Alfredo Jaar, Muxima, 2005, still from digital video, 36'. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong, New York. Alfredo Jaar, The Sound of Silence, 2006, mixed media installation - wood structure, zinc, fluorescent tubes, LED lights, flash lights, tripods, 8' video projection, looped, overall. dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Andy Stagg
Alfredo Jaar, South London Gallery, 16 February 2008- 6 April 2008.
Jaar’s exhibition at the South London Gallery comprises three types of work, offering a sample of some of the forms and strategies he has utilised in delineating what the title of a recent retrospective termed “the politics of images.” Photo works and the large installation The Sound of Silence (2006) sought to address the workings of media imagery, whilst Muxima (2005), Jaar’s first film, sought to construct a mode of representing Africa that did not deal in the simplification and erasure of stereotype.
The Sound of Silence announces its presence before one even enters the exhibition. The entrance to the gallery space is filled from floor to ceiling by an intense glare of closely arrayed white neon strip lights, offering both an intense focus of attraction but also, if not repulsing the viewer, then at least setting up a barrier to be passed through on the way to a different space beyond. Inside the gallery, the lights are revealed as the end of a large aluminium clad box construction. At the other end, one peers through a doorway at rows of lights which change from red to green when it is possible to enter, although a gallery usher was also constantly indicating the correct form of behaviour to visitors who had not read their exhibition notes and threatened to transgress. Inside are rows of benches, flash lights arranged towards the audience, and a screen counting down to the beginning.
What unfolds is a text, broken into short sections usually one line in length, that narrate the story of Kevin Clarke, a Magnum photographer. The film tells the story of his birth and upbringing in South Africa, his army service and subsequent career as photographer, building to the moment where he photographs a starving child in Sudan who crawls exhausted in the desert, watched by a Vulture. Jaar tells us that the photograph won a Pullitzer prize, but prompted outrage from those who wanted to know why Clarke, instead of helping, waited for the Vulture to open its wings and provide the perfect compositional touch. Jaar tells us how Clarke commits suicide. The flash lights go off in the audiences faces and, almost like an after image, Clarke’s photograph appears on the screen. A final section of text outlines the legal history of Clarke’s image, its ownership and archive reference number, before concluding "no one knows what happened to the child."
Jaar tells his story through a manipulation of language – varying the length of each piece of text to affect rhythm, suspend or propel the narrative as he deems appropriate. He shows Clarke’s life story as embroiled within the hate and murder of apartheid, stressing his social commitment and his own status as a “survivor”, breaking down the distance between photographer and image. The result is a powerful if sometimes uneasy mixture of objectivity and emotion; a space of contemplation which is nonetheless closed and didactic in the role it gives its audience.
Several wall pieces showcase Jaar’s work with found media imagery. The Power of Words (1984) shows classic black and white reportage photographs of famine, war, and catastrophe – as well as one Renaissance image of a naked woman holding a cross – emerging from typewriters: a deliberately anachronistic technology to demonstrate the historical roots of a form of perception not simply a critique of some contemporary manifestations. Searching for Africa in LIFE (1996) proclaims the absence of Africa from the covers of the weekly news magazine that Jaar wishes to chronicle, as does Untitled (Newsweek) (1994) – reproduced as the galleries tabloid newspaper –which chronicles Newsweek’s array of cover stories alongside factual statements of the unfolding Rwandan genocide. Greed (2007) and From Time to Time (2006) reveal how Africa is depicted on magazine covers through two forms of erasure: Africa as place of famine, war and starvation, and Africa represented through natural images of lions and gorillas as a “Last Eden.” These two are intertwined when, for example, lions become used to indicate social catastophe.
Jaar’s magazine pieces are didactic, propagandistic, awareness raising – Jaar himself, in his recent talk at Tate Modern, described Untitled (Newsweek) as a work documenting “barbaric criminal indifference.” They also have a more subtle, discriminating presence, revealing covers as networks where bar code, price, tag lines, font size, type - are all working to construct ideological meanings, that are as indiscriminating as the tag line “Haditha Massacre. Al Gore Warms Up. Enron Justice. John Updike.” Such covers are not assertions of distance and removal but impassioned, perhaps hysterical calls for care, involvement, response, and participation: “how to save a life”; “Look at the pictures. Read the words. And then try not to care.” In the Q&A at Tate Modern, Jaar said he felt the power of documentary photography could be redeemed through creating new contexts. This work holds out the same complicated possibility for the mass market magazine.
