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Cultural Embassy

Renzo Martens


Posted on 25/03/2014 by mylene

Renzo Martens, visual artist, whose documentary film 'Episode III / Enjoy Poverty', caused a huge stir in 2008 when it came out at the International Documentary Film Fesitval Amsterdam (IDFA). In it, Martens' epic journey through the jungle of Congo is depicted. He encourages Congolese people to market and sell images of their state of poverty, and he carries with him a huge neon sign ‘Enjoy Poverty, please’. The work was shown at the Centre Pompidou, at the Berlin Biennale, in Tate Modern just to name a few, and was widely discussed by eminent thinkers from in- and outside the art world, from the London School of Economics to Yale University.

Early in the evening he walks in, wearing a white jacket and burgundy trousers, his sleek long hair combed back; yes, he does play with his likeness to the actor Klaus Kinski. He stayed at Lloyd Hotel for a week, while further developing his plans.

“Images of poverty are part of a market for which I also produce, and the film knew that. That’s why it is such a good film if I may say that,” says Martens.

“Like so many other critical art pieces made about global inequality ‘Enjoy Poverty’ stimulates an economy; the buying of art by wealthy individuals, the publication of theses and papers in cities like Amsterdam or LA or Berlin. That very fact undermines the nature of the knowledge that is generated in mine and similar art pieces. They are always made from the same perspective, for the same audiences, and they are in fact provincial. That’s why I decided I needed to try and build an art institute with a school, a museum and a residency program in Congo and I set up the Institute for Human Activities." This week he is in Amsterdam, to fundraise for a Gentrification Program in Congo.

The project fits in the academic framework of his studies for a PhD in Art Studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, as Yale Fellow at Yale University and at the Akademie der Kunste in Berlin. “At Yale I am involved with people from Law School and the Economics Department which hopefully helps me to make the project real.”

There are obstacles enough on the road to realisation of his Gentrification Program.

“We started out on an old Unilever plantation. Although our contacts were very good, now the Canadian company who owns the plantation chased us away because they’re afraid an art centre will undermine their business. Which is untrue, because we are totally pro-business.

It was very interesting to see that even a simple thing like a creative workshop for children can be perceived as a threat.

We have to soldier on and make sure that everybody understands we are in favour of business. We want to make sure that people make money there. The only way I know to make money is by making art. And I am happy to share that with other people. We now need to find another location though.”

He ponders, “in 2010 A Gentrification Program was set up as a five-year project, but it could well be that in 2017 it will still be a five-year programme. I can’t do it alone. I am an intuitive person, but I am not so good at thinking it through. The Institute of Human Activities has a board, an advisory board, and beside me there are four others on the team. Some of them see it as an enterprise, or as a research project. I see it as a sculpture.

Could it also be that in the end you will present your plan in the elitist centres of art and it never will be realised in Congo?

“No, absolutely not. That would be a disgrace.”