PRINT January 1999


Johan van der Keuken has been rediscovered at least once every decade since the first appearance of his work in the ’50s. In 1955—he was seventeen at the time—a precocious book of photo portraits (entitled, appropriately enough, We Are 17) earned him considerable attention in his native Holland; a two-year scholarship to the prestigious IDHEC film school in Paris followed. In 1965-66, a major exhibition of his photographs made its way to various Dutch museums, and in 1975 the Cinémathèque Québécoise in Montreal granted van der Keuken his first film retrospective outside the Netherlands. His photographs returned to the fore in 1980 with a survey at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and in 1987 a photo retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris was coupled with a full-scale film survey at the Cinémathèque Française.

And yet, as van der Keuken himself points out, for all the recurring bursts of recognition (accompanied by an increasing number of awards since the mid-’80s), there has always been something “troubling” about his work, which has undoubtedly contributed to the inconstancy of his celebrity outside a limited circle of initiates. The brooding, existentialist portraits of his classmates in We Are 17 clashed so much with Holland’s postwar optimism that a counter-album, We Are Also 17, soon appeared. His early experimental films, like Paris à l’aube (Paris at dawn) (1957–60), a ten-minute sequence of long, static views of the city shot every morning at 4 A.M., were dismissed as “photographic,” while those of the ’70s, notably North-South Triptych (1972–74), were marginalized because of their radical politics (not to mention their experimental form). Increasingly complex works in recent years continue to defy received notions of film versus photography, documentary versus fiction, and public versus private art: Amsterdam Global Village (1996), for example, is a look at the postcolonial metropolis as a post-McLuhan mosaic. It begins with a colorful St. Nicholas festival on Amsterdam’s canals, and circles village and globe for more than four hours before culminating in a poly-sexual fantasy filmed behind an august facade overlooking the same canals.

At sixty, van der Keuken certainly has a wider following than he did at seventeen or even at fifty. Amsterdam Global Village (its length notwithstanding) was released commercially in France in 1997, and in the fall of 1998 van der Keuken was the guest of honor at the Mois de la Photo, Paris’s biennial photography festival. The constellation of multimedia installations, photo exhibits, and film screenings that he presented on that occasion, under the collective title “Body and City,” was as “troubling” as ever. The core component, oddly enough “decentralized” to Le Fresnoy art school in Tourcoing, was entitled The Central Body, a 27-foot-high semitransparent structure (sculpture? billboard? movie screen?) on which (and from which) are projected slides and film clips—a sort of audiovisual enactment of the global village: Sniper fire from Sarajevo can be heard behind burned-out buildings on New York’s Lower East Side; skaters on Amsterdam’s frozen canals are just a blink away from the sex shops in the red light district. Van der Keuken recalled with satisfaction that in Amsterdam, where the piece was originally installed, visitors to the space could not only roam among the images and sounds, but sip coffee and read newspapers on the structure’s tablelike base.

On a smaller scale, the satellite installations of “Body and City,” which were presented in four separate venues in Paris, combined photo friezes, wall collages, and photograms with films and tape loops to evoke, among other things, street life (or death) in Amsterdam, La Paz, New York, and Sarajevo. Like The Central Body, these mini-environments combining still and moving images were intended—as the title “Body and City” also implies—to draw visitors into and out of the exhibition space, to transform spectators into active participants, and, ultimately, to recall the violence and chaos of “what’s happening on the street.”

On the smallest scale of all, van der Keuken created a special installation for the presentation of his most recent film, Last Words—My Sister Yoka (1935-1997) (1998). Based on conversations he and his wife had with his older sister, a psychoanalyst, the week before she died of cancer, this intimate portrait that is also a self-portrait (or, as van der Keuken calls it, his sister’s “last project”) was presented in a tiny alcove set up in the vast Maison Européenne de la Photographie: a handful of chairs, a TV-sized monitor, a table lamp, a bouquet of flowers—and three framed photographs of Yoka from We Are 17.

From the microcosm of Last Words to the macrocosm of The Central Body, “Body and City” was less a retrospective than what van der Keuken terms a whole new phase in his work. His images, he maintains, have a life of their own, which allows them to “travel” from one of his films to another—to be taken out of their original context, decomposed, and recomposed, like a jazz improvisation (indeed, in a series of ’80s “film-concerts” with composer Willem Breuker and his jazz orchestra, the musicians improvised around and over excerpts from his films). In “Body and City,” van der Keuken juxtaposed photographs and films to probe their physical and metaphysical relations. Between stasis and motion, he explained, “there is the hypothetical moment where the thing takes off . . . like the moment between life and death. Or, as I said in Filmmaker’s Holiday [1974], the transition between death and life. You can’t see it—it has to be created.” And indeed, with Last Words, the candor of brother and sister in their exchange of family recollections and philosophical reflections is such that the “transition” is achieved: fifty minutes of immortality.

The search for this point “where the movement starts,” the creative passage from death to life, has taken van der Keuken through seven albums and books of photographs, fifty-three hybrid nonfiction, nondocumentary films, and a sizable corpus of critical essays (including a regular column, “From the World of a Small Entrepreneur,” for the Dutch film magazine Skrien) in which he pursues his dual preoccupations with artistic form and social content. The material possibilities have clearly expanded over the years, from the “poor” films of the ’60s and his shoestring travels outside Europe in the early ’70s to the literally global venture of Amsterdam Global Village, with its excursions to Bolivia, Thailand, and Chechnya—to say nothing of “Body and City,” which was produced (“like a film”) with funding from the Dutch government and major Dutch cultural organizations.

What has not changed is van der Keuken’s no-frills, artisanal method. His two years of film school (largely spent taking photographs in the streets of Paris, on the model of William Klein’s New York) made it clear that the industry approach was not for him. “I had to find my own way into the cinema, not the one with a big production line and a division of labor, but something that came much more from my body. I fell back on my experience as a photographer, and came to see that I had to work alone or with other people who were very close to me.” To date, van der Keuken has shot all but four of his films himself (he interviews while he shoots—in his equally fluent Dutch, English, or French), and he has edited or co-edited all of them. He generally works in tandem with his wife, Noshka van der Lely, who records the sound; their mini-crew sometimes expands to three when they take on a local contact person who speaks the language, or even four “in situations that might be risky, when we need someone else, like our producer, for example, who’s very big.”

A recent documentary on van der Keuken’s work, Living with Your Eyes (dir. Ramón Gieling, 1997), follows the crew of two as they film To Sang Photo Studio (1997) a thirty-four-minute day-in-the-life of a Chinese portrait photographer in Amsterdam: Like seasoned dancing partners, the cameraman and soundwoman glide in and around their subjects, together and apart, communicating and coordinating without words. “We feel like amateurs,” comments van der Lely in the documentary, “but if the crew is too big, it imposes a distance. We’d rather stick with the two of us, like a single body.”

This physical and psychological proximity lies at the heart of van der Keuken’s style. He is everywhere in his work—looking, talking, filming, and taking us to places we do not necessarily belong or wish to be. His very presence in the films reminds us that the “reality” we see is in fact a visual jazzman’s improvisation, an approach that hides neither the medium’s implicit artifice nor life’s, an approach that, in taking the risk of “troubling” us, brings us much closer to that elusive transition “between death and life”—the point where the movement begins.

Miriam Rosen is a writer based in Paris.