ISOLATED EXPERIMENTS - JAWNI HAN
A biweekly series where we focus on short works by fresh voices in experimental moving images. Sign up for our mailing list via our contact page to get email updates about new films as we post them.
This week, we are featuring "Where Words Fail..." a three minute video piece made by artist Jawni Han.
MFW: The form of your film clearly recalls Hollis Frampton’s “Poetic Justice,” whose text-based concept challenges the viewer to make the movie in their mind’s eye. however, by positioning the descriptions against still images, you end by creating a film whose meaning becomes completely different from Frampton’s. What was the intent behind your elaboration on that concept?
JH: As you accurately pointed out in your question, the central formal device of my film is borrowed from Frampton's "Poetic Justice." And I also borrowed a lot from Jean Eustache's relatively little-known short film "Les Photos d'Alix" that wittily explores the discrepancies between a photographer's verbal descriptions of her own works and the photos themselves. I came across Eustache's film before discovering Frampton; upon seeing "Poetic Justice," I was immediately reminded of "Les Photos d'Alix." At the time I made "Where Words Fail...", I was studying philosophy at Brooklyn College. That semester, I took a deep dive into Hegel's "Phenomenology of Spirit," and I stumbled upon a section of the book in which Hegel writes that an attempt to turn empirical reality into abstract understanding amounts to a murder. How Alexandre Kojève explains Hegel's idea is that when the meaning of the word "dog," for instance, is in relation to an actual dog in existence, that meaning lives; for this particular "dog" is a living, breathing entity that runs around and eats. However, when the word "dog" is used to signify the dog in general, the meaning dies there since it does not relate to any dog in particular—in this instance, "dog" is simply an abstract concept built on universality. This is obviously an age-old philosophical problem concerning the universal vs. the particular that was formulated already in the ancient Greek thought. However, I was deeply struck by how Hegel (and Kojève) framed this problem around our relation to words, as well as how words, in turn, mediate our relation to the world. I sensed that there was a shared philosophical concern between Hegel and Eustache-Frampton. I wanted to challenge Hegel, but instead of writing a philosophical treatise like he did, I turned my idea and argument into a film. In "Where Words Fail...", the textual descriptions of photographs are juxtaposed with said photographs themselves. As Hegel argues in "Phenomenology," there are discrepancies between the particular (objects in photographs) and the universal (words indicating said objects in the photographs); to a certain extent, I agree with Hegel that abstract concepts cannot wholly capture empirical reality. However, the text in my film invites the viewer to create their own particular in the form of a mental picture consisting of the visual renditions of the words they see. In other words, the words (the universal) in my film do not "kill" anything. On the contrary, they generated a set of new particulars that are different from the photographs shown in the film. The fact that the viewer's mental pictures are most likely different from the actual photographs only reinforces my position. Words do not always flatten reality so as to "murder" sensuous beings; sometimes, they expand reality by opening up new possibilities.
MFW: With that in mind, wouldn't it follow that the Hegelian murderer here is really the photograph?
JH: Yes, in terms of formal relations, and no, in terms of what the photograph does in my film. The photographs in my film are not abstraction; rather, each of them is one particular instantiation of possible images containing objects described in the text. My photographs shown in the film do not negate (or "murder," to use Hegel's language) the viewer's mental images. In fact, the Hegelian murder is prevented precisely because there are more than one visual instantiation of the text. The photograph shown in the film is incapable of "killing" others in the Hegelian sense since it, too, is a particular image that has a corresponding entity in reality.
MFW: What was your process for selecting the photographs? They seem random but also deliberate, in terms of their similarities to one another.
JH: For the most part, these were arbitrarily chosen without any theme or conscious aesthetic agenda in mind.These are simply pictures that kind of spoke to me and brought back good memories. With the exception of the first photo, all of them were taken during my family road trip in the US back in the summer of 2016. The first one was taken in Seoul around 2014. Another common thread that connects them all, I guess, is the fact that all of them are snapshots of random events. I just happened to be there by chance, and I simply framed each scene using my cheaply-acquired second hand Canon t3i. Hopefully, the viewer could feel the spontaneity in these photos.
MFW: That’s interesting, I couldn’t tell from the film whether they were found images or photos you’d taken yourself. Knowing that the reality that the images capture was something you'd experienced yourself vs an imagined reality that would be akin to the images that arise in the mind from the descriptors, suggests that another person attempting to make the same film with the same images might find totally different descriptions to use. Do you think this changes the meaning of the film intrinsically?
JH: That's a very interesting question, and I'd love to see someone make the same film using the same images! It's true that someone else might find completely different descriptions even if the images would remain the same. That being said though, I do not think that this changes the meaning of the film intrinsically. As I alluded in my answer to an earlier question, I was hoping "Where Words Fail..." to be one instantiation of what could be made from using the framework provided by Hollis Frampton and my photographs. The fact that someone might remake this film using the same images, yet having completely different descriptions only reaffirms the film's existence as a vehicle for multiple possibilities. I invite all the readers to remake "Where Words Fail...", using or not using the same images.
MFW: That would be great! I hope some people take you up on that challenge (anyone who does should email their version to email@example.com !)—it’s interesting to think a concept could be carried through Jean Eustache and Hollis Frampton through your eyes and then whomever else might carry the work on…it makes something collective by necessarily also being contingent on individual viewpoints. What effect do you think approaching art this way might have over time?
JH: I think one possible effect that this approach could have on art over time is that art criticism would no longer be an entity separate from art. What I mean is that, I do see "Where Words Fail..." as a work of criticism, directed at both Hegel and the two filmmakers (Eustache & Frampton) from whom I shamelessly stole the formal framework of my film. In some ways, I wanted to be part of a certain group of filmmakers who consciously place their works in particular traditions, and have their films function both as artworks and film criticism. Godard's "Alphaville," for instance, is clearly his thesis on the German Expressionism. Stan Brakhage made "The Riddle of Lumen" in response to Hollis Frampton's "Zorn's Lemma." "The Riddle of Lumen," in turn, inspired Philippe Corner to create an experimental piece of piano improvisation, and he sent the recording to Brakhage. Then, Brakhage made another film called "Passage Through a Ritual" to accompany Corner's musical piece (this might just be my favorite Brakhage piece, actually). All of these works are artworks, but I also see them in as works of criticism. I would like to believe that I started a critical discourse surrounding Hollis Frampton's "Poetic Justice" and Jean Eusatache's "Les Photos d'Alix," and I hope someone joins in and continues this thread.
is a queer filmmaker from Seoul, currently based in Brooklyn. Passionate about both experimental non-fiction and narrative films, Jawni travels between the two genres to formulate a distinctive style of narrative film with an essayistic sensibility—or an essay film that uses fiction to flesh out its thesis. Their latest short film “Heaven of Las Vegas,” at once a satirical comedy and a cheeky love letter to the NYC film scene, is an example of the former; “Chorus for Antigone,” a film adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s rendition of “Antigone” juxtaposed with Simone Weil’s seminal text “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” is an example of the latter. Jawni’s films often delve into themes and topics such as temporal reality in relation to cinema and photography, political possibilities of cinema as a medium (from a Marxist perspective), and the concept of identity as a constant tug-of-war between authenticity and performance. At the moment, they are working on their first feature-length screenplay inspired by their own experience as a queer immigrant in the US, Jacques Derrida’s Hauntology, a lyrical fragment from a Pavement song (“you can never quarantine the past”), and the conception of cinema as “autobiographical fan-fiction.”