By inviting individual artists to represent their native countries, the Venice Biennale presents a curious challenge to contemporary artists. How does an artist who exhibits and makes work in a globalized world adequately represent one relatively small nation? For Danish-born, New York-based Jesper Just, the answer lay in the challenge imposed by the Biennale. "I was very delighted to represent Denmark, but the idea of representing a country is a very strange concept," said Just, speaking to A.i.A. from the Danish Pavilion in Venice, "so I tried to think about how to put that in play."
Just's piece, titled Intercourses, is partially comprised of a 5-channel black-and-white video projection. But the piece begins before visitors encounter the films. "Before you get there, you have to find your way to the entrance of the building," says Just. Using aerated concrete blocks, the artist has built a temporary new facade that wraps around the building, obfuscating the original entrance. "I used the architecture of the pavilion as a starting point for my ideas for the work," says Just. "The Danish Pavilion is kind of a funny mismatch of two Danish architectural [motifs]. The original building is neo-classical. In the 1960s they added on an annex, this weird Modernist attachment that comes off the side of the structure. So it's a funny constellation. "
Just began analyzing contemporary development sites that have been built to mimic the architecture of established cities in foreign countries. "I first looked at Palm Springs in Hong Kong," says Just, referring to a residential development built to mirror the American original 7,329 miles away. "Then I started looking at other, more iconic places. The most iconic place I found was a replica city of Paris two hours outside of Shanghai."
Just shot each of the five 10-minute-long films that comprise Intercourses on location in Tianducheng, a gated community in China modeled on Paris, complete with a replica Eiffel Tower.
Rather than focus on the culture of Tianducheng, Just chose to capture the larger, more nebulous concept of a development built from the idealization of a foreign city. "I wasn't so interested in an anthropological study," says Just. "My whole idea was to shoot in this place as if it were Paris. Of course you can see Chinese text [on signs] here and there, but it's not something I focus on. It's an additional layer that adds to a kind of uncanny Paris. A Paris you can't really place." To match this ambiguity, Just adopted a filmic style redolent of another time period. "It's filmed in black and white, in a French New Wave style, almost like Truffaut," he explained, "and the French actors I worked with are all of African descent. But it's clear in the films that they are French—at one point they sing a French song. That adds a layer on." Bamboo plants and purple grow lights within the installation's interior add to the sense of displacement.
Developers broke ground on Tianducheng in the mid-2000s, but it is still under construction. Some of the images from the films look as though they are from a future when Paris is in ruins. "The interesting thing is that the people living there don't live there because of French culture," says Just. "They very quickly have changed many of the Parisian qualities of the place—they put their own security gates over these very iconic French gates. They don't need these weird balconies, so they take off things and add things they need, to personalize it—it's turned into a real city very fast. But it's a place that's made of really cheap materials. It's kind of a ruin in progress."
The five films are projected on a synced loop in separate rooms of the pavilion. Complementing the artist's intensely speculative notions of place, and celebrating a Danish tradition dating back to at least the 15th century, the last film addresses a very specific Danish architectural vengeance, directed toward cheap, duplicitous developers. The film's soundtrack—which echoes through the entire exhibition—features the sounds of bottles clinking. It creates an auditory intimation of the work's inspiration.
"In the last film, I depicted this boulevard as if it were just a giant wind instrument being played, creating an organ," explained Just. "This idea came from an old Danish bricklayer tradition. [Traditionally], if workers were treated poorly by a developer, they would take revenge by building a glass bottle into the wall, somewhere high up. The opening of the bottle would be exposed, and once the wind would hit the building, the bottle would start to howl." This practice is called the "dead bricklayer," and despite a rapidly changing world, it remains a Danish tradition. "They still do it, but now they would get sued if you left the bottle in the wall," said Just. "Today they just hang the bottles from the roof, so everyone can see that the guy behind this building is really an asshole. It's still used as a symbol."