The Dreyfus affair was one of the most disgraceful in French history. Alfred Dreyfus was an obscure captain in the French army who came from a Jewish family that had left its native Alsace for Paris when Germany annexed that province in 1871. In 1894, papers discovered in the office of a German military attache made it appear that a French military officer was providing secret information to the German government. Dreyfus came under suspicion, and the army authorities declared that his handwriting was similar to that on the papers. Despite his protestations of innocence, he was found guilty of treason in a secret court martial, during which Dreyfus was denied the right to examine the evidence. The army stripped him of his rank and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. By 1896, the generals involved knew Commandant Ferdinand Esterhazy was the culprit, but it took 12 years for Dreyfus’s conviction to be overturned.
The case underscored the bitter divisions in late 19th-century France between monarchists and republicans, the right and left, the Catholic Church and the army, and was tainted by the whiff of anti-Semitism. In 1898, the French novelist Emile Zola wrote J’Accuse in defence of Dreyfus. The article led to the author being tried for criminal libel. Public passion was aroused, as the political right and the leadership of the Catholic Church – both of which were openly hostile to the Republic – declared the Dreyfus case to be a conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons designed to damage the prestige of the army and, thereby, destroy France.
The Danish artist Henrik Plenge Jakobsen has used the case as the starting point for his installation at the South London Gallery, where he has transformed the space into a black-and-white mise-en-scene that melds something of Peter Greenaway’s film The Draughtsman’s Contract with the optical art of Bridget Riley.
Mineral Judges, 2005
To make sure that we know we are in the 17th century, the sound of a harpsichord and an organ lend a period flavour. A court bench and a judge’s chair provide the seating to view The Mineral Judges, a video in which three fictional characters in legal gear and wellies search for “evidence” in the mud-flats of the Thames. Separate showcases house sculptural installations entitled The Bank of Evidence, The Bank of England, The European Central Bank and The Bank of Accusations, assembled from buckets of gravel, mud and detritus, euro coins, dollar bills and beer cans. Spades and a judge’s wig appear as other “exhibits”.
In the centre of the space is a large stage painted in black and white, with loudspeakers, keyboards, a turntable and an amplifier. On the opposite wall are rows of black-and-white vinyl EPs of music by Purcell and something by Jakobsen. Fixed in rows along the wall, the discs look like the blank faces of an impassive jury.
The press release urges us to believe that Jakobsen “draw[s] parallels between Zola’s letter and the current climate of fear and suspicion generated in an environment of political spin”. But without all the attendant commentary, the piece would not really be intelligible; it just does not deliver what it sets out to do and simply claims too much. Three guys dressed up as judges digging in the mud of the Thames and a pile of dollars bills do not make a political critique; and it is unclear who is being accused and of what. Any parallels between the Dreyfus affair and, say, the illegal incarcerations at Guantanamo Bay are just too wide and insufficiently signalled within the work itself.
While it is commendable in these times of cultural indifference towards politics that any artist should feel the need to become involved in current debates, Jakobsen’s offering adds up to little more than a critique of the funny wigs worn by the English judiciary and something vague about the pervasive power of the dollar.
Henrik Plenge Jakobsen J’Accuse at the South London Gallery from 14 January to 27 February 2005
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Henrik Plenge Jakobsen 2005
J’Accuse Photo: Marcus Leith
Published in The Independent