Bodies wracked by grief, convulsed by the shock of politics, immortalized by the click of a camera’s shutter: these were the raw materials of Alfredo Jaar’s latest, multi-room installation. Using as its touchstone a 1978 photograph taken in Nicaragua, Shadows (2015) pared back the image to two central figures, whose distressed forms became detached from the larger photograph in an arresting, one-minute loop of flashing and fading. Shadows is part of a trilogy of works that also includes The Sound of Silence (2006), which used one of South African photojournalist Kevin Carter’s images of the 1994 famine in Sudan. With Shadows, Jaar turned to the work of the Dutch photographer Koen Wessing, mounting several of his shots in light boxes along darkened corridors, and projecting the principal image – of two Nicaraguan women reacting to news of their father’s senseless death – onto a sprawling white screen in a pitch-black room at the installation’s centre.
Wessing trained his camera on the murder of a farmer in Estelí, Nicaragua, by the National Guard under the country’s dictator, Anastasio ‘Tachito’ Somoza. Following the deceased man’s fellow farmers as they carried his body home, Wessing snapped – among other subjects – the victim’s two daughters, who had just received word of their father’s fate. One lurches forward, her face contorted and mouth open in a cry of anguish; at her side, her sister swoons with eyes closed, as if about to faint.
The exhibition included a video interview with Wessing that could be listened to on headphones. The conversation explores both the origin and the aftermath of his photograph – one that, Wessing confesses, still gives him nightmares decades later. Six smaller images were displayed in LED light boxes in the corridor leading to and from the central room. These photographs lent further context – temporal, topographical and familial – to the exhibition’s principal, spare image. In them, we see farmers leaning against a bus with their hands up, as a policemen trains his gun on them; we find the victim’s dead body at the side of the road, his skull shattered at the upper right; we observe solemn family members and neighbours reacting to news of his death with dismay or disbelief; we witness his daughters mourning at home next to their father’s body, lying in state with a cloth draped over his shattered face.
Yet, contrasted with the central image of the two women breaking down, these additional photographs dilate with the agony of bereavement, or a more general sense of uncertainty and confusion. In the main photograph, the women’s bodies appear set off against an unremarkable valley traversed by a simple dirt road. Indeed, the landscape in front of which they stand could be anywhere and, while their faces bear Central or South American features, their bodies’ forms appear with a universally visceral spontaneity: an anguish that transcends the particularity of their physiognomies or nationality. To this degree, Wessing’s image – unwittingly, yet perhaps necessarily – approximates something of history painting. Jaar’s inflation of the bodies to larger-than-life size on the screen heightens that sense of monumentality.
It is, however, Jaar’s treatment of the photograph that endows Shadows with a further, implicit commentary upon its medium and its rapport with memory. The image, at first, briefly congeals on the screen in its original state. The women then