Eric Baudelaire’s “The Anabasis & The Ugly One”
Inverting the specters of progress in his 2005 Le Siècle, Alain Badiou revisited the decade-long about-face of a Greek mercenary force that successfully fought its way home from a failed, early-fourth-century incursion in Persia. He did this as a means of determining where a sequacious political left stands today, and towards which it should, or could, move in the turmoil of apparently lost or fragmented causes. Awareness of this infamous military campaign of ancient Greece—and its internal political make-up as a mobile, democratic collective in retreat—reaches us today by way of Xenophon (c. 430–354 BC), a soldier and writer among its ranks who mediated the wayward expedition in his multi-volume work, Anabasis. With more than a wink to Badiou—and to poet Paul Celan, who marshaled the anabasis as a symbol of a lived caesura—artist Eric Baudelaire has intertwined two recent personal and revolutionary narratives in his film The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shingenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images (2011). Reflecting on a number of stalled revolts in Japan and the Levant region, as well as their more recent outcomes, the film concerns the history of May [Mei] Shigenobu, the daughter of militant Japanese Red Army (JRA) co-founder Fuasko Shigenobu, and that of Masao Adachi, a commando of the JRA who first tackled radical ideology through filmmaking.
Like Xenophon, Fusako Shigenobu was to become a wandering solider; however, her tale, as well as that of Adachi, does not feature a safe and triumphal homecoming. As a young student radical in postwar Japan, Fusako and her colleagues of the extremist Red Army Faction sought to overthrow the government and spur a global revolution. In order to develop international ties, particularly with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), she traveled to Lebanon in 1971. Citing both ideological differences (in her absence, the Red Army Faction merged with other groups, leading to various internecine battles including a bloody purge in 1972) as well as geographical distance, Fusako broke with the troubled group and its successor body, the United Red Army. She then founded the JRA, went underground in Lebanon, and coupled with May’s father, a member of the PFLP. As a wanted suspect in connection to multiple extremist actions, Fusako and her daughter remained in exile for nearly thirty years until she was extradited to Japan for trial in 2000. Around the same time, Adachi, who had also been hiding in Lebanon for decades, was imprisoned for passport violations, and later deported back to Japan.
Addressing these histories, Baudelaire collaborated with Adachi and May to create a kind of evidentiary documentary-cum-film essay—punctuated by B-roll-like takes of contemporary Lebanon and Japan (shot on the much grainier and antiquated Super 8 film to possibly confound its production date)—that not only attempts to understand the JRA and its titular characters’ ultimate homecomings through the use of oral reflections (in voiceover), historic documents, and media clips, but also through the application of Adachi’s sociopolitical, cinematic theory of landscape called fukeiron. A striking feature of his cinematic manifesto The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971), for example—a film co-directed with Kôji Wakamatsu at the behest of the JRA and the PFLP—is the intersection of the camera’s roving surveys of land- and cityscapes with disembodied voiceovers, which operates like a spectral pas de deux. Ultimately combining newsreel footage of recent plane hijackings by the Black September Organization (which later staged the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage massacre) with interviews and monologues by party members, Adachi demonstrated that the dominant political order could be read by turning the camera not toward scripted action, but to the field of everyday life in order to witness the (supposedly) coded effects of oppression in the management of the land itself. An excerpt from the first work to employ this theory in earnest, Adachi’s AKA Serial Killer (1969)—a film which contrasts the mad mind of a nineteen-year-old murderer with the environment that formed and condemns him as a figure-ground composite—is also on view at Galerie Greta Meert in a manner befitting of a DVD special feature, or extra.
Folding the theory of landscape back into the space of exhibition, it is important not to privilege Baudelaire’s feature film at the center of this installation, but to pan the entire gallery that surrounds it. Instead of a kind of immersive, expanded cinema environment, one encounters a framed Shigenobu family album, a slide show of prison drawings by Adachi, and other spin-offs lining the room. Although these are rather innocuous supplements, the difficulty in inscribing a very strong film within the context of an art gallery can be seen by the artist’s inclusion of the “Pictures of Documents” series (2013), nine blacked-out silkscreen prints of research artifacts. These framed works on paper appropriate the visual language of “Wanted” posters, prison transfer forms, and the like, yet proffer little intellectual heft, suggesting that these unique items (more akin to “radical chic” film posters than anything else) have strictly been made for the art market. However, financial considerations, and the pragmatics entailed, are not something one must automatically denounce. A more charitable reading might suggest that the inclusion of these works underscores the actual mechanics of how artists—and even activists—play a game of mutual cooperation today in order to get their work (and the word) out, and that move is justified here. Whether this is an instance of having your cake and eating it too is left (teasingly) ambiguous.
