Soon after the announcement that he would represent Denmark in the 2013 Venice Biennale, Jesper Just mounted three video installations at his new gallery in New York. Compressed narratives, each occurring in a specific locale dense with history, unfold at the artist’s typically hypnotic pace. Empty of all but a few protagonists, the sites feel haunted, and the action is rife with an unnameable and carefully choreographed fear. Props and costumes function like characters, and light (and often music) takes on a key role in activating the charged atmosphere of these wordless scenarios.
The earliest of the three, Sirens of Chrome (2010, approx. 12½ minutes) was shot in Detroit. Driving through the unpopulated streets of downtown on a brilliantly sunlit day is a black sedan with one purple door, a poor man’s repair. Inside are four young black women, silent and expressionless. Their journey lands them in the famous ruins of the once ornate Michigan Theater, now a parking garage, the subject of endless photos by amateurs and artists (among them Stan Douglas). Here we see the structure mainly as a mirage in the rippling reflections of the car’s black finish. The light grows dark and moody; the girls’ dark skin melts into the shadows of the car’s interior, and their eyes glimmer. Suddenly, a fifth girl appears in front of the car and falls upon it, rolling over it slowly as if struck. Inside, the girls at first seem anxious, but after a time one of them smiles ever so slightly. Murder? Suicide? Accident? If any of these, the deed is bloodless and untraceable. Or are we witnessing a metaphor for the slowly unfolding disaster that is Detroit?
Melodrama is “the obverse side of farce,” wrote Steven Sondheim (Just’s “victim” a twist on the auto show’s girl on a car). In the monumental dual-screen projection This Nameless Spectacle (2011, 13 minutes), we get a close-up early on of the high heels worn by the actress Marie-France Garcia (incidentally, and not at all evidently, a transsexual) as she travels, impeccably dressed, in a wheelchair through Buttes Chaumont park in Paris. We must look first one way and then the other, for the projections-of a single narrative with different views-are occurring on opposite walls. Sunlight flickers through leaves; we glimpse Gothic-style follies. Toward the end of her somber constitutional, a young man appears; he seems to be following her through blocks of high, impersonal skyscrapers. Now nervous, she enters one, going to her apartment, where she stands up with ease and walks to the door to lock it. Why the wheelchair, then? She looks out the window and is struck by a bright light shining from a window high in an opposite building, wielded by the same man, who gazes toward her intently. She falls to the floor in a seizure that looks suspiciously orgasmic-a slow fall into pain and pleasure. Again, in this Rear Window-like scenario, we are unsure if a crime has been committed.
More impressionistic, with less narrative momentum, is the latest video of the three, Llano (2012, approx. 7 minutes). Having read an account of a utopian community that was founded in the desert outside of L.A. in 1914 but failed due to outsiders’ hostility and a lack of water, Just filmed the ruins in a miraculous rain shower (artificially orchestrated on a sunny day). There a single, fat woman, drenched but dogged, attempts to rebuild a structure, stone by stone. In contrast to the other films, which use music suggestively, Llano offers only nature sounds, rain and wind. Moving underground, we see the massive works that pump water to the city, but the connection to the rain is unclear, far out of scale to the delicate shower, which falls only on the ruin, and the woman. Just revels in such paradox, and from it continues to create these little gems, which say so much in such a short time, with not a sentence spoken.
Photo: Two stills from Jesper Just’s This Nameless Spectacle, 2011, two-channel Blu-ray projection, 13 minutes; at James Cohan.