Roy Villevoye

Starting out as an abstract painter interested in the cultural and political connotations of colors, Roy Villevoye began working with photography, installation, and video in the mid-’90s, often making works based on his stays in the Asmat region of New Guinea. Villevoye confronted his position as (potentially) neo-colonial outsider by taking frontal photographs of Papuans holding sheets of paper in magenta, cyan blue, and yellow—the primary colors used in printing. In fact, Villevoye often turns his photographs into monumental four-color prints, consisting of countless dots of magenta, cyan, yellow, and black—a kind of industrial pointillism. The prints on view at De Hallen were actual photographs, however, and of a comparatively modest size, but with a grainy quality that once again emphasized the image’s surface.

Although some date back to 1994, the pictures selected for the show reflect Villevoye’s current way of working: He has more or less stopped staging photographs with imported elements (like the sheets of colored paper) but has kept a keen eye for elements that sabotage the Western will to see exotic purity. The cross-cultural vicissitudes of the T-shirt are a recurring motif; The Fifth Man, 2003, a low-resolution digital picture taken with a video camera, shows four Papuans, three of them wearing Osama bin Laden shirts, staring into the camera, as does the artist himself, also wearing a bin Laden shirt. Is this the Papuan branch of Al Qaeda? There is no explanation in the show; Villevoye, who is not unwilling to elucidate the background in interviews (the men hardly know anything about the figure depicted on the T-shirts, which they got from some Indonesians), shuns explanatory captions and didactic texts. His images are compelling in part because they are in a sense incomplete, because they have no substantial textual supplements.

The photo Propeller in Jungle, 1995, shows the remains of an airplane propeller surrounded by Papuans. The origin of this object is explored in Propeller, 2004, a video shown on alternate days in a separate room: It turns out that the propeller belongs to a crashed World War II fighter. At one point in the video, a Papuan called Kornelis Eminé gives a highly mythologized version of the event, full of fairytale elements and ending with the words, “Actually, we don’t tell this story.” An American priest wonders if this legend was told to cover up an act of cannibalism, which would not have been unthinkable in the ’40s. In fact, the pilot survived the incident, and Villevoye tracked him down. If Propeller contrasts Papuan storytelling with a search for historical truth, the second film shown in this exhibition has a very different structure. The New Forest, 2004, made with Jan Dietvorst, contains some of the same material: Eminé again tells his story, but it is one of a number of monologues and interviews with no clear progression. Papuans tell about bewitched objects and angry forefathers or practice emotional black- mail to extract money from the artist; a cheerfully lost Korean traveler speaks unintelligible English; an American muses on Papua while looking like Brando in Apocalypse Now. None of these characters occupy a privileged position, and there is no voice-over narrator to supply an authoritative viewpoint. Resolutely averse to romanticizing Papuans or sugar-coating their own position, Villevoye and Dietvorst destroy the lingering illusion of New Guinea as an intact bit of prehistory. Instead they offer a glimpse of what may be the posthistorical future: a global village of rumor, myth, and misunderstanding against the background of a comatose economy.

Sven Lütticken