Alfredo Jaar

In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times

- Bertolt Brecht

These are “dark times” – are they not? Perpetually in the twilight of intellectual crises and ethical challenges, current conditions require striking effects. Alfredo Jaar often brings light to these “dark times.” In 1999, he installed red lights in the Cupola, an abandoned, former Parliament building in Montreal. In an arrhythmic pattern, the red lights brightened and dimmed. At first enigmatic, Jaar’s indirect concept became clear. The lighted alarm above the city was activated when a homeless woman or man pushed a button in one of three nearby shelters. With a population of 15,000 homeless at the time, the intermittent beacon broke the “silence” of homelessness in this thriving city. With brilliant, pulsating, and ominous red lights, Jaar offered a vivid picture of homelessness.

Jaar’s work operates in spaces between the public and private, the epigrammatic and ephemeral to critically engage and examine narrative and visual content. Since words and images have been coupled, people have experienced the restive, relational structure of meaning. At times, apparently consistent and companionable texts and images communicate harmonious, if tentative, relationships. Yet increasingly, there is an unsettling dissonance and tension as the distinctive grammars of the verbal and the visual seem incompatible, argumentative, and irreconcilable. The glaring fact that these relationships are willfully, often toxically, constructed gives Jaar’s aesthetic practice a particular and passionate urgency.

With the saturation of images, the expansion of external influences on information, and individual distraction and inattention, the relationship of seeing and believing has never been more uncertain or circumstantial. The connection of these cultural conditions to concepts of public responsibility is a pulse that sustains and quickens Jaar’s work. Other subjects, situations, and subtexts are engaged, but this critical rhythm is a refrain in all of his aesthetically concise and geographically dispersed work.

In Jaar’s projects, texts and images frequently exist in tension, if not estranged separation. Following his 1994 pilgrimage to Rwanda to witness the carnage and catastrophic consequences of the systematic slaughter of one million Tutsi civilians by Hutu militias, Jaar experienced a silent space of unimaginable darkness. If not a case of traumatic blindness, such as experienced by Cambodian civilians who witnessed the murderous reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, Jaar withdrew from images. Disheartened by their shocking inadequacy and complicity, at first, he could not look at the thousands photographs he had taken in Rwanda. One of his first Rwandan projects included 550 prints of sixty images, each sealed in a black archival box. Disturbing conventional expectations, the images were aggressively withheld from viewers. In the darkened, twilight of the gallery, it was possible to read white texts printed on the lids of these small vaults. Each text concisely described an event, a moment – mass killings at a church, the terrible conditions of refugee camps, the searing effects of devastating loss – “pictured” inside the box. Real Pictures (1995) both theorized and materialized the crisis of meaning in that soundless, lightless space between language and vision.

What makes an artist desire yet lament images? What inspires an artist to create ineffable and resonant work about the unstable and inflated economy of images? Jaar’s examination of the manipulation and estrangement of images and texts reached a crescendo and denouement in Lament of the Images (2002). Created for Document 11, Lament of the Images was reinstated at Galerie Lelong in New York. With a background in architecture and film, Jaar sensitively orchestrated the spatial, visual, and temporal with unambiguous conceptual clarity. Viewers enter a darkened room where the only light emitted from three luminous white texts (that shared a familial connection to the labeled boxes in Real Pictures.) From Cape Town to Pennsylvania to Afghanistan, each text described a particular instance of the regulation of the visual – of seeing.

Placed side-by-side on a single wall, one text described Nelson Mandela’s inability to cry following his release, after 28 years, from prison on Robben Island. His eyes, damaged from the relentless glare of the sun in the white limestone quarries he was forced to mine with other prisoners, could shed no tears. Another text described Bill Gates’ purchase of 17 million images from the Bettmann and United Press International archives and their secure storage in an underground limestone mine in central Pennsylvania. Dutifully digitizing the vast holding of images, it will take at least 400 years to complete this Herculean project. A final text on the management of visuality described a United States-engineered “blackout” of Afghanistan. To monitor the media’s visual access to the impact of aggressive bombing, the U.S. government purchased rights to all satellite images of Afghanistan and neighboring countries.

