BY Joe Scanlan in Reviews | 07 MAY 95
Featured in
Issue 22

Alfredo Jaar

BY Joe Scanlan in Reviews | 07 MAY 95

This exhibition, a special project commissioned by the museum, showed eight groupings of black linen photo boxes, stacked like bricks or laid out on the floor like tiles, each containing a photograph taken last August in the aftermath of Rwanda's civil war. None of the boxes could be opened nor their images seen. Instead, a description of each photograph was foil-stamped onto the lid of its box, with headings marking the time and place and with occasional overviews of what had caused the scene. The entire gallery was dark except for tight spotlights that illuminated each coffer of images, creating a mood of solemn yet seductive restraint. The more the show withheld its information, the more one felt compelled to pursue it - either by reading the captions more closely or by trying to discern Jaar's serial logic. Voluntary intimacy was the result; a disarming closeness that four-colour images of the same content would not allow:

'Nyagazambu Camp

48 kilometres east of Kigali, Rwanda

Friday, August 26, 1994

This photograph shows a large crowd of people waiting under a heavy sun for their names to be called by a Red Cross official. A Swiss journalist stands on his right with a microphone recording the sounds of the names being called. Engaged in an image of pathos instead of the complexity of the notion of genocide, the media has voraciously descended on the camps with cameras and microphones.'

This example contains the crux of the entire exhibition, exposing its well-meaning sensitivity and blinding naïveté. How can an artist travel to a foreign land, take pictures of strangers experiencing extreme trauma and misery, and yet refer to 'the media' as if he were not a part of it? Perhaps it is because Jaar was careful to set his tripod up on a nearby knoll, where the click of his shutter was only audible to him. Or because, in his captions, he frequently acknowledges how his subjects regard him - gazes that are 'fixed defiantly on the camera' or that 'look at the camera with a resigned expression'. More importantly, it is because Jaar has decided not to exhibit the images he has taken; a gesture made clearer by his inclusion of a 'media room' as part of the installation. This made available the glossy coverage of Time, Newsweek, et al., and begged the question 'is there an etiquette to photographing human carnage for export that, ultimately, makes it permissible?' Well, yes... there is an etiquette to exploitation, just as there is to sado-masochism: participants must stick to their respective roles lest they destroy the event's structure and meaning. However, that doesn't make it permissible, only possible.

A deeper concern with this show, related to etiquette but more to responsibility, is Jaar's implication that language is somehow kinder to its subjects than pictures and thus more compassionate - or appropriate - as a medium for depicting violence. Perhaps it is, but in assuming so, Jaar confuses journalistic phraseology with objective certainty. Replete with subject surnames, colours and smells, his captions have an air of truth to them. This use of precision as metaphor for concern is betrayed by Jaar himself when he states on one box that 'in the photograph, there are too many bodies to count'. What can he mean by that? There's not too many of anything to count, only too little time, interest, energy or resources. What Jaar has written, in the hope of evoking magnitude and awe, only unmasks his rather detached and economic view of the scene. Would he say that there are too many bodies to count to Gutete Emerita, whose husband and two sons are in the pile? But Jaar is too busy sexualising Ms. Emerita to empathise with the extinction of her family:

'Her gaze is directed at the speaker, but falls to the side at moments. Her face is pleasant but fragile; dark brown skin, full lips and rounded cheekbones. Her eyes look lost and incredulous....'

If - just once - Jaar would say 'we' instead of 'the media', or begin to wonder how he could remark on the fullness of a woman's lips while she is surrounded by rotting corpses, then we might begin to ask not how this kind of subject matter should be handled, but why we have such a carnal appetite for it in the first place.