then the last week I cut it down to the most simplified form-the essence of what it is that I am trying to say. I don’t think so much about style, though I’m sure that’s how it’s perceived. I want to cut out everything unnecessary. I never have extras or props—those would just be in the way. The things that are in there are really there—everything is performing in a way. In Sirens of Chrome, the building and the car are performing, as much as the women. The building is as important as the characters.
HIRSCH And light-light seems extremely important in all of them, and is really a performer as well. What about your affinities? People always talk about the Danish film group Dogme 95 in relation to your films.
JUST I’ve never seen it like that. Dogme was about getting to the core of filmmaking, the story. I’m not really interested in telling stories, but in the manipulative part of filmmaking, and the representation of characters.
HIRSCH I think more of Carl Theodor Dreier—Ordet, for example.
JUST In The Sirens of Chrome, there’s one shot that is almost a replica of a shot in Bergman’s Persona. It’s at a point in the car where the woman in the back seat leans forward, and you essentially have three eyes. It’s not important for the film, that Bergman-like shot, but that’s where my visual language comes from. This Scandinavian mood. Though there are many other films as well.
I want to use the luscious cinematic language and turn it in different directions than you might expect. Hopefully you’ll ask yourself what it is you’re really watching.
HIRSCH Of course, one thinks in This Nameless Spectacle of Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
JUST In a way, the situation is reversed. In Rear Window, James Stewart can’t move, and that’s why he starts looking out the window. In contrast, Marie-France Garcia is mobile only at home. She doesn’t need the wheelchair once she’s inside.
HIRSCH In the beginning, when there’s a close-up of her feet in the wheelchair as she rolls through the park, you can only wonder why she’s wearing such high heels, if she’s disabled in some way. And she’s dressed so elegantly—perfect, really.
JUST I’m interested in the sexuality of characters who in mainstream culture are presented as not sexually active. The wheelchair-bound character in the film is played by Marie-France Garcia, who is wearing her own clothes. I never do costumes. I always ask the actors, what would you like to wear? It’s always their own wardrobes.
HIRSCH When Garcia gets hit by the light, one wonders if it has triggered an attack of epilepsy. But it’s also erotic.
JUST As much as the light, it’s also that she’s being watched: both trigger the seizure. We shot it over two days. The first day I directed it as an epileptic seizure. And the second day, I directed it as an orgasm. In the editing, I cut the two together; they merged. So it is in this place between pain and pleasure that becomes hard to decode.
HIRSCH There’s that scene in Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind—that crazy splicing back and forth between Dorothy Malone doing a sexy dance and her father dying of a heart attack.
JUST People have mentioned Sirk before. But I don’t necessarily have direct references to his films.
HIRSCH I guess what I’m hinting at is your relationship to melodrama.
JUST I’m not so much interested in melodrama as in using the characters’ emotional outbreaks to break with social and cinematic conventions. There’s the seizure; there’s the girl on the car. It could just be an incident that would happen in a film, but then it’s expanded into three minutes of her just rolling in one long fall. It has an emotional impact on the characters involved. But I don’t know if I think it goes melodramatic.
HIRSCH One imagines a conflict. We have no idea why that man is after the woman in This Nameless Spectacle. Nor do we know what the four women in The Sirens of Chrome, these beautiful, impassive beings, are doing, exactly. They’re not really murdering that fifth woman. She has thrown herself on the car—but then their expressions—the one woman suddenly has this tiny glimmer, almost, of a smile. It felt like bullying.
JUST I started with this ex-theater that’s been turned into a parking garage [the Michigan Theater], which is fascinating. I’m always interested in the conventions of a place, especially if it’s changed from one thing to another. And the whole idea evolved from that. It’s downtown Detroit, so it just made sense to me that there should be African American protagonists. And I began to think about the African American spectator. Who do you relate to when you watch a film? You so rarely have a protagonist who is a black woman. Possibly this is a strategy for making a profit, since in mainstream film it you have to speak to the majority.
You say it felt like a gang, or bullying, and I just want to say I played on that cliché as a starting point, because that’s usually how you are portrayed as an African American. You’re a loud, swearing ghetto girl. Here something happens, and they get emotional, once they encounter this fifth girl in the theater. Then you don’t know-does she let herself fall? It’s a woman on a car and it’s in Detroit—so I was also playing on the auto show, or auto advertisements. While usually you have men looking at the woman on a car, now you have four women inside looking out at a woman. It’s not a critique per se; I’m just interested in what you usually don’t see. If you think about it, these movies with minority characters—like Precious—they’re always tragedies, never feel-good films. Why is that? I’m not saying such films does not exist, but it’s then mainly in indie films.
HIRSCH To me, the subject of blackness gets embedded in the actual visuals of the movie, the darkness of the faces and the blackness of the car. Whose black car was that?
JUST It was a car that we rented and [laughs] . . .
HIRSCH [laughs] Did you fuck up that car?
JUST They didn’t say anything when we delivered it back.
I liked playing on the ghetto cliché—you know you need a new door, but, you can’t get a black door so you get what you can get. Here it’s a purple door. There are reasons why the car is black. Above all, I wanted that whole theater’s ornamentation to be reflected in the hood, and if it had been another color, or white, you wouldn’t have seen the surroundings. You see almost the entire theater structure in those reflections. And then, once light falls through the windows, I could play more with the characters coming in and out of the shadows.
HIRSCH But also the black car going through that washed-out, sunlit day in Detroit. Everything’s so empty and pale, and then there’s this black car driving through-it’s extremely dramatic.