Downstairs, a fictionalized, yet semi-autobiographical love story is set against the backdrop of an armed struggle of Beirut’s recent past. The film, entitled The Ugly One (2013)—written by Adachi, yet deliberately recomposed on location in Lebanon by Baudelaire—is presented without supporting items, except for the original Japanese screenplay. Whether Baudelaire is intentionally contrasting normative fiction’s freedom from the need to justify its existence in the radically different staging of this film or not remains to be seen—especially considering the recent tendency to ensconce research-based art in faux-academic and faux-journalistic styling as a means of bridging the commercial /creative non-fiction divide. In any case, the artist’s confidence in showing The Ugly One without relying on such crutches is most refreshing.
Presentational differences aside, the nature of The Ugly One is itself set adrift in a meta-textual way, as the narrator—Adachi in voiceover—speculates on the faults and regrets of insurrection (presumably his own), at the same time that the film alludes to the sectarian violence one finds in the current Syrian conflict. Nevertheless, The Ugly One wonderfully furthers the ouroboros nature of Baudelaire’s penchant for pitting stylistic constraints against theoretical considerations. The legal hindrance preventing Adachi from participating in his own shoots in and of Lebanon for these new films (he has since been banned from reentering the country) is now inscribed in Baudelaire’s subjective, filmic interpolations. As such, Adachi’s own circuitous battle with expression comes full circle in this new installation of works, a metaphoric anabasis-like return to filmmaking that brings some closure to the terms and themes of their collaboration in the exhibition’s upper gallery. However, unlike Xenophon and his troop’s lauded heroics, both of these films cut an incomplete, if not blurred image as the players industriously carry on.
Although “27 Years Without Images” refers to the year of May’s first public “coming out” after her mother’s apprehension, as well as Adachi’s retreat from directing, both Fusako and Adachi were quite busy during those years, orchestrating terror attacks with the intent that they might be photographed and circulated by others, particularly the mass media. While a misguided scholar might invent some nuanced reading “which makes authorship problematic” in this instance, a conscientious thinker might only note that such intellectualizing has lost sight of a clearer image of justice. Tellingly, the present-day Fusako has come to embrace civil disobedience from her own prison cell, just as a public Facebook page in her name recently highlighted another form of withdrawal to help liberate Palestine (linked from a page in her daughter’s name, no less): the call for a boycott on Israel.
- 1View of Eric Baudelaire, “The Anabasis & The Ugly One,” Galerie Greta Meert, Brussels, 2014. All images courtesy Galerie Greta Meert, Brussels.
- 2Eric Baudelaire, The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shingenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images, 2011. Super 8 and HD video, 66:00 minutes.
- 3Eric Baudelaire, The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shingenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images, 2011. Still from super 8 and HD video, 66:00 minutes.
- 4Eric Baudelaire, The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shingenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images, 2011. Still from super 8 and HD video, 66:00 minutes.
- 5View of Eric Baudelaire, “The Anabasis & The Ugly One,” Galerie Greta Meert, Brussels, 2014.
- 6View of Eric Baudelaire, “The Anabasis & The Ugly One,” Galerie Greta Meert, Brussels, 2014.
- 7Eric Baudelaire, The Ugly One, 2013. DCP scope 2.39, sound 5.1, 101:00 minutes.
- 8Eric Baudelaire, The Ugly One, 2013. Still from DCP scope 2.39, sound 5.1, 101:00 minutes.
- 9Eric Baudelaire, The Ugly One, 2013. Still from DCP scope 2.39, sound 5.1, 101:00 minutes.
- 10Poster for Eric Baudelaire, The Ugly One, 2013.