Renzo Martens • Director of White Cube
“My goal was not to paint another portrait of how things can not work, but how, despite everything, they possibly can”
- We talked to Dutch artist and director Renzo Martens about his film White Cube, which premiered at IDFA
In White Cube [+see also:
interview: Renzo Martens
film profile], artist Renzo Martens examines how Congolese plantation workers can benefit from art, instead of being victimised by it. He unfolds an intriguing story of new-found artists rediscovering their heritage and making a name for themselves in the art scene as the Cercle d'Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC), an artists’ collective founded by workers in Lusanga, Congo. Their clay sculptures are 3D-scanned, sent to a museum in New York, and reproduced in chocolate. Martens’ plan for reversed gentrification in DR Congo seems to work, as the plantation workers use the revenue of their art to buy back the exhausted land from owner Unilever for an agroforestry project. White Cube premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in the Main Competition and the Competition for Best Dutch Documentary. We sat down with the director to talk about the ideas behind the project.
Cineuropa: How was the premiere at IDFA?
Renzo Martens: It was a special moment, because the film was also projected on the walls of the white cube in Lusanga, Congo. It truly was a world premiere, as the members of CATPC and a delegation of the community were viewing the film, and in my mind these plantations are at the center of the world. We arranged for a satellite link connecting Lusanga with IDFA. Despite the whole Covid ordeal, it was a beautiful and deeply heartfelt moment. It strengthened the bond of trust. Watching the film together at this great distance confirmed a fellowship in a way, which really touched me. There are big problems in the world, and it doesn’t happen that often, at least in my life, that people express solidarity across continents, across class, across race, and that, on top of that, it feels genuine.
How does this film relate to your previous film, Enjoy Poverty?
I think that, in many ways, White Cube is an enormous appendix to Enjoy Poverty. In 2008, I tried to exhibit inequality in the world — the old colonial structures, where workers make 100 dollars a year, while the CEO of Unilever makes 10 million per year. That's a factor of 100,000. What Enjoy Poverty shows is that even attempts to bypass this system are often only benefiting people at the winning end of the global inequality divide. And this is true even with the best intentions. A dedicated photojournalist who goes out to show how unjust the world is, will most probably sell images to a news agency, and cater images to the tastes and interests of a global audience. The structures are such that the forces that are there to alleviate suffering ultimately bring more capital to rich people than to poor people. And I am part of that inequality. However critical you are, it seems that there is no way out. It is a stark message in Enjoy Poverty. Then, I presented the film at the Tate Modern, where I found that the museum was sponsored by Unilever, the very company that runs these 10-dollar-a-month plantations in Congo. I am happy that Unilever loves art, but there is a problem, in that they undermine the credibility of that very art. How can I believe Ai Wei Wei’s critical statements about oppressive political regimes, or the refugee crisis, when he is funded indirectly by people who make 10 dollars a month? So the point is clear: the benefits of art should be distributed equally. I decided it was necessary to give it another try. My goal was not to paint another portrait of how things can not work, but how, despite everything, they possibly can. There have been many ups and downs and at times I really messed up since the beginning of the project in 2012, but in the end, I only had to create a leveled playing field for the artists of the plantation to thrive.
The project is bigger than the film. Which idea came first?
There have been many other ways to manifest the project. The sculptures have been exhibited in various places. And there now is a museum on the plantation, of course. These are mediums in and of themselves. I must admit that filming all these developments often came as an afterthought, because we were so busy with bringing the project forward. In effect, the film is only a slice of what happened. In a way, making a film about it also is another way of financing the project. Not that any of the film’s budget went into the project, rather the hope is that the film will generate awareness around the project and the artists so that the audiences can embrace and support them. Our competitors like Unilever have huge P.R. budgets, they have a lot of firepower to convince the world of how green they are. Our competitors can finance a strong claim on the truth. We had to deploy all the small things we could, including as a documentary like this one.
We never get to see the interior of the White Cube, why is that?
There is a reason you don’t see it. It is a space of potentiality. Everything you put in the white cube becomes art. That is one of its magic wonders. But what happens outside the white cube matters even more. Museums attract capital, attention, they have the power to legitimise… If you are wealthy and build a museum in the Dutch countryside or in Dubai, it will strengthen your position, people will think: ‘Hey, you are a great person because you love art’. In this case, it's a group of plantation workers who decided to build it, so it legitimises them. In effect, they can decide what art is and what not. The power to do so has long been monopolised, by Western institutions, after much art was stolen under colonial rule from the Congolese interior and from many other places. Not only were the people forced to become plantation workers, they also didn't have the agency anymore to decide what was art and what was not, how it should be made and how and where it should be exhibited. Simply bringing back the white cube was the most natural thing to do.
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