Opening today at the SVA Chelsea Gallery, It’s a Poor Sort of Memory That Only Works Backwards is a solo exhibition of four films by Johan Grimonprez. To accompany the beginning of this exhibition, today we bring you an interview with the artist from 2011, when he memorably said, “… every kiss is a political act.” This article was originally published on March 23, 2011.
Johan Grimonprez. Double Take, 2009; installation view at Sean Kelley Gallery, 2009.
Johan Grimonprez’s film Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is listed in the IMDB under “documentary,” which is like calling a triple-shot hazelnut soy latte a cup of coffee. Yes, there is archived footage of actual plane hijackings, but there is also a deer on a bed, buildings collapsing, and a voiceover that explains, “All plots tend to move deathward.” His film Double Take (inspired by a Borges short story) is about echoes and mirroring, originals and copies: Alfred Hitchcock and his body doubles, the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War. Neither film “makes sense” in a linear, straightforward way, but they evoke another kind of comprehension: an understanding more emotional and intuitive than coldly logical. I talked with Grimonprez recently about these projects.
Bean Gilsdorf: Let’s start with an easy question: What is history?
Johan Grimonprez: The first thing I would answer with is history in the plural, histories. Very often power gets condensed in how history is being written. Walter Benjamin said, “History is written by the victors,” yeah? It’s how a nation legitimizes itself, a way of holding people together. Political structures condense themselves, and power is a big part of that. So like in Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y when Leila Khaled hijacks a plane, she sort of rewrites herself back into history, into the history of Israel and what’s been told about the Palestinians. And since she doesn’t have a country, she renames the plane “Independent State of Palestine,” and this is, in a sense, rewriting history. So history is not a history, but it’s many histories. Of course, we all have our own histories, and it’s where histories intersect that we get into politics.
BG: How did you decide on the subjects and themes that are in Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y and in Double Take, as histories that you wanted to share?
JG: Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y started as research in how we say goodbye. If you take a plane there’s this whole architecture of paranoia…we’re all reduced to terrorists and criminals. For me the research was in how saying goodbye has been affected by the culture of fear, to analyze where that comes from, how our most intimate things are contextualized by fear. And in the ’60s you had interviews with individuals like Leila Khaled or Rima Tannous Eissa, but by the mid-’70s they have totally disappeared from the screen. For Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y I went back in time, because I had a feeling that the individual was there. I wanted to go back to see the information that was there about the individual, and look at other histories.
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