Art & Colonialism: Renzo Martens Part 1
“Clearing out the way” is a labor that I am committed to. As the emergent requires new geographies, new movements, and unimaginable possibilities.
I’ve decided that every few months, I will take the time to deconstruct a piece of “art” I interact with, where the only response I have is: WHY. I will consider this to be part of my art world community service.
Since writing a very long academic article on, um, the many problems with Santiago Sierra, art historians and other “experts” have offered the names of other “artists” –exclusively, white, male, European–who make “better” art about racism/poverty, who use “humiliation” better, who exploit their subjects/objects–but DO IT BETTER. One project in particular that’s been occurring has been Dutch artist Renzo Marten’s “Enjoy Poverty.”
(Disclaimer: please do not send me names of more exploitative white artists who I should know about/write about/talk about. If you are worried about them receiving awards/being circulated/winning grant monies/having power/gatekeeping/destroying lives PLEASE WRITE ABOUT IT. Critique is COLLECTIVE labor. I beg you: please do not shift the labor of research, critique, and dissemination of critique to someone else ESPECIALLY when you are in positions–you’re a professor! A teacher! A writer! An editor!–where you can take it on. Thank you in advance).
Other disclaimer: article contains critiques of white men who think they are profound, but are just racist. Anti-Blackness and neocoloniality as art is Marten’s project so descriptions of Martens’ work may be highly triggering. Your profession, your body, your lived experience may be to fight racism every day: so if you do not want to read about racism as art, please feel free to skip this over. If you are in a gatekeeping position obsessed with the “new” then you are possibly the problem, so keep reading.
Martens is not a random inconsequential fringe artist, or some old man with a blog that no one reads. According to the credits of “Enjoy Poverty”, he received a grant from the Netherlands Film Fund to make the film, and was a Yale World Fellow in 2013. His projects are funded, awarded and continued. Currently he’s on a 5-year plan to “gentrify” the jungle in Congo with his wife and family. Gentrification being him bringing art galleries to the area of course. This is not a joke. From what I can tell, he is still there.
In “Enjoy Poverty” Renzo Martens poses as a journalist, and earns a press badge to infiltrate spaces such as the World Bank meeting. At the world bank meeting he wonders how the committee members might deploy resources into rendering what Martens believes is the most precious natural resource of Congo: poverty. His premise is rejected. Poverty is not a natural resource, the committee tells him. And almost as if he is proving them wrong the next scene is of an art gallery exhibit. The room is full of mostly white plantation owners and they are buying–what we find out–are photographs (what the plantation owners label as “aesthetic” photographs) of their own workers, taken presumably by other white artists. In these scenes Martens wishes to solidify his points regarding: poverty, the commodification of poverty and the sale of the commodification of poverty is an art. The world bank leaders are wrong–they are misguided.
Martens operates the “art” documentary through this logic:
He understands what is commodifiable to be a ‘natural’ resource, i.e. white people photographing Black plantation workers and selling these photographs–the sale of the photographs is a resource that Black workers are denied and must reclaim. And everyone who does not believe poverty is a natural resource to be reclaimed is part of the problem.
And in the documentary/art project he will teach the Congolese how to commodify their poverty: their most precious natural resource.
The documentary is split between these two positions: those who understand (capitalists) and those who do not know (workers alienated from their labor). The documentary is supposed to demonstrate that Martens is an enlightened capitalist–ready to share the secrets of commodification with the worker because really the gap from alienation to intimacy is commodification of self and community–how to be a better capitalist of one’s misery, to see if from afar as an object?
In his neo-colonial travels through Congo, Martens locates wedding/party photographers and lectures that the images they are creating, which are happy joyful scenes of Congo: birthday parties! Weddings! portraiture!–are of no interest to the west. In some kind of absurdist, painful theater construction, Martens leads a workshop with the photographers, demonstrating how photographing raped women, corpses and malnourished children is far more profitable. Would they like to earn one dollar a month, or a thousand? Is the answer not clear?
Though Martens does not answer how the photographers will gain access to the market, the photographers–for reasons unstated as the whole production might have been staged–follow Martens to learn how to photograph what Martens tells them that the west wants to see. Martens asks them to envelop the colonial gaze: how to get a closeup photograph of the ribs, how to get close to the corpses. While learning how to photograph solemn portraits of women–reminiscent of the violence enacted in the photographic tradition of Edward S. Curtis–the women ask for money. The photographers in training state: “We did not come to help people/ We came to register the problem.”
The position of the artist, the position of capital and distance is taken.
When the photographers in training ask whether or not they could receive a UN press badge to continue this work in other places, they learn that such emblems are out of their reach. They visit the director of a hospital and are denied entry. The director dismisses their project. Martens informs the unnamed photographers of atrocities, the western-gazer-in-training that their project is a failure. Photography school is a failure, access for the Black worker into commodifiable sites is a failure and the commodification of the “natural resource” of the worker is a failure. Right?
In the next scene we are shown Martens traveling to a different part of Congo with more unnamed Congolese–this time they are carrying large metal boxes on their heads as he literally–like some Disney princess montage–sings folk songs throughout the river. These boxes it turns out hold Marten’s neon signs. Neon signs produced by a firm in the Netherlands, transported literally on the heads of the Congolese to a village of his choosing to continue the “Enjoy Poverty” project–a project that we saw, crumbly FAIL explicitly only a few moments ago. This time the goal has been shifted. The goal is no longer: commodify the atrocities of your communities but rather in some kind of militant colonial biblical fashion: embrace your suffering as nothing will change. Martens–a white, European, male from the Netherlands–has travelled from the Netherlands with a neon sign to inform the people of Congo that they must embrace their poverty.
Everything is so fucking clever for Martens. Everything is so fucking vile and commodifiable and simple. Nobody understands anything like he does, or no one can take a joke–some combination of the spectrum. Nobody understand the evils of the world (but him)–and all those that protest him, protest the only real solutions to poverty, which are: the commodification of poverty OR the acceptance of poverty. How artsy that the white man is the only one to hold all the viable solutions.
So artsy that deeply structural, colonial, embodied problems become personalized as his ideas, his art project, his visions.
It’s true that unlike Sierra, Martens takes the dematerialization further–he aestheticizes it further and casts himself as a character in the plot. Instead of “250 cm tattooed on six backs paid,” “Enjoy Poverty” is an attempt to gather six persons from the global south living in poverty, to play artists and encourage them to tattoo other people’s backs, photograph them, and attempt to sell them, only to learn that no one in the global north wants to purchase art from six no-name, non-gallery represented, six persons from the global south living in poverty. However in this plot the benefactor remains the same: the white male artist from the global north specifically, Europe.
What “Enjoy Poverty” makes crystal clear is that EVEN IF these kinds of projects (Sierra’s, Marten’s) were carried out further, EVEN IF instead of subcontracting laborers–if instead of this process, the “artist” documented the process of training unemployed persons in the global south and refugees in the global north to partake in the commodification of their own abjection–THEY WOULD NOT BE ABLE TO SELL THESE OBJECTS AS ART.
But wait, did we not really know this?
But that’s not all. What “Enjoy Poverty” makes clear is that the only solution white male artists currently have for the systemic global problems of the world is to make more of them. The only thing they can teach you is to be like them. You must take workshops to be like him, to see like him–only he can teach you how to be like him. And more of him is the solution: The Goal.
Which brings me to Boyle Heights. What is happening in Boyle Heights is part of a larger ongoing conversation about settler-colonialism/art, imperialism/art, art as gentrification. I have more to say about property, art and race. Part 2 coming.