“You’re just an idiot looking for adventure”, says a Chechen soldier of Renzo Martens in the Dutch artist’s discomfiting 45-minute film Episode 1 (2003). That’s one take on the chameleonic character he plays, ostensibly an artist making a documentary in war-torn Chechnya to impress a girl back home. He’ll film hospitalised amputees, unable to say why. He’ll quiz an infatuated girl flirtatiously about love – because, he cruelly concludes, he wants to understand ‘Marie’, of whom she reminds him. He’ll tell impoverished locals that he’s not going to help them, and, seemingly narcissistically, asks them, “What do you think of me?” (“Handsome” is the bewildered answer he films.)
But Martens is no artworld Ali G: ‘Renzo Martens’ isn’t stable enough for caricature. Among aid workers and photojournalists, he’ll make unexpectedly scything analyses of the incentives underlying humanitarian aid, noting the interdependence of media coverage and NGO assistance. His seemingly egoistic moves can be recouped, too. “If these people desperately want to be seen, because their life depends upon it, it’s utterly useless to ask them how they feel”, Martens notes in conversation. “The real question is how we, the audiences, feel. That will decide who gets aid and who will be bombed. So I try to infiltrate, and adopt, on the spot, the most important role in contemporary war: that of its audiences.”
In the feature-length Episode III (2008) – the second part, “the middle of a pictorial triptych of which one and three are the outer panels”, is in production – Martens traverses the ruined Congo, mainly (so the unstable characterisation suggests) as an ‘activist’ artist. Interviewing photographers and plantation owners, strolling along singing Neil Young songs, his character remains intermittently cringe-making, but his extreme actions skirt justifiability: lecturing locals assertively on ideas of “poverty as commodity”, he encourages them to sell their own photographs of starvation and death, not let Western photojournalists profit from their humanitarian disaster. He mounts a neon sign in an impecunious village – reading, in exclusionary English, ‘Enjoy Poverty’ – arguing that the locals’ only hope is to embrace their misfortune.
The tone swings wildly: Martens can play realist and pampered nincompoop within a sentence’s breath. Most salient, though, is that in the confusion, the heartbreaking scenes he films – of malnourished children and war dead – stun the unbalanced and newly alert viewer, who’s divested of compassion fatigue. And what matters too is that Martens – inspired by religious faith, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and Foucault’s analyses of power – never pleads for art. “If the film tries to show anything”, he says, “it is that it is implicated: that this industry, the one that artistically shows people suffering, is yet another export product from which the poor do not benefit”. That Chechen guard couldn’t have been more wrong.
This article was first published in the March 2009 issue.