With the work of Dutch artist Roy Villevoye, it’s worth remembering that the Netherlands, which many Americans associate with legalized marijuana and prostitution, once had its run as a European colonial power. Villevoye has spent time with the Asmat, a people living in Irian Jaya (New Guinea), part of the former Dutch possessions in Indonesia. Few places signify isolation and distance from the West more than New Guinea: last December, scientists discovered a new species of bird there. One of the leaders of the expedition called the island “as close to the Garden of Eden as you’re going to find on Earth.”
This statement articulates the kinds of expectations and concepts people in developed countries tend to have about any part of the world that seems distant and inexplicable to them. Villevoye is well aware of the picture Westerners have of isolated groups like the Asmat, and his response is to complicate the picture. His photos capture signs not of the Asmats’ isolation, but of their contact with the outside world.
The interpenetration of cultures comes across most obviously in their clothes— T-shirts featuring Jimi Hendrix and Osama Bin Laden, for example. In one photo, a man stands next to a dwelling with wood scraps scattered about. This aspect of the shot suggests the traditional physical culture of these people: the Asmat make their art, houses, and canoes from wood. Villevoye learned that “wood is everything to them. They believe that they are born from the trees and will eventually go back to the trees.” But in the midst of this most traditional aspect of Asmat life, the man in the picture is wearing gym shorts and wooden Dutch clogs.
The show’s title work is a video dealing with an airplane propeller found in Asmat territory, the remains of a Dutch plane that crash-landed in World War II. Villevoye interviews a woman from Kansas whose brother was a missionary in the area, the Dutch pilot himself (who survived and lives in Texas) and an Asmat elder. Each interprets the propeller differently, and each version of the story makes sense only in the speaker’s own cultural context. The pilot’s version is a war story, recounting his experience in the Dutch squadron. The Asmat version offers a kind of mythology, the story of a man in the village who predicted the arrival of the plane. The woman from Kansas and her brother believed the propeller might provide an answer to one of the popular mysteries of the 20th century: Amelia Earhart’s disappearance in the Pacific. Every one of these people takes the crash as raw material and molds it to his or her own tastes and needs. It is not just the Asmat who adapt the material they encounter, and no one comes out of the plethora of intercultural interactions unaffected.
Villevoye does not believe in an anthropological model—observation without influence—for the encounter between himself and the people he studies. He embraces more personal and complex interactions with the Asmat and says he is “interested in the connection between all of the people in the situation”—including the observer—though he see it as “a polluted connection.” A key work in the piece is a photo called “Presents Ready to Be Given Away.” An array of brightly colored clothes, hats, Swiss army knives, wood carving tools and other items lie spread out on the floor of a Western interior. These are presumably the gifts Villevoye uses in his relations with the Asmat, part of what gives him access to their world. Far from an absent, objective eye, he is an active participant in the events captured in the photos. And by giving away these presents Villevoye himself becomes one of the sources for the invasive bits of outside culture that he documents in his pictures.
This photo also suggests an alternative way of looking at this exhibit: as documentation of a sort of performance by Villevoye himself. The ideas about myth, culture, and history that he plays out in his encounters with the Asmat may be more important than the individual images and objects.
Villevoye deals directly with the Edenic stereotype in a video titled “Beginnings.” The piece starts with an Asmat man and a pregnant woman walking through the tropical forest naked. After following them as they wander through the environment, the video cuts to a white man and woman walking naked through a European landscape. The juxtaposition raises the question of why dark-skinned people in a tropical setting so readily call to mind Adam and Eve, where the European couple seem more modern, less mythological.
The video takes a turn from there. The next scene shows another Asmat man negotiating on behalf of the Asmat couple what they will do in the film and how much they will be paid for their work. He explains his reasons for participating in the project, which include, as he puts it, a desire “to pursue cultural progress for the backward Asmat people.” Villevoye removes the dramatic illusion of the “performance” and replaces it with something more literal: two people have agreed to appear on film through the effort of the artist and an intermediary who has no desire to preserve the Asmat in some sort of unspoiled state. The final section of the film returns to the white couple while the woman describes a dream about Eden. It is a nightmare about expulsion: she imagines walking in the garden with her father and falling into a mine where snakes bite them and they die. Scientists discovering new species in New Guinea used Eden to refer to an undisturbed ecological paradise, but Villevoye sees the entire myth.
Villevoye returns to the territory of the Netherlands’ colonial history, but he finds neither crime nor paradise—just the ways people behave like humans and adapt physical and cultural material. Villevoye uses his artistic media to knock aside layers of preconception that make it hard to discern the humanity of the people we encounter, whether directly or at a remove. For this artist, that discovery in this distant corner is a deeply emotional experience, one he describes as like being reborn.