Interview between Roxana Marcoci and Jan De Cock (October 12, 2007)
Roxana Marcoci: To start, let's discuss the role cinema plays in your practice. Watching you at work, I see that you often photograph an object serially or from different angles in a filmic manner. You also employ a number of assistants and an adjunct photographer, known as the "cameraman" or "camera operator." Can you elaborate on the concepts of motion and duration in your photographic works?
Jan De Cock: Duration factors significantly in my work. Gilles Deleuze and Henri Bergson were thinkers interested in principles of time and movement in the cinematic image. In his Bergsonian philosophy of cinema, Deleuze notes, "While the movement-image and its sensory-motor signs were in a relationship only with an indirect image of time (dependent on montage), the pure optical and sound image . . . are directly connected to a time-image which has subordinated movement. It is this reversal which means that time is no longer the measure of movement but movement is the perspective of time: it constitutes a whole cinema of time, with a new conception and new forms of montage (Welles, Resnais)." According to Bergson, the things we commonly call space and time are merely the dimension of a single durée, or duration. By making the difference between "time" and "duration" Bergson articulates the essence of cinema. It is true that in film you see twenty-four images per second, but the remembrance of the image persists. In this sense it becomes very interesting to work with one image as if it were a film image. What I am most intrigued by are the transitions that seem to be there but are not there. My photographs are made up of such seemingly inconsequential transitions.
RM: Bergson explains that the mind tackles duration as a simultaneous process, merging past memory and future projection within a continually unfolding present. Can this be realized in the photographic medium through the functions of framing, closeup, cuts, and montage?
JDC: Photography is a medium that feels natural to me. Once you place the camera in front of the eye, it constructs the world. The camera foregrounds the power of temporal and spatial affectivity as seen and thought. In fact, you could say that what I do is create frameworks. I frame the space within each image but also within the installation space. I devise a spatial montage that marks a rupture with the single moment in time and the one-point perspective.
RM: What film directors have had an impact on your work?
JDC: The director who made the strongest impression on me is Jean-Luc Godard. I watched all of his films. Unquestionably, he contributed to my way of making art. In his films it is the form that thinks. It is not the thought that constructs form. Another luminary is Eadweard Muybridge. He is a photographer who worked primarily with the ideas of the motion picture. Aspects of sequence and repetition are present in his work. Many art philosophers, like Hubert Damisch, consider cinema the art form that connects all the others. I agree with them. In one of his texts, Edwin Carels even poses the question, "What is the most important thing that remains: the images or a way of looking?" In time we will come to consider Godard's 260-minute Histoire(s) du cinémaa soaring collage of film clips and stills, music fragments, sound effects, on-screen text, and voice-overto be more important in the formulation of twentieth-century culture than Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
RM: All of your projects are entitled Denkmal. This term refers to the twofold concept of monument and memorial. Could you talk about its dual meaning in your work?
JDC: While this word is inextricably bound up with the titles of my installations, it also reveals my vision of art. Denkmal has two meanings. In German, it means monument. In Flemish, it translates as denk, which means "think," and mal, which signifies "mold." This is precisely what photography, sculpture, and, more generally, art does: it creates a mold for thought. Acting as a chronicler, I try to capture the spirit of my age by making a mold of the world around us. In the end, it is all about our monumental collective memory.
RM: In your MoMA installation, individual
pictures mix with photographic modules and sculptural elements in
particular relations to one another, producing a mise-en-scène with
no central viewpoint but numerous perspectives. Would you say Denkmal
11 is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the Museum viewed through
your fascicular lens?
JDC: As Goethe would say: "In every living thing, what we call the parts is so inseparable from the whole that the parts can only be understood in the whole, and we can neither make the parts the measure of the whole nor the whole the measure of the parts and this is why living creatures, even the most restricted, have something about them that we cannot quite grasp and have to describe as infinite or partaking of infinity." Consider for instance the Pergamon Museum. This is the only historical museum that houses original-sized, reconstructed monuments, such as the Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, and the Ishtar Gate. They all consist of fragments transported from the original excavation sites. As such, the museum functions both as mise-en-scène and as mise-en-site. Like the Pergamon, my installations turn in situ into ex situ. This idea has to do with a shift in perspective. Moreover, I am interested in deconstructing the exhibition space. Instead of a classical display, I conceive installations that deflect a central viewpoint. To expand this idea, I use highly reflective glass to glaze the photographs. Reflection further destabilizes the viewing experience. What I mean to say is that our understanding of the artwork is not fixed, but constantly changes. A good example is Umberto Boccioni's sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. The more you move around it, the more your perception of the work changes.
