BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 01 JAN 98
Featured in
Issue 38

Johan Grimonprez

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 01 JAN 98

In his film Dial H.I.S.T.O.R.Y. (1997) Johan Grimonprez focuses on the imbalance of power between the way artists understand themselves to be 'radical' and the way terrorists apprehend the same word. Artists consistently fail to be 'dangerous' in the sense that terrorists are. Compared to the bomb-makers of this world, artists - and writers too - are powerless he admonishes. There are, of course, some distant historical exceptions, like David's uncivil participation in the Reign of Terror, but by and large, Grimonprez is correct in his estimation. His is an educational filmstrip for an artist's conscience, and in this way he makes artists the only real audience for Dial H.I.S.T.O.R.Y.. The film leaves you with the idea that artists really should try to be more dangerous, or just more effective, or more real in the way that the bomb can be as real as the death it creates. In the face of it all, you wonder shouldn't artists continue to aspire to power? And how?

The way Grimonprez does all this is to index the historical markers floated by terrorism since November 1969 when the first jet was hijacked. He colours it captivating (in the best sense of the word), and has been especially careful to allow the terrorists to appear as glamorous-looking and fashionable as some of them have been. There are no demanding, hooded bandits in his film, but instead rather sexy, reasoning creatures like Raffaele Minichiello or Mouna Abdel-Majid. Neither have the victims been overlooked in the allure-quotient. There is a passage in which a toothy school-kid, freshly rescued from hijacking, describes his captors as 'nice', and tells us he wouldn't mind participating in another hijacking, although he might end up missing too much school. Beyond cute. And then there are the visual spectacles, those by-products terrorism cannot help but produce. Dazzling is the apocalyptic splendour of 'Revolution Airstrip' when two of three hijacked aeroplanes are detonated at the airport in Zerka, Jordan for an image-hungry press. Blowing to bits $25 million dollars worth (in 70s' money) of passenger jets looks like the special effects climax of a 1997 action movie; it was only different because of course it was all real.

Reminding oneself of art's relationship to the reality-factor means one can't watch Grimonprez blurring death into glamour-action for too many minutes without realising how hopeless and helpless art has become in the task of guiding civilisation toward vital decisions. On top of this, Grimonprez also asks that you begin to decide how the evil shall be judged. You may even hear your conscience whispering something comparable to the thoughts of David Gelernter, the brilliant Yale computer science professor and Unabomber victim, who wrote in his recent book Drawing Life (1997): 'A society too squeamish to call evil by its right name has destroyed its first, best line of defence against cut-throats. Our best line of defence against crime is to hate it'. Grimonprez' film smudges that line but I believe with good reason. Gelernter's hand, so horribly mangled by the explosion that he keeps it hidden from view, urges us to recall that Theodor Adorno once wondered, as Grimonprez does today, if such passages of engorged brutality render art meaningless. Ardorno's very question, and Grimonprez' film, constitute a vote of no confidence in art's ability to do more that gesture in the face of a moral impasse.

Paul Goldberger's piece in the New Yorker on Frank Gehry's Bilbao museum made an important claim: 'The politics of the Guggenheim Bilbao', Goldberger writes, 'are evident in a single word, "MUSEOA", that is plastered onto the building's facade in enormous letters'. Goldberger's point is that, 'museoa' is not Spanish but means 'museum' in the language of the Basques. We take from the Goldberger essay that a collision between art and politics was inevitable in Bilbao. As a part of the Bilbao Pageantry Jeff Koons' well known Puppy (1992), the floral sculpture that made its magnificent debut in Kassel a few years ago, was to be erected and brought to life with local flowers. Languidly watching workmen hang pots of flowers over the gigantic pup, the police ran a casual check on the license plate of the truck which had been used to deliver the flowers. The truck and plate did not belong together and that's how the terrorists were found out. When the police began nosing around they discovered that the 'gardeners' were arming the adorable puppy with flower pots containing remote-controlled grenades. After the shoot out, in which one policeman was killed, the florist-bombers, members of the Basque group ETA, escaped. Several have since been arrested.

Grimonprez' sensible indictment of art's failure to produce a meaningful impact in Modern culture comparable to terrorism was magnified by the power of ten when Jeff Koons' cute enough to die for puppy was nearly turned from a blind communicating vessel into something to kill for. Terrorists have again shown their brilliance, hijacking art precisely because no one would ever suspect it of anything. George Bernard Shaw once said that 'Next to torture, art persuades most'. He was wrong.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.