From Saturday September 4th, 2021 to October 2nd, Perrotin opens for the first time an exhibition of Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier.
The photographic works, titled ARTvonTRIER, which works incarnates the world premiere of the exhibition, are extracts from Lars von Trier’s award-winning filmography. Audiences will be able to recognize legendary and iconic scenes from Trier’s films. A new involvement and reflection await in the transformed works.
This exhibition is curated by Anna Lena Vaney and Malou Lykke Solfjeld.
Iconic and controversial filmmaker Lars von Trier has, for the past thirty-seven years, produced films pervaded by a form of radicalism, aesthetically and thematically. Steering self-sacrificing characters through harrowing situations and disconcerting spaces, he is a director who demands emotion.
Presenting viewers with a visceral experience rather than a conceptual one, his approach transcends the limits of ordinary affects. From explicit naturalism to more elaborate stylistic bursts, Lars von Trier has consistently adapted his images to the complex subjects they convey. From a succession of shots filmed with a handheld camera (notably for features made under the aegis of Dogma95) to more elaborate frames, Lars von Trier’s work confronts realism and artifice, edging as closely as possible to human passions.
My films have thousands of individual images that are displayed in fast sequences, to create the illusion of movement.
In Fall of Man we witness a dramatic process of transition, a pregnant moment that is the instant right before a fatal incident is about to happen. Just one more step forward, and a tragedy will occur. But one step back, a withdrawal, could mean an innocent scene of a child’s fascination with possibly the first snow of his life. Possibly the last.
This moment-in-between brings to mind another space-in-the-making, a womb in which life takes form. A certain kind of womb, called the chôra, is how Plato described the creation of the universe and the creation of man. This concept of chôra is hard to grasp, because it is at one hand to be understood as a delineated space but on the other hand, it has no limits, it is formless.
In his final book Camera Lucida, the French semiotician Roland Barthes examines the return of the dead through photography. Where shooting someone with a camera may transform the living subject into a dead object, the photography concurrently immortalizes the subject by keeping their presence alive.
In this manga-horror universe, the female protagonist of Antichrist, She, is crossing a bridge. Illuminated only by the moon, she follows the path that leads to the cottage called Eden. Under the bridge a stream is floating softly, dividing the forest in two, and marking the transition between the civilization from which she came, and the wilderness she is about to enter.
In spite of the Biblical reference, Lars von Trier’s Eden is not a paradise, but a beautiful and hopeless place as was the Garden of Eden after the fall.
The bridge should not be perceived as a place in-between, as a marking of the threshold to nature, where reason is no longer in control. Rather, the bridge exists as a connecting space, gathering the earth on both sides with the water underneath and the heaven above.
The Nature Within is where all distinctions between subject and object dissolve.
Where the most intimate encounter between He and She becomes universal as a cosmic orgasmic explosion of desire, Lars von Trier shows us the nature within, by wo/man becoming tree, and many becoming one.
In botany, a rhizome is characterized by its ability to shoot new roots from its nodes, even after being separated, like ginger or turmeric.
In The nature within we sense a becoming, rather than a static being. It is not only the two of them, but the many of them, dissolving into each other, forming a choir of endless voices. Their bodies intermingle with the spirits of the tree, evoking the ancestors of the forest in a mythical dance creating a sacred and liminal space of transgressing the distinction between man and nature, making it obsolete, as if we are witnessing a ritual of hybridization between every living being that ever were and is ever to become.
From the nature within we become nature bound, a beautiful and pertinent progression in the series of Lars von Trier’s oeuvre almost predicting humanity’s slow acknowledgment of our impact on the Earth, and the Earth’s impact on us. In Melancholia, we hear the story of a planet about to collide with the one we inhabit, but the actual melancholy lies in Justine, the newlywed bride feeling tied up in her career, in her marriage, in her family, in her life.
