Man Stripped Bare by Stories of Love, Loss and Loneliness
by Jacob Lillemose
Stripping fully clothed
A young man, eyes moistened with tears, croons Roy Orbison’s love song Crying to the accompaniment of backing vocals provided by four elderly men. Two men locked in an embrace roll around on the floor between chairs and tables to the sound of an ever increasing heartbeat and the angelic vocal of a choirboy. A woman, seated on the very edge of a sofa, memorises passages from a fairy-tale while a man dances before her stripped to the waist. All these situations are taken from Jesper Just’s three latest videos – No Man is an Island II (2004), The Sweetest Embrace of All (2004) and A Fine Romance (2004), all produced for the exhibition A Fine Romance - and which are all set in strip clubs. These scenarios are not, perhaps, in any way typical of the strip club milieu. Strippers in provocative postures are only present on posters and paintings hanging on the walls of the club. And only one item of clothing – a t-shirt – is removed in any of the three films.
In replacing the strip-show with these three scenarios, Jesper Just transforms the character of the strip-club, complete with its socio-cultural connotations and the relations obtaining between performers and clientele. He makes it a space – or a stage – in or on which another “show” can take place; a show which is less about strippers or the relationship between stripper and audience, and more about the audience and the relationship between its individual members. Just fixes our gaze on the strip-club audience – not their appearance as such – but on their gaze and the inner-lives of these spectators. The act of stripping thus becomes symbolic. In the place of the traditional physical strip-tease - the logic of which leads to a revelation of the naked body - Just’s videos speak of a psychological strip-tease driven by an alternative and far more complex and less predictable alternative logic of revelation; a complexity and unpredictability that, incidentally, also characterise the roles and internal reciprocal relations of those implicated in the show itself. In other words, Just is less interested in any superficial corporeal nudity than he is in a deeper, subcutaneous nakedness of heart and mind. A formless nudity more difficult to define than the kind strip-clubs seek to entertain their audiences with. Rather than providing plain enjoyment of physical beauty, the nudity that interests Just demands empathy and self-recognition on the part of his audience. In this sense, the strip-clubs in the three videos provide not only a concrete physical environment for the situations he depicts, but also an abstract psychological space, which, in turn, serves to create a general tenor, a certain mood or emotional ambience.
Unlike the traditional strip-club audience, the characters in Just’s videos have not sought out the strip-club as a place for the visual gratification of their erotic desires. They are people who, on entering the context of the club, have invested something of themselves and their personal histories. These investments consist in a reaching out; the hopeful invitation to others that also entails a self-exposure and the intimation of doubt and insecurity to the audience and to us, the viewers. The strip-club thus becomes an ambivalent space in which presence and absence, intimacy and estrangement are spontaneously interwoven, and where hope, a sense of security and fascination are followed by sorrow, vulnerability, misunderstanding and insecurity.
The three videos all trade on the notion of the strip-club as a magical space, liberated from the realities of the world outside; a theatre of illusions, a make-believe world in which everything is possible, where dreams can be realised, if only momentarily. The main characters in the videos often seek out the club as this magical free space, characterised by the dreamlike glow created by the songs, music and fairy-tales. They do not, however, wish to buy a pre-packaged, uniform form of fiction. They wish to play out their own private fictions, their unique versions of reality, and by so doing, influence unhappy states of affairs in the world outside through the power of imagination.. That the conflation of fiction and reality can, however, lead to problems, pain and even death seems to be the common experience of the characters depicted in the videos.
Affairs without kisses
No Man is an Island II starts with a view through the camera from the stage as it pans the interior of the club. We see five men spread throughout the room, two of them a couple. They sit stiffly, staring into space. The lighting is suggestive of a still-life, making us believe, for a moment, that they are wax models. Then they begin to move, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes. The camera zooms in on their faces. A young man who breaks out into sentimental song and a pony-tailed man at the bar with sceptical expression and uncertain gaze are particularly noticeable. We instinctively feel that there is a closer bond between these two men, a suspicion that increases when the young man begins to weep as the man at the bar stands, assuming the pose of a Christ, his deep voice providing a resonant background bass tone.