A faint glow emanating behind a wall perpendicular to the texts guided viewers into a narrow corridor leading to another darkened space. While the backlit texts provided a hushed illumination, in this final space viewers confronted a dazzling, temporarily blinding rectangle of white light. A screen without projected film or image, the silhouetted forms of other viewers offered the only visual activity. In this loud assertion of withholding and withdrawal, viewers faced unremitting, but mute light.

Paradoxically, as Jaar suspends or withdraws images, his work has become stunningly theatricalized. With its architectural orchestration of movement, light, and darkness, Lament of the Images was a dramatically rendered sequence of perception. The theatricality of disappearance was shockingly explicit when the artist created a one-day project/event for the Swedish town of Skoghall. The site of the world’s largest paper mill, Skoghall is a company town shaped by an industrial paternalism bereft of culture. For The Skoghall Konsthall (2000), Jaar designed an exhibition building constructed entirely of paper from the mill. The first – and final – exhibition featured the work of young Swedish artists. Twenty-four hours after the festive opening and according to the artist’s plan, the building was ignited and allowed to burn. The immolation highlighted the community’s impoverished cultural life through a spectacular orchestration of expectation, withdrawal, and destruction.

In 1988, for his work on the series Geography=War, Jaar visited Koko, a small port in Nigeria that had become the destination for containers of toxic materials shipped from Europe. He returned to Africa in August, 1994 to witness the genocide in Rwanda. In 2004, he made his first trip to Angola. Following its independence from Portugal in 1975, Angola experienced more than a quarter century of civil war fuelled by the Soviet Union and Cuba on one side and the United States and South Africa on the other. Well over a million people died in the conflict and another four million were exiled. A formal ceasefire was signed in 2002. Although the conflict has subsided and with elections scheduled for 2006, the stark effects of war, corruption, and shocking economic contrasts are still omnipresent. The country is strewn with landmines. A wealth of oil, diamonds, and other natural resources attracts opportunistic, itinerant exporters from Europe and the United States who have intermittent, extravagant layovers in Luanda and other cities, but many Angolans live in poverty. Life expectancy figures are shockingly low. AIDS is a menace and a recent outbreak of an Ebola-like, hemorrhagic illness has made Angola off limits for most travelers.

As Jaar continues to analyze the depreciation of images, music is an increasingly vivid emotional and intellectual agent for the artist. Witness to the betrayal of images, perhaps music offers more subtle and reliable insights on cultures in change. In his research and travels in Angola, Jaar became enchanted with the traditional Kimbundu folksong Muxima (heart.) In his studio, he has five or six recordings made between 1956 (the year of Jaar’s birth) and 1998 that offer sonorous evidence of Angola’s history. It appears that music offers a way -- marks a return -- to the attraction and seduction of images. In March, 2005, Jaar returned to Angola to videotape pictures and places. Avoiding a narrow, linear narrative, but with a developed, conceptual map through a contemporary landscape of oil fields, AIDS, avarice, poverty, and the intersecting influences of different cultures, Jaar’s newest project is influenced by the melody and different renditions of Muxima and inspired his desire to witness Angola at a moment of dramatic change and development. Still skeptically interrogating and orchestrating the relationship of texts and images, narrative now is withheld so that seeing can be independent, undistracted, and absorbing. Of course, this is only a beginning, but it also is a continuation. The elegiac, cinematic quality of Lament of the Images, the evocative pulse of color above Montreal in Lights in the City, and the shocking annihilation of The Skoghall Konsthall reconfirm Jaar’s (and our) desire for the spectacular potential of the image. Accepting the many perils and possible failures of presentation and representation, Jaar’s challenging work casts a searching, animating light guiding us to more critical and compassionate perspectives in these “dark times.”

Patricia C. Phillips
March 2005
New Paltz, New York

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