JUST But that’s how it actually feels.
HIRSCH Did the women see the film?
HIRSCH And what did they think?
JUST I think they liked it.
HIRSCH And they’re not actors, right? They were regular people.
JUST Only one of them has done some acting. I put an ad on Craigslist Detroit and got contacted by some really talented women. I’d been there three or four times for various reasons, and then I thought I wanted to do something there because it’s such an interesting place. You have the whole story about the whites moving out to the suburbs, and once you go downtown it’s empty. Then you hear this romantic idea over and over again, that’s of course never going to happen, that maybe Detroit will turn into the first city with downtown farming.
HIRSCH We should turn to Llano  before we stop, because that’s very different from the other films in terms of its narrative trajectory. We really are given zero information about its only character, an obese woman rebuilding a ruined structure.
JUST Actually I wanted to do it with no characters at all, and then she kind of kept sneaking in somehow. I did another film with her that’s not yet finished; she’s a natural. At the last minute I asked her, “Would you mind being in another film as well?”
I had read about the ruins of a utopian community in the desert in a book called City of Quartz. The writer, Mike Davis, describes the remains of an old socialist commune out in the desert northeast of Los Angeles called Llano del Rio [founded in 1914]. My granddad was editor of the Danish Communist paper, and he was imprisoned by the Germans for being a Communist during World War II. So I have that in the family. He was alive to see the Berlin Wall come down, so that’s partly the reason I’m interested in this commune—the ruin of a utopia, especially in Los Angeles, which is kind of ironic. My interest was in this utopian place that does not exist anymore, but at the same time barely existed in the first place. After they grew to around 1,000 people, the neighboring farms started to complain that they were taking up too much water. I don’t know if it was political or not. They were self-sufficient—they had bakeries, a dairy, everything they needed. The one thing that they did not have was water. And they were sued at some point for using too much of it. They lost, and the water to the commune was cut off. They literally left overnight. Some went back to the city, and other people moved east and started a new commune—I forget where.
HIRSCH Did you bring your water in from elsewhere?
JUST The water is something I created by using rain bars on scaffolding that embraced the structure. I wanted to play on that whole water story, and also the artificiality of Los Angeles, being in the desert. I mean, if you cut off the water supply, tumbleweeds would soon begin rolling in the streets. I tried to create the idea of a monument that is kind of destroying itself. The rain is there to speed up the process of disintegration. And the woman: it’s kind of a very literal or banal scenario, but it becomes very weird because the setup is so strange.
The pump and all that underground infrastructure is not at the site, of course. That is in downtown L.A. I found out that all the civic buildings are connected by tunnels that used to be a big secret, for moving high-profile prisoners. I wanted to just force those ideas together. The woman is just trying to keep the building standing. It’s kind of a Sisyphus story.
HIRSCH That rain shower feels almost biblical, a miracle in the desert.
JUST Mythical, maybe.
HIRSCH What is the temptation of the short film?
JUST The short film?
HIRSCH You make short films. That’s what you do.
JUST Well, I don’t see them like that.
JUST I mean to make a comment on mainstream film, using the language to question it, in a way. I want you to think about this: what is it that I’m watching?
HIRSCH You push cliché to its maximum in order to do that.
JUST You have certain expectations, and then I twist that to the opposite. Cinema is often about surprise. But mainstream cinema is not about you not understanding what is going on. It’s all about making sure you understand, that you get it in the end. I don’t want that. I want you to sit there afterwards and totally doubt or question what you’ve seen.
HIRSCH Certainly one feels that with the narrative and with the narrative structure in your films. But the visual impact of it, and its sensuality—the lushness of it—is something that takes on its own character and is fulfilled over the course of the film. It’s not as if that is not fairly clear.
JUST No, no. Sure.
HIRSCH In a traditional Hollywood film, it’s just about following the plot, right? Would you ever want to make a feature-length film?
JUST I come from visual arts and it’s not my ambition to change professions and become a film director. If you’re into film—now I’m maybe being judgmental—but it seems like you’re doing everything you can: commercials, music videos, anything that you can find, for the sole goal of getting to your feature film. And when you reach that, then you’re a director, and that’s it. I have no ambition whatsoever in that direction. I’m working in another field.
HIRSCH It’s like a painter who’s forced to do something very, very large in order to show that they can actually paint.
JUST I see myself as a visual artist. Maybe tomorrow I’m going to make sculptures. I don’t know. When you’re in a cinema you sit back and you forget all your worries. You go into that trance for like two hours and then you might not think about that movie ever again. When you go into a gallery space or museum you’re much more alert. It’s not that one thing is smarter than the other. You just look at it in a different way. I like the idea of bringing the language of cinema somehow into that. If you go into the gallery and it looks like film, maybe it’s very easy to lure people in, and then suddenly they feel very comfortable very fast. I use that to take it somewhere else.
In mainstream cinema, everything has to be clear to the viewer. There can’t be a misunderstanding about the sexuality of characters. That has to be clear, because otherwise people get uncomfortable. And I like to play with exactly that weird space where you don’t know. No one, I think, can tell that Marie-France is transsexual, and it might not be important for the film, because in the film she’s just a woman. If she had been in a film made here, now, gender would be her main problem. It’d be all about her existential crisis.
HIRSCH Or like the woman in Llano. It would be about her being fat.
JUST Yes. It’s not about her size.
HIRSCH In fact, it’s not explained any more than anything else in the film. It’s just as mysterious as the building and as the location. I can’t wait to see your piece in the Biennale.
JUST Yeah, I can’t either. I’m not there yet.