In 1852, the English pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais made a painting depicting Shakespeare’s Ophelia from Hamlet in the minutes before her end.
In Lars von Trier’s interpretation, water lilies are framing the body of Justine as she floats. She is wearing a white bridal gown and her eyes are consciously fixed on an indefinite point.
Her hands are folded under her chest supporting the bridal bouquet imitating the traditional position of a dead body in a coffin. Her veil is adding a ghostly ambience to the image as it merges with the shiny, semitransparency of water around her body.
As Ophelia’s garments are filled with water, she is slowly absorbed by nature, as if she voluntarily allows it to reclaim her. Unlike Ophelia, who dies as the world lives on, Justine does not have a choice as the planet Melancholia is approaching Earth. Whereas Ophelia’s eyes are blurred and distant, Justine is very much aware as she floats into eternity.
Lars von Trier’s work shares several similarities with Giorgione and Titian’s painting ‘Sleeping Venus’ from 1510, depicting the naked Venus as she rests in nature.
In Moonshower, we see a beautiful Justine – named after Marquis de Sade’s Justine in the novel of the same name from 1791 – indulging herself in the peace she finds in the light of Melancholia – the planet that is about to destroy her own world, which she is not the least interested in keeping alive. Under her, a mattress of soft vegetation and rock is supporting her body. The atmosphere is calm in anticipation of the collision of the two planets. Her breathing is synchronized with her surroundings. The water lies dark and shiny in front of her creating a feeling of something hidden, something unknown, and even something uncanny. Soon everything will come to an end, but what we see here, is the silence before the storm. Justine embraces her destiny and the collapse of the systems that used to imprison her behind bars of expectation.
Two sisters and one child are forming a meditation circle on a hill. Around them a fragile tent-like construction is giving a sense of space and privacy. Yet the setup is completely transparent, and the branches are no more than fine lines against the bright, magnificent circular object, which is approaching. The atmosphere is silent, calm and settled. The Earth is holding back in anticipation, as Melancholia – the planet – approaches. The work shows one of the most distinctive traits of mankind – the power of imagination. Imagination to protect, shelter and comfort, when the crisis is at its highest.
This work by Lars von Trier is a reminder that the Lacanian real is constantly with us, and that eventually “devastating events” will occur. It also shows how imagination and belief are allowing us to manage in the shadow of the real, by “settling troubled waters and rebuilding quiet places” – even if they are only appearing to be made out of sticks.
In The Impossibility of Breaking a Wave, we see Bess overwhelmed by feelings and waves, overlooking the horizon, as the Wanderer above the sea of fog from 1818 by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich. One of the most iconic paintings of the 19th century depicting an artist wandering in a dangerously wild and pristine landscape. Elevated on a rock high above the brutal peaks partly covered by clouds, his hike is a journey of contemplation. Through demanding efforts and suffering, he has finally reached a position offering him the grand overview, but the fog is still there, symbolizing an uncertain future.
Where Friedrich’s wanderer seems more determined to proceed his journey, there seems to be a hopelessness state-of-mind in the Impossibility of breaking a wave, reflecting Bess’ monologue with God directing her into the arms of disaster.
Didn’t he say he would call depicts a moment of love, belief, endurance and patience.
Bess’ husband Jan works on an oil rig, which causes her a strong deprivation of having him close. They schedule a phone meeting, but he forgets, and she falls asleep inside the phone booth.
A phone booth is a strange place that gives you a temporary feeling of a private sphere in public. From the moment you step into it, you sign a silent contract with the rest of the world to leave you alone, to not disturb or interfere, however the window functions as a translucent membrane. It is treacherous as it reveals the secrets and dynamics of both spheres. In this image though, the secrets stay within the illusionary walls of the private space of the phone booth since the rain pearling down the glass prevents our eyes from seeing the details.
