The Incomplete Truth
Spectres by Sven Augustijnen

Sven Augustijnen, still from Spectres, 2011. Courtesy: Jan Mot, Brussels

In his newest film, Brussels artist Sven Augustijnen uses Belgium's colonial past in Congo to demonstrate that discovering truth in an art documentary is a pointless and futile effort, albeit one well worth seeing.
In his newest film, Brussels artist Sven Augustijnen uses Belgium's colonial past in Congo to demonstrate that discovering truth in an art documentary is a pointless and futile effort, albeit one well worth seeing.

As behoves any true documentary, the most recent long film by the Belgian artist Sven Augustijnen (b. 1970) has a clear storyline. Spectres (2011), previously exhibited in Wiels and now on view at De Appel and other locations, is a 102-minute portrait of Sir Jacques Brasinne de la Buissière, divided into some ten scenes. Brasinne has devoted 50 years to the turbulent decolonization of the former Belgian Congo in the early 1960s, more specifically to the execution of the Congolese premier Patrick Lumumba and two of his trusted associates. The viewer follows the protagonist as he finds survivors and archival documents in his search for who was responsible for this drama. While the film opens as a neutral report, it gradually turns into a dramatic epic – one in which the protagonist has to convince not so much the viewer, but himself, that he is right.

For the most part, the artificial, almost fictitious quality of Spectres is thanks to strategic reversals within the documentary format. To begin with, there is a focus on body language during the interviews. The chat with Arnoud d’Aspremont Lynden, for example, the former Belgian Minister for African Affairs, goes hand in hand with continuous movements of the camera. Augustijnen zooms in on the gesturing hands, shifting feet or the crossing of the knees that are intended to make the text more believable and therefore more convincing, while the speaker – often Brasinne – continues to prattle on unperturbed in the background. The technique of the close-up, which normally visually records verbal testimony and consequently identifies it as being truthful, here functions in a contrasting way. In the zooms and pans on gesticulations and facial expressions, the text is shown merely as a construction whose credibility depends on empathetic gestures.

Sven Augustijnen, still from Spectres, 2011. Courtesy: Jan Mot, Brussels

In addition, Augustijnen plays with the narrative elements of the documentary: the sequence of facts and events that lead to a judgment or conclusion. Spectres, too, has its own linear chronology, with the difference that here, the character reinforces his story one step at a time. Brasinne's version of the Lumumba assassination is confirmed by virtually all of those who are interviewed, and the detailed archival documents, crosschecked with the actual locations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, also give him the status of an accomplished and objective historian. The background information, which appears in blocks throughout the film, reveals something different. Brasinne apparently played a key role in Congo under Harold d’Aspremont Lynden, and as a young minister even stood at the drafting table of Congo's hastened independence. As a result, the search gradually changes into a personal process of working through the trauma, and the investigation becomes an atonement in order to assuage Brasinne's conscience. Poignantly accompanied by Bach's Johannespassion, the documentary suddenly almost becomes fiction, and the linear narrative a sophisticated dramaturgy.

The documentary plays on one last idiom, namely that of the reconstruction. When Brasinne returns to Congo, he is visibly affected by the destroyed places and objects that carried traces of Lumumba’s death. He (or the director) subsequently decides to travel at night to the site where the assassination took place, and reconstruct the deed in the dark jungle. Brasinne parks his all-terrain vehicle in the way delineated in his many descriptions and indicates where the officers stood in line, how the prisoners were executed, and so forth. The film ends in a long, static shot of his silhouette, which is illuminated by the headlights of the Jeep and which seems to transform itself into the tragic fate of Patrick Lumumba. The reconstruction thus creates an unheimliche switch between the protagonist and Lumumba – interweaving the object and the subject of the investigation. Where re-enactment normally makes the past tangible, as a police reconstruction would, it now expresses itself in the staged reality that Brasinne has described for himself, and that holds him captive after a lifelong engagement.

