Simon Leung

Simon Leung discusses War After War

Simon Leung, War After War, 2011, single-channel video,  color, sound, 90 minutes.

Artist Simon Leung here speaks about War After War, 2011, his video portrait of writer and translator Warren Niesłuchowski. The ninety-minute video unravels Niesłuchowski as a perpetual guest, a nomad without a home, while exploring notions of hospitality, mortality, vulnerability, and resistance. Leung has been filming Niesłuchowski for decades; an earlier companion piece, Warren Piece, 1993, focused on his desertion from the US Army and his life as an exile. For another, Artist in Residence, 2011, Leung procured an artist residency for Niesłuchowski. War After War is currently featured in “Routine Pleasures,” which is curated by Michael Ned Holte and on view at MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Schindler House in LA from May 25 through August 14, 2016.

WAR AFTER WAR follows the rhythm of Warren’s life, of continually moving and looking for a place to rest; at one point in the film he compares himself to a migratory bird. I think about my work with him as a set of ethical propositions—how to be with the other, and how to come closer to someone while they remain essentially a stranger. It was not until I finished the film that I realized I had made it for him. I typically make works directed toward one person, or a few people. This is not so much in the sense of an ideal viewer, but in that the work is directed toward specific people so they will receive it in a deeply felt way. In other words, if you know Warren, you might understand this work differently from those who don’t.

I decided to focus on the general idea of Warren moving toward a bed. In a way, Warren poses an ethical challenge; we’re confronted not just with a person in need of a bed but with somebody who asks, “Who are you in relationship to the other?” There’s a passage in the film where he talks about the etymological reversibility of the words host and guest. In Derrida’s writing about hospitality, he proposes that the guest is the host for the host. Hospitality is an interruption of the self, and at the same time, true hospitality must ask nothing in return, except for that interruption. That’s a lot of work, and not just for Warren but for the other people as well. This is the undertone of the piece: Warren comes to you and you must ask yourself, What is my limit? That assumption of being able to give, of being a host, presupposes having something to give, having some version of home. But that’s not something one can take for granted—how far is anyone from Warren, from “war”? This is the ethical question we must always ask ourselves, but not just as individuals. I conceived this work with the thought that Kant’s essay “Perpetual Peace,” which is a foundational text for international law, would serve as a script. The “third definitive article” of it is recited several times over the course of the film—it’s about the obligation of nations to welcome the stranger.

One of the things Warren and I talk about is askesis, which means discipline, a way of training, but also a care of the self. Warren is always in training; he’s always getting ready because he is always moving. I’m trying to reflect back to him the rigor of his life—the particular care he takes in leading his life—and to think with him the way that his life is also work. In a way, Warren asks us to think about what work is. It takes a lot of work to be Warren; it requires constant care and constant negotiations. Warren studied with Jerzy Grotowski, so he learned the exercises that are shown in the film when he was a young person involved in theater. The exercises for me signify not only a way of getting ready or of training, but an attitude of thrownness—giving up resistance.

Excerpts from an interview with Simon Leung

When I met Warren in 1992 I was an artist-in-residence at PS1, and he had a steady job and an apartment. Back then I focused on his life as a deserter from the US Army. A decade later I discovered that he had lost both his job and a place to live, and was perpetually in need of being taken in. It was as if one war story displaced another. Warren was in fact born in, and spent the first few years of his life in, a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II—it was as if he atavistically returned to the state of being a refugee.

The art world is an apparatus that allows Warren to seem like a refugee from the 1960s. It accepts him on terms that a more conventional milieu would not. He’s able to lead a life that looks a bit like bare life, on the edges of the art world, but it isn’t really, since the art world is a particular kind of stage. In order for him to find people who would put him up, for example, he needs the art world as a receiver for the type of signal that he sends. Some people ascribe a sort of spiritual dimension to the way Warren lives. Perhaps they understand guest plus host equals ghost.

Some of the piece was shot in a two-story freestanding library. The first floor is filled with books; the second floor is a work area with desks, a couch, and a lot of space. Between the two floors there are old boards with holes in them which the architect had filled in with resin, so that when you are upstairs at night and the lights are on downstairs, it’s as if the room is illuminated by stars, celestial points of light from below. I knew that’s where I wanted to shoot because at the beginning of “Perpetual Peace” there is a description of a cemetery. So these points of light were for me both the reversal of sky and earth and the illuminated speech of the dead. I told Warren he can think of this freestanding library in the countryside as a version of his brain, as a place of rest, and as a slower idealized view of himself—an image of what he doesn’t have time for in his continual movement.