João Penalva (2003)

This is the newsletter text for my last exhibition at The Power Plant.

João Penalva,  Violette Avéry  (2003); photo: Cheryl O’Brien

João Penalva, Violette Avéry (2003); photo: Cheryl O’Brien



João Penalva

…it became a text where stories are told in several versions, where someone’s misunderstanding becomes the definitive version of the account of an event and the notions of what is true, imagined, misinterpreted and reconstructed are blurred.

— João Penalva

About half-way into João Penalva’s 1998 film 336 PEK (336 Rivers), the narrator interjects into his tale saying, “On the other hand, this is not my voice. It is the voice of Yuri Stepanov, an actor who doesn’t have a Siberian accent. But neither do I. I lost mine long ago.” Or rather, the narrator says this in Russian and we read it in English through subtitles. This distinction of translation is important to note, because the narrator’s self-reflexive intervention points to formalist strategies operating all through the film that we are oblivious to. Starting from the first: Penalva wrote the subtitles in English and then had them translated into Russian.

Many commentators have written of the function of memory in this film. It seems a film for imagining. The first person narration is spoken over an image captured by an unmoving camera, in a single hour real time take with no edits. The high contrast image is tinted yellow and the only movement is that of the shadows of trees or walkers who stroll at a distance through a park. For the last fifteen minutes, a recitation of the names of the many rivers that flow into Russia’s Lake Baikal is all we hear. Read with the slow musical cadence of the Russian language, the text lulls us like the ebb and flow of water it mimics. Indeed, Penalva’s evocation of time has been compared to the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. Evocation seems the tone of the film with the narrator reminiscing, taking Lake Baikal, the largest fresh water lake in the world, as the touchstone for his meandering tale.

Yet, enough clues within the narration, such as the narrator’s admittance above, cue us to a construction rather than an organic reminiscence taking place in the film. The narrator often talks of his occupation as a filmmaker and the articulation of a memory as a script that may be fictional and not real at all. Here we note again the prominence that the subtitles play; given that we are not Russian speakers, they are the means by which we understand this story. Inverting expectation—subtitles are automatically thought to be a diminished shorthand expression of the true sense of the dialogue—the subtitles here actually tell us all there is to know. But they are only one of the formal components of the film; simultaneously but separately, we see an image, hear a voice, read a text, and imagine our own version.

Penalva’s films are subtly constructed narratives. With the subtitles dominantly demanding our attention, the simplicity of the unmoving camera and unedited image conspire not to distract or divide our attention. Nonetheless, the mood and tempo of the image and the drift of the voices almost unconsciously absorb us in the story. Within Penalva’s narratives or dialogues, however, there are markers—not only of the insecurity of interpretation, but if we are still attentive and not completely seduced by the film apparatus—of the divisions of the senses or of the compensations when one sense is lost or another made dominant. For instance, in Kitsune, a film from 2001, two old Japanese men, strangers, surprise each other in the fog of a pine-forested mountain. We do not see them, only hear their voices, as the fog blows over the mountain, sometimes obscuring it, sometimes revealing it. Perhaps we can take this atmospheric effect of this subtly changing image as a metaphor for the content of what is about to be related. For in the small talk prefacing the ghost stories related by the two men, there is talk of blindness and deafness. Ourselves, we hear but we do not see the narrators who tell three stories. The first two tell of the dire or beneficent consequences of encounters with the fox spirit of Japanese ghost stories. The third returns to the present to tell of what can be seen and heard in our daily lives, but only to some—children and the elderly.

Penalva’s third work, Violette Avéry (2003), differs in that it is an installation of projections. Penalva wanted to create a situation where text dominated and though not deriving directly from film was still related to it. Text and image are now separated with the story of Violette Avéry being told through three rolling texts, like the ones that appear in film credits, in conjunction with two projections of The Life of O-Haru, a 1952 Kenji Mizoguchi film. The images and texts, however, cannot be seen and read at the same time. Moreover, the Mizoguchi films, one reversed as well, are out of focus. Thrown back upon the text, we have to discover the uncertain relations.

The rolling text is a transcription of an interview between two women, the niece and a writer friend of the pseudonymous Violette Avéry. Avéry, a translator by profession, secretly wrote pornographic novels and led a life of sexual excess unknown to the others, only to be revealed posthumously in her diary. At different times in the interview, it is suggested first, that the diary might be fiction and secondly, that the niece might have written it. The interview touches upon questions of ethics of translation but more importantly upon issues of censorship. Violette Avéry’s libertinage was similar to that of one of the characters of a book left in her library, the seventeenth century classic Ichidai Onna by Saikaku Ihara. Although based on this book, Mizoguchi’s film suffers from 1950s morality and the sexually independent life of the book’s protagonist is turned into one of abusive domination by men. In the early twentieth century, Ihara’s book was censored. Penalva shows two versions of the book in slide projections, an unexpurgated reprint and the censored 1924 edition. Once again, the artist frustrates our reading: the reversed slides pass too quickly for us to comprehend. This device is one more element of the construction of Penalva’s work that lends authenticity to the reality of Avéry at the same time that it casts doubt.

João Penalva,  Kitsune  (2001); photo: Cheryl O’Brien

João Penalva, Kitsune (2001); photo: Cheryl O’Brien

João Penalva,  336 Pek  (1998); photo: Cheryl O’Brien

João Penalva, 336 Pek (1998); photo: Cheryl O’Brien