The fact that the younger man begins to weep at this gesture - an action echoing Orbison’s song - suggests to us that he has come to the club to seek a liaison with another man rather than a woman. In this reversal of the strip-club’s role as a club for the entertainment of lonely male hearts and its transformation into a male club of another kind, Just delves below the surface of the strip-club patron in order to characterise him not as a masturbatory egoist, but as someone seeking emotional contact of an asexual and intimate kind with the world around him. With the situation’s oblique references to the chorus of the Greek tragedy, musical performances and kitsch painting, Just provides us with images that refract and refine traditional ideas about male sorrow, sentimentality and social intercourse.
No Man is an Island II also broaches the problem of the generation gap. Of the five men in the club it is the youngest who weeps, and he alone wears a tracksuit rather than a three-piece suit. Does his casual dress indicate an emotional openness that the others do not possess? Is it the younger generation of males alone who are able to show their feelings in the presence of other men? Moreover, is he appealing to the other men in the strip-club to be more expressive of their feelings?
The generation theme is prevalent, too, in The Sweetest Embrace of All. Here, a young man winds his way through a labyrinth of strip-clubs to the accompaniment of dream-like music until he finally reaches a club where a middle-aged man sits alone after closing time, doing the paperwork, surrounded by images of naked women. Or is he writing a letter? Perhaps. His actions remain ambiguous. Is he the young man’s father? Again, perhaps. Nothing is unequivocal. There does, however, seem to be a business relationship of some kind between the two men. On the entry of the younger man, the older man feels prompted to rise from his seat. Clearly affected emotionally by the presence of the young man, he seems suddenly vulnerable and insecure. It is as if the hour of reckoning has arrived. “You shouldn’t have come,” he insists in a broken, trembling voice, to which the young man replies with an admixture of the psychopathic and the affectionate: “I’m leaving now anyway.” The ambiguity of the situation is further stressed when the young man fails to move. Wearing a pair of white cotton gloves that intimate sensitivity but which, at the same and in the context could also suggest the hands of a strangler, the young man approaches the middle-aged man. He then kneels before him, clutching him with a beatific expression on his face. A light illuminates his features, making him reminiscent of a saviour in the House of Sin. The middle-aged man seems clearly uncomfortable in this situation, and after efforts to loosen himself from the young-man’s grip, the situation changes character. The two men roll around on the floor to the tones of a castrato-choirboy and a rhythmic pulse, which we intuitively feel represent the inner-voices of the two men. The mounted camera gives way to a hand-held camera, and there are fleeting glimpses of the images of naked women that may represent the images in the middle-aged man’s mind. The embrace evolves into a chaotic ballet; a duet between the innocent song of the young man and the heart-beat and scream of his older counterpart – between pure love and ailing (mental) health. The dance and duet finish first when the older man lies motionless. The young man looks up, surprised and alarmed at what he has done, and flees from the scene of the crime. Did he intend to kill the older man? Again, we do not know. His love, however, seems to be of the ultimate kind, a punishment and liberation that can only be expressed in something as final as death.
Dance, too, is a central theme in A Fine Romance, the work that lends the exhibition its name. While there is no dance of death in this film, it nevertheless reaches a tragic conclusion. A young woman sits in a cubicle in a strip-club. She is obviously afraid, and in an inner monologue sits memorising passages from the fairy-tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Just like the princesses in the fairy-tale, she has eloped in order to dance her secret dance. This time, however, her prince is no prince in a shining castle. Rather, he is a bloke at a strip-club. As he enters her cubicle and sits beside her, she is overwhelmed with passion. Whimpering and aroused she proceeds to grope his body. In spite of the fact that this is an infringement of club rules, the man lets her continue in silence, without reciprocating. Why? Does he desire her too? Do they know one another? When she finally tries to kiss him, he thrusts her aside, and just as in The Sweetest Embrace of All the situation suddenly changes character. The man stands up in order to free himself of her caresses and begins to dance to the tones of A Fine Romance, a song which, ironically, is about an affair without kisses, or rather, to continue within the metaphorical frame of reference of the strip-club, a song that laments a “look but don’t touch” relationship; a point that seems to be underscored by the spotlight on the woman’s face, particularly on her eyes. She sits contemplating the man like a little girl with her hands in her lap. Her adoring gaze is not, however, reciprocated by the man, who stands bathing narcissistically in the light she reflects. She tries unsuccessfully to hold on to his fleeting caresses, only to lose control over the situation and her desire once more. Her naked feet knock a pair of unused dancing shoes onto the floor, and the images of the man’s body are transformed into abstract fragments and glimpses of light.
