‘It’s the thing that most often provokes relations.’ This is what one of the most famous philosophers of the 20th century had to say about the role of celebrity in his sex life, to the French journalist and feminist Catherine Chaîne. The comment was made during a 1977 interview for the French paper Le Nouvel Observateur, which focused on the famous thinker’s relationships with women. In Gerard Byrne’s video ‘Homme à femmes (Michel Debrane)’, 2004, the conversation is replayed by actors in the setting of a typical Parisian apartment. There’s a familiarity to the way the topic of women is handled that hints at the identity of the main player, without his name ever being divulged. One can’t help but guess that this man, who avows his own exceptional ugliness, his romantic promiscuity and—the clincher—a lifelong relationship with Simone De Beauvoir, is indeed Jean-Paul Sartre.
Byrne has an impressive knack for identifying conversations that in some way speak of an era. ‘Homme à femmes (Michel Debrane)’ deals with the intimate life and personal struggles of an important intellectual, and is part of an ongoing project in which Byrne restages historical conversations that address cultural and personal mores. Sartre’s philosophy on love and women paints him as a ‘liberal macho’, a man who wants ‘at a certain point, for the woman to owe everything she is to me’. The viewer is drawn into the dialogue through a voyeuristic curiosity and the energy of Michel Debrane’s performance as Sartre makes what is in fact a fairly static film utterly fascinating.
‘Homme à femmes (Michel Debrane)’ is partnered with works by Marc Bijl and Valérie Jouve in this heterogeneous show of videos and photographs. There is little to link the work of the three artists. Dutch artist Marc Bijl presents a series of five videos dating from 2001 to 2004, all redolent of his particular brand of civil disobedience. But with none of his usual punk-aesthetic interventions, the videos lack the sharpness that otherwise makes his work appealing. ‘The Hitmen’, 2004, follows two men cruising a city, shooting tomato sauce pellets at urban structures as they go. ‘Good Things’, 2003, is a music video composed of shots of the graffitied lyrics of a song by Sisters of Mercy, covered here by the Dutch band Götterdammerung. Bijl’s video is part of a long tradition of music videos that visualise lyrics, starting with DA Pennebaker’s video for Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, 1965, but it lacks affect. There’s a fine line between replicating subversive acts to undermine them and limply undermining one’s own subversion, and, with these videos, Bijl errs on the side of the stoner/slacker aesthetic without making any of the powerful and disturbing points that some of his more radical interventions have succeeded in driving home in the past.
Valérie Jouve’s ‘Time is Working Around Rotterdam, 2006 was commissioned by the Dutch high-speed trains society to mark the construction of the new Rotterdam-Amsterdam line. The work feels like a commission, with roving views of the city taken from vantage points along the new train line. The shots are taken from different modes of transportation on land, sea and in the air, and are set to a gradually building electro score. The city appears as a multi-layered industrial landscape, but the film struggles to get beyond a purely formalist vision of Rotterdam.
Ellen Mara De Wachter is a writer and curator