In the reversals in the documentary, as well as in the accompanying documentation and catalogue, Augustijnen presents different stages of a contradictio-in-terminis: the ‘untrue’ truth. A series of photographs by Brasinne, shown on monitors or hung in the form of diptychs or triptychs in midsize format, are also such untrue, incomplete truths: fruitless attempts to objectively make a visual record of the traumatic history. We see unpaved roads, ruins and abandoned airfields as silent witnesses to the murder, visited by Brasinne in 1968, in 1988 and again in 2010 for Augustijnen’s film. Photographs that say little continue to reappear: an empty segment of jungle; the same image with the camera turned 90°; and again, now zoomed in; a little farther along on the monitor, that same jungle, 20 years before. It is clear that Brasinne has identified his truth with that image. Once it is repeated, zoomed in on or re-shot, the photograph can no longer ‘lie’, and becomes the representation of a – fictitious – reality. The collection of photographic repetitions expresses a Freudian ritual in which Brasinne inexorably and relentlessly takes possession of an imaginary truth.

Sven Augustijnen, still from Spectres, 2011. Courtesy: Jan Mot, Brussels

Although Augustijnen does not operate didactically – the film remains primarily a portrait – the contents and the form of Spectres resonates with the bursts of post-colonialism in contemporary art. In the wake of the passion for archives and gender studies of the 1990s, artists such as Roy Villevoye, Renzo Martens and Vincent Meessen are once again taking a look behind the Western curtain. The focus on the former colonies is in fact less motivated by a fascination with the cultural ‘Other’ – we already know that cultures are complex and hybrid – than by a reflection on how it is represented and expressed through the media, as we see in the press photography of central Africa (Martens), the idolatry of New Guinea tribes (Villevoye), or the colonial undertone of Western imagery (Meessen). The pitfalls in ethnographic investigations of this kind are actually still the same as they were 15 years ago, when art historian Hal Foster introduced the paradigm of the artist as ethnographer. The notion of ‘demythification’, or the idea that art can intervene in the local 'reality', is problematic because the social meaning of the work of art depends solely on its institutional benefactors. 'Just as the productivist sought to stand in the reality of the proletariat only in part to sit in the place of the patron’, wrote Foster in his famous essay, ‘so the quasi-anthropological artist today may seek to work with sited communities with the best motivates of political engagement and institutional transgression, only in part to have this work recoded by its sponsors as social outreach, economic development, public relations... or art.'1 When Renzo Martens thus resolutely states that his film Episode III: Enjoy Poverty (2008) is ‘no documentary, but a work of art’, he avoids the problem for the sake of an ironic artistic spectacle.2 Engagement is here translated into a pathetic form of self-reflection, in which the artist shamelessly wallows in the complex web of his own complicity.

Spectres has no intention of analyzing the conflicting status of the artist.3 It is sooner about examining the uniqueness of the particular formats of the work, such as the documentary, the catalogue and the archive, and playing them against one another. ‘The distinction between “film” and “fine art” is no longer relevant, in any case not for me,’ writes Augustijnen. ‘I do not really “know” the problem of contradicting disciplines or media.’4 In his focus on the documentary, the artist also refuses to conform to the playing field of the fine arts, and to its protective comfort zone of apathy or self-castigation. The zooms, double entendres and reconstructions in the film do, however, point out the impossibility of making fundamental, objective statements; but in doing so, they do not fall into absolute relativity (‘everything is pretence, nothing is possible’). For some people, not in the least Jacques Brasinne, that search for truth does have a valid and fruitful objective, with a therapeutic and an intellectual value. Here, art-as-anthropology raises its head as the precarious exercise that it ultimately is: a pointless and ultimately futile effort that is nonetheless worth the trouble of pursuing.

Stefaan Vervoort is an art critic based in Amsterdam and Ghent

Sven Augustijnen. Spectres
De Appel, Amsterdam
15 October 2011 - 8 January 2012


  1. Hal Foster, ‘The Artist as Ethnographer?’, in The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology, George Marcus & Fred Myers, eds. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), p. 303. For a stylistically more refined but less clear version, see chapter 6 of Foster's The Return of the Real.
  2. Renzo Martens, as quoted in ‘Renzo Martens: “Medeleven is niet genoeg”’, Harm Ede Botje, Vrij Nederland weekly newspaper, Amsterdam, 15 November, 2008.
  3. Augustijnen applies his work to erasing the exemplary status of the artist. As a result, he sees the financing of his films not as an a priori, but personally seeks subsidy channels by way of his production collective Auguste Orts, integrally placing the production in the hands of the artist. Spectres was also produced by Auguste Orts, with support from the Flemish Audiovisual Foundation, Projections, Cobra Films and the Jan Mot Gallery. See
  4. Sven Augustijnen, as quoted in Auguste Orts: Correspondence, Dieter Roelstraete, ed. (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2010), p. 36.

Translated from the Dutch by Mari Shields