Muxima initially seems to be following The Sound of Silence, as a text appears letter by letter on the screen – Angolan poet and president Agostinho Neto’s paen to rhythm in “light…colour… movement… in the bloody cracks of bare feet… on torn nails… oh painful African voices.” A prelude shows a blurred arrangement of multi-coloured shapes that come into focus as people washing clothes outdoors in coloured baskets, before the film is divided, poem-like, into twelve “Cento’s.” Cento I is a still portrait of six boys posing for the camera, hands over hearts; their exuberant energy and life shot against a background of an oil refinery. In II, the music begins and the film offers a variety of shots of the river – from wide, panoramic shots to close ups of the boats wake; the passage through the water shown at varying speeds.
Subsequent Cento’s explore aspects of African landscape, utilising this same aesthetic: moving around a scene with a variety of angles and rhythms; unfolding a scene slowly through its component parts; plays between movement and stillness. Jaar seeks a subtlety where ideological and aesthetic modes become entangled. In III the roofs of shanty towns and the faces of colonial statues are linked by their shared wear and decay, their reduction to plastic, iron and rust. For all its aesthetic connection, this is the disconnection of history and contemporaneity, coloniser and colonised. At the end of II, after shots of the flowing river entwined with the musical rhythms of the soundtrack, there is a return to silence and stillness: a sign on a tall fence which a subtitle translates as: THE MOST IMPORTANT IS TO RESOLVE THE PROBLEMS OF THE PEOPLE. Jaar is always looking for how details can unfold to reveal broader social and historical meanings, either, as here, through a subtle haiku-like montage, or through the images own momentum: a slow pan along a tube that reveals the hand it is connected to; the boat journey ending at a missionary church.
Although very different from a film such as Naked Spaces-Living is Round (1985), Muxima does connect strongly to the ideas of Trinh T, Minh-ha who, in her essay collection When the Moon Waxes Red, observes:
Meaning can neither be imposed not denied. Although every film is in itself a form of ordering and closing, each closure can defy its own closure, opening onto other closures, thereby emphasizing the interval between apertures and creating a space in which meaning remains fascinated by what escapes and exceeds it. The necessity to let go of the notion of intentionality that dominates the question of the “social” as well as that of creativity cannot therefore be confused with the ideal of non-intervention, an ideal in relation to which the filmmaker, trying to become as invisible as possible in the process of producing meaning, promotes empathic subjectivity at the expense of critical enquiry even when the intention is to show and to condemn oppression. (49)
This is most evident in how Jaar depicts the human body. Although all participants are credited by name in the titles, they are not always shown in ways that reveal or present them for our consumption: face concealed behind a reflective visor they maintain their own interiority rather than being presented for some others consumption; interviewed they are seen but not heard, refusing an easy translation of society into sound bite. The camera zooms in and freezes on a face, highlighting the filmmaker’s techniques of framing and selection, suggesting experience as belonging to a now inaccessible moment. The film opens to the whole range of scales in which a human body is experienced: from close-ups of hands on piano keys to groups of figures playing on a beach in the distance.
Jaar’s landscapes, too, are revealed as deeply humanised: from statues of colonial leaders, to streets named after revolutionary heroes, and rows of seats awaiting bodies at the outdoor cinema. The camera becomes a body, turning left and right, when it reaches this cinema, but it is also a tool whose movement and choices are following the human body as it manifests in flesh and place. The body never becomes an icon. A woman kneels with her back to us, arms upraised at an altar. She lowers her arms but the shot continues, concerned with the life of a place and a person rather than any frozen iconic moment or gesture.
One of the pleasures of Muxima is how it shows an experienced, accomplished artist thoughtfully beginning again, finding himself a working language and technique of film. Given the care Jaar takes to identify the film as a product of the place itself, Griselda Pollock’s comment on Jaar’s work – in The Politics of Images catalogue - remains almost as pertinent to Muxima as to the other work in this teaching show:
[his work is] not the production of images, but the creation and choreographing of the viewer’s encounter with and reflection upon the encounter with images in an image-saturated culture structured by its unprocessed relation to Africa. (132)