Johan van der Keuken (1)

This will be the first in a series of short extracts about Johan van der Keuken.

In the winter 1984-85 issue of Skrien, the most important and serious of Holland’s film magazines, Johan Van der Keuken wrote the following: “How to return, how to leave behind. The cinematic space of New York, the Lower East side, ‘Loisaida’ as its Spanish-speaking residents so aptly call it and write it: cracked pavement, the rot of a bad tooth, manhole covers, the scars of flames, scorched spot in the city — now left behind, everything forgotten, senile like in Bernlef’s Mind Shadows Suddenly you no longer know a single name, a single place, a single number, you have gone blind from too much seeing.

In 1956, Van der Keuken shot two photographs of a young girl (Yvonne) from different angles and printed them onto the same image. In both instances the two faces are looking outwards from the print to the camera and by extension to the viewer. The photograph is part of a series prepared by Van der Keuken for a film script by the Dutch poet Remco Campert. The script was called, Behind Glass.

Can you go blind from too much seeing? Or is the act of seeing blind to begin with? How many windows, panes of glass, are there between sight and feeling and memory? “You wipe your breath from the window and look outside, says Campert’s script.

The breath is the body. Memories are physical. Often, memories overwhelm breath and the heart races and the body erupts and the “sights are neither present, nor do the sensations of seeing rely on any objects or subjects outside of the eye(s).

Perhaps Van der Keuken shot only one image of two girls, twins, or two girls sisters slightly different in age. Their glance is outwards. Their memories are inscribed on their faces, but I cannot reach them. Their look suggests that I will never know them. They come to me from the past. It is 2006, fifty years after they were photographed. Are they still alive? The photograph neither answers these questions nor necessarily suggests these questions make any sense.

Robert Daudelin recently published a series of conversations with Van Der Keuken entitled, L'oeil au-dessus du puits: deux conversations avec Johan van der Keuken (The Eye Above the Well: Two conversations with Johan van der Keuken)

(Het Oog Boven de Put)

Directed by Johan van der Keuken
The Netherlands 1988, 16mm, color, 94 min.

THE EYE ABOVE THE WELL explores India’s spiritual and economic condition, moving from the city to the countryside in the region of Kerala as it focuses on the essence of that civilization. Captured without commentary by his gliding camera are a cacophony of distinctly nonwestern sights and sounds: the bustling city streets, the serene landscapes of the surrounding countryside, a family preparing for dinner, an elderly actor performing his mythological drama, a modest country moneylender traveling from village to village, young girls at their singing lessons. What emerges from these encounters is not only a highly evocative sense of lived experience but a poetic vision perhaps best captured by what Cahiers du cinéma called “the aesthetic of diversity.

"Film is not, as is often assumed, a language in which certain combinations of signs refer to certain concepts and in which series of combinations of signs can be arranged into a syntax. Film has no sign and no significance. The sentence "John is a villain" cannot be converted into a combination of cinematic signs." Art from Now (Kunst van Nu), August 1963 © 1999 Johan van der Keuken

To be continued...........