Renzo Martens

Renzo Martens proposes to a group of Congolese photographers that they should take pictures of war corpses, raped women, and malnourished children—just as Western journalists do. Martens’s provocative position is that poverty is Africa’s most important export product, and the poor should learn how to profit from it. ENJOY POVERTY PLEASE, reads the bright neon sign Martens shamelessly brings in to the remotest villages; it also serves as the title of the ninety-minute video he shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Spotlighted as the opening film of the twenty-first International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) alongside its exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, Episode III—Enjoy Poverty, 2008, created a controversy that completely surpassed the one surrounding Episode I, 2003, the artist’s only other film. (Episode II is in progress.) Both pieces comment, by means of strategic inversion, on the ways in which Western media depict the non-Western world. In Episode I, shot illegally in refugee camps in Chechnya, Martens did not focus on people in need, but asked them what they thought about him while turning the camera on himself. Sans gêne, he even wove his own sentimental saga into it. It was during his travels in Chechnya for the cause of “reverse ethnography,” as the artist recently chose to name it, that he came up with the idea of teaching people to “fair-trade poverty,” or—conversely—to enjoy it.

Other inspirational sources have been, quite obviously, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), but also Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay A Modest Proposal (1729), whose narrator suggests that the impoverished Irish eat their own children or sell them, fattened up, to British aristocrats. In his own approach, however, Martens is far from consistent. He may act the role of journalist, asking critical questions at a World Bank conference, an art gallery, a local hospital where European NGOs are active, or a plantation; or he takes on the guise of a modern missionary or development-aid worker telling the Congolese how to empower themselves. But in either case, he always operates alone, like a dilettante, an amateur.

Martens thus offers a cunning role-play, performed continuously and smack in front of the lens—often to irritating effect. The deliberate narcissism he exudes amid the most cruel and even dangerous situations (starving children, guerrillas) is meant to symbolize Western attitudes toward the third world. But in this symbolic act, Martens fails. He is no everyman; at times, he even suggests something like the opposite—for example, in a totally anomalous and theatricalized scene, sunbeams stream down on the artist’s face and he withdraws from the black porters carrying the heavy cases containing his neon sign through the jungle. Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid” whines in the background as the camera pans from the artist to the swamps of the Congo River. Suddenly, Martens seems to find everything, including himself, perfectly in place in this primitive and bewildered world. He reveals himself as a “romantic on the side,” as Chinua Achebe once called Conrad. Indicting Conrad for racism, Achebe meant this as an accusation. As for Martens, the romantic is probably just another character in his one-man theater of cynicism.

Saskia van der Kroef