RM: Space and time are formally and thematically
connected in all of your works, including the series Temps
Mort. Is Temps Mort a cinephile reference to dead time
or the suspended moment in film when something previously insignificant,
say the landscape, suddenly becomes the main protagonist?
JDC: My photographic series called Temps Mort is a good example of mise-en-site rather than mise-en-scène. I take panoramic pictures of certain locations while traveling. Temps Mort, which literally means "dead time," acts as a metaphoric interval that defines unused time. The time of a location is different from the time when the beholder sees it: it is invisible time, the time of history. At a certain point the viewer becomes aware of this delay in time. My installations are perspective constructions addressing that time interval.
RM: In light of the fact that your work is engaged with history and, more specifically, with the history of modernism, what did it mean to you to photograph MoMA's collection galleries, conservation labs, library, frame shop, movie theaters, and architecture?
JDC: To me modernism is the most important period in art history. Dare I say that postmodernism did not exist? I believe that modernism started with Romanticism and continues into our time. In modernism, artists looked at things in a radically different way. There are very basic formsalready present in Greek architecture, for examplethat can only be reinvented. What matters is to keep fresh the way you look in order to still be able to see these basic forms. In a way, one always refers to the source of things, every part being a measure of the whole. When I take pictures, I do not only ask myself what I photograph but also where I photograph. MoMA's great art collection and its distinct departments became a substantial part of my project. This is evident not only in the photographs but also in the installation. When you are inside Denkmal 11, in the Robert and Joyce Menschel Gallery on the third floor of the Museum, you can see across the room into the galleries displaying the photography collection. The current installation focuses on photographic series, such as Muybridge's locomotion studies. I see the works in the collection as a part of my exhibition, part of "my" wall. At the same time, Denkmal 11 is a part of the Museum's history.
RM: The MoMA exhibition constitutes the starting point of an ambitious yearlong project that you call American Odyssey. Once your exhibition closes here in April 2008, you plan to travel some of the works, as well as the "representation" of the show in the form of installation shots, to map out an itinerary across the United States' legendary natural and architectural monuments, from Jackson Pollock's studio in East Hampton and Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Mill Run to the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. What is the gist of American Odyssey, and in what ways is this project different from previous ones?
JDC: This exhibition defines a European viewpoint of American monuments based on the construction of images culled from the pool of western films and the history of photography. The exhibition is intimately tied with my previous work, which explains why I incorporate and mix images old and new. I actually like to play with the idea that sometimes we remember a complete image while at other times we only recall isolated fragments. If remembrance stores the past nearly intact, reminiscence preserves only a fragment. We are defined as much by what we forget as by what we remember.
RM: Speaking of photography's mnemonic dimension, I think one of the most unique aspects of your work is the way in which you generate "pictures within pictures."
JDC: The encyclopedic structure of my work is comparable to that of the history of Western art. In the old days Brunelleschi painted landscapes with the help of a mirror. Now, almost six hundred years later, it is still important for the subject to see its origin mirrored in the system of representation.
RM: Each of your projects is matched by the
publication of an indexical book that is also titled Denkmal. When
I visited you in Brussels in March 2007, you mentioned that you
plan to publish twenty-six volumes. If I remember correctly, the
fourth volume is dedicated to American Odyssey. What is
the objective of this series?
JDC: This is a series of encyclopedias. Every book is an autonomous work. The subject of the fourth book is indeed Denkmal 11, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, New York, 2008 and American Odyssey. My work develops in time and space, and although it takes on different molds, it is a consistent whole. Bookslike filmsbring a fourth dimension into art, namely time. As an image-maker, I direct the way the reader follows the book's narrative. This means that the book also functions as a museum. I think we cannot any longer accept the idea that a museum is reduced to a linear story. The story has multiple lineages. I take advantage of the museum's boundaries to work systematically within its margins. This way, and without answering to a perfunctory plan, art becomes history.