When the dance is over, the man looks down condescendingly at the woman, he then draws the curtains to her cubicle, leaving her alone with the impression that the entire spectacle was a mere figment of her imagination. Her loneliness in this situation seems even more tragic than her loneliness in the “dance”.
Thus the video not only dialectically inverts the power struggle in the gaze, but also the power struggle at work in the strip-show. Who has the whip-hand in this situation? The man remains clothed, symptomatically, perhaps, while the woman sits awkwardly with her naked feet among the dance shoes that were never really danced in.
Cinematographic constructs and falling veils
The selection of a strip-club as a setting for these scenes seems to contain a meta-reflexive point. It seems pertinent to compare the ambiguous space of reality and fiction and experience and dream that the strip-club represents with the film media that Just is clearly influenced by, and whose formal language and methods he uses in dramaturgy and narrative as well as for aesthetic purposes. He differs in this respect from the trend in contemporary art that makes use of the video media in a bid to document reality “close up” in ‘amateur’ style, without special technological tools or aestheticising effects, often with the hidden agenda of clearly marking a categorical difference between the video and film media, contemporary art and the film industry. On the contrary, Just consciously plays on the idea of video art as a construct that can verge on the real through the invention of fictions and the picturing of other worlds.
Jesper Just’s integration of the film media into video art is not just present in his pregnant ability to play with convention and reference, but also in his ‘professionalism’. As well as conceiving of his works as collective productions in which he works with trained actors, singers, photographers, composers and sound engineers, as well as functioning as director and editor, he seeks a concentrated formal expression in which nothing seems left to chance. The result is clear when watching his videos. Insignificant as well as striking details, for example the young man’s position in front of the painting in No Man is an Island II, the white gloves and stroboscopic light in The Sweetest Embrace of All, the silver shoes, the woman’s white dress and bare feet in A Fine Romance appear laden with an often (consciously over overt) symbolism so that a visual complexity is created on the visual level that corresponds to the psychological and narrative complexity of his works. At the same time, Just consciously leaves his narratives with open endings, avoiding self-clarification and thus inviting his audience to engage in the act of interpretation. The past and future of the situations he depicts remain unclear. There is no omniscience. In this way, he manages to balance a spatially focussed and temporally protracted (almost timeless) form.
The parallel between the visual and the psychological is characteristic not only of the works that comprise A Fine Romance, but of Just’s work in general. As recent, especially feminist, film theory has pointed out, classical Hollywood productions influence, if not to say control, our collective consciousness, the psychology of the public and the public imagination, and not least, our understanding of power relations, the relations between people and between the sexes. The images and narratives in these mainstream productions represent a standardised capitalist, sexist and racist ideology that helps reproduce existing relations through the use off over simplified, clichéd and stereotyped structures. Through his images and stories of men and women Just cleverly deconstructs the hegemony of this ideology, partly creating a foundation for an alternative understanding of these relations, and partly creating a basis for new types of relation. They show us that men and women are first and foremost human beings with all the similarities and differences this implies, while giving collective consciousness more freedom of place and providing it with fresh challenges. In this sense there is a (gender)political perspective to Just’s works, in which image and narrative, indeed in which fiction is the starting point, not just for critical reflection, but also for personal interpretation and attitude.
Once again, the strip-club provides us with an adequate metaphor. Instead of obscuring the relation between the sexes behind an illusory veil, Just’s films let the veil fall, revealing them in the nakedness and the complexity they entail, making them into the condition for a more varied and sensitive self understanding and understanding of human relationships in general.
1. The three videos are not a trilogy as such, nor do they comprise a single narrative. Much like Just’s other works, however, the three films are closely related thematically. They are also related in terms of their common setting.
2. All three videos contain references, direct and indirect, to specific film scenes, such as Cabaret by Bob Lafosse(1972), La Samurai by Jean-Pierre Melville and Romance X by Catherine Breillat (1999). In addition to this, directors like Wong Kai Wai, David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock and Elia Kazan provide clear sources of inspiration with their depictions of love and masculinity.
3. Other contemporary artists such as Pierre Huyghe, Stan Douglas and Douglas Gordon work with direct inspiration from film, using existing films as “ready mades”. Just’s interest in film is similar to Huyghe’s and Gordon’s , but thematically and aesthetically resembles more the work of Matthew Barney, Cindy Sherman and Eija-Liisa Ahtila.
4. This is the potential of the situation - of the short narrative – and the reason that Just has no intention of casting himself into the film genre, which to a greater extent depends on the closure of the narrative.