A woman confidentially approaches a white church on a hill. The church is surrounded by soft, green hills and above it, heavy clouds suggest the presence of an ocean nearby. In Breaking the waves, Bess is struggling with her faith in God and her faith in love. She thinks that she can save her husband with the power to believe but ends up destroying herself in the hopeless attempt to undermine her own needs by doing what she thinks is best for him.
The famous aerial view of Lars von Trier’s invisible city depicting the land of opportunities as a model; Dogville has no walls, only chalk lines as indication marks of an imaginary architecture. Almost as a draft of a world undergoing decay. Time is ticking, and by each strike of the hour, the shock and alienation extends from the scene, through the screen and into our bodies. Inspired by Bertold Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt, we witness the illusions fall apart one by one, until the only illusion we end up truly believing, is the one that is obviously fake: the film itself, the stage design created from a drawing and the characters, whom we forget are actors. The verfremdungseffekt causes an unheimlich quivering feeling that our bodies will forever recall, by being exposed to the bird’s eye map of Dogville. The question immediately arises: if we were the ones who saw all the horrors play out from a God-like perspective, how come we didn’t act?
Before Grace's arrival, the village was a secluded society, a micro-cosmos, where everybody through generations played their roles. Naive, beautiful and good, Grace is, as is the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, a temptation the village people cannot withstand. Grace’ presence tips over the fragile balance and brings forth deeds of pure evil under a cover of the charity, which is no longer generously given, but rather something she has to earn.
The story of Dogville is said to be inspired from the song Pirate Jenny (written for Berthold Brecht’s Three Penny Opera, a capitalism-critical play from 1928) in which the young maid working in a hotel ends up taking revenge against the townspeople’s bad treatment of her, by burning down the whole town before she sails away with pirates.
Europa (released under the title Zentropa in the US) was the final movie in Lars von Trier’s Europe trilogy, and similar to the previous two, The Element of Crime (1984) and Epidemic (1987), the director uses hallucination as a method to invite the audience into the mind of the protagonist:
“You want to wake up to free yourself from the image of Europa, but it is not possible” the narrator states.
It is not clear who of the two is in fact the real enemy, and who is committing the worst crime; the nationalistic Nazi-sympathizing Werwolf movement or the American occupation of a country that is better left to repair its own damages itself. A decade after the Europe Trilogy, Lars von Trier created his America Trilogy starting with Dogville (2003), followed by Manderlay (2005), and some might say, recently completed with The House that Jack Built from 2018. The first two, at least, resemble the same personality trait as Leopold Kessler, who is the opportunistic idealist arriving to a foreign place with good intentions, but along the way reveals his own destructive nature, which brings the society he originally came to save, to an end.
What does it mean to the beholder to be beheld by the gaze of an artwork? Is it comforting and reassuring, or is it threatening and captivating ?
What I thought was forwards is backwards can be seen as an image on how neither industrial, political, nor technological progression is solely moving in one direction. We are always engaging in a joint attention, a co-emergence of a mutual gaze.
In the lower part of the image we see a train, swiftly piercing through the cold night air, in which a row of lit windows stands out in the darkness as empty lightboxes connoting a strip of photographic film, with all the negatives illuminated side by side. The year is 1945, but we cannot see who the passengers are. Neither can they see us, as we are observing them from the darkness outside. All we can do is to accept that we are watching and being watched at the same time. Each of us inhabiting a negative – we are all part of the movie, the train of events, beholding the gaze of desire.
In the background, two girls, stereotypically dressed in school uniforms, are swiping the floor in the school’s gym room.
If the narrator in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is recollecting his life through the cause of seven volumes, Lars von Trier’s protagonist, the self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, Joe, is looking back at her life, when finally confessing on the edge of total personal ruin to the middle-aged bachelor Seligman, after he finds her beaten up in an alleyway behind his apartment. The blurred picture of the two girls gives the impression as if time itself has distorted Joe’s childhood memories. However, what remains crystal clear are the ropes, the knots and the rubber tubes. This material haptic notion of roughness seems a returning theme in the film, as does the almost palpable physical desire, which controls Joe’s body.
The heart of a matter depicts a window of vulnerability. The image gives us an intimate look into a moment in life, which some might refer to as the transformation from girl to woman. We see the hands and feet and the lower part of the legs of the teenage girl Joe, who has asked a boy to take her virginity. The boy is struggling with repairing his moped as Joe undresses in the rough interior of his workshop. The spotlessly white school uniform, of which we can only see the socks and her red shoes, clashes with the dusty and oily workshop, and leaves Joe as yet another object hardly as interesting to the boy as his moped, which he has to fix, before he can move on.
“Perhaps the only difference between me and other people was that I’ve always demanded more from the sunset, more spectacular colors when the sun hit the horizon. That’s perhaps my only sin” Joe tells Seligman. But neither a girl nor a woman should ever expect any less colors from the sunset, quite the opposite.
A mirror is like a thought is an image of introspection, literally, in which we see the nymphomaniac Joe holding a mirror between her legs, confronting that mysterious authority and her addiction to masturbation. The ambiguous part of her body which gave life to her son, Marcel, is also the place from which her deepest sins and frustrations arise.
“The enigma derives from the fact that my body simultaneously sees and is seen. That which looks at all things can also look at itself and recognize, in what it sees, the "other side" of its power of looking. It sees itself seeing; it touches itself touching; it is visible and sensitive for itself. It is a self, not by transparency, like thought, which never thinks anything except by assimilating it, constituting it, transforming it into thought—but a self by confusion, narcissism, inherence of the see-er in the seen, the toucher in the touched, the feeler in the felt—a self, then, that is caught up in things, having a front and a back, a past and a future….”
Jack is contemplating his masterpiece, which, like graves in Scandinavian Christian tradition, is framed with pine branches.
Traditionally, the still life shows vanity, impermanence and decay by using symbols such as fruit, hourglasses, sculls, mirrors etc. reminding us that universal virtues such as youth, beauty and health are illusions bound to the fragile life, which is going to end eventually.
In order to fully grasp the magnificence of his work, Jack has proudly organized his kill like a child presenting his toy soldiers in rows, following size and rank. 50 crows, two children and one woman – their mother. The corpses look alarmingly real, adding to the surreal scenario of a perverted realism. The rectangular shape of the pine branch arrangement may resemble the outer walls of a house with crows on the roof and a loving family of three; a family portrait framed by raw human nature.
Dressed in a red cloak, Jack is playing the part of Dante. His right hand stretched forward as if he is trying to grasp a vision only he can see. Next to him his guide, dressed in a black three-piece suit, speculative, scrupulous. Around them in the water naked bodies in theatrical postures are moving the raft forward. Behind them the world is burning and the sky seems poisonous. Yet a divine light shines through the heavy clouds staging the bizarre but beautiful tableau vivant. The Barque of Jack is an appropriation of The Barque of Dante by Eugene Delacroix from 1822 (later on interpreted by Édouard Manet), inspired by The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault, 1818-19.
Seen in the light of our current circumstances, one may wonder, if the entire society is today aboard the barque of Jack, heading towards inferno, or if we will collectively find a way to survive the deluge.
I try to use elements that penetrate directly into the subconscious. It is possible that the audience might not immediately understand what they are seeing - but images may be created inside them that help to explain things that are difficult to put into words.
All texts accompanying the artworks are written by Malou Lykke Solfjeld. Co-Author: Christian Kortegaard Madsen
Born in 1956
Lars von Trier is a Danish film director and screenwriter with a prolific and controversial career spanning more than four decades. His work is known for its genre and technical innovation, confrontational examination of existential, social and political issues, and his treatment of subjects such as mercy, sacrifice, and mental health.
Lars von Trier counts more than a hundred awards and 200 nominations at film festivals worldwide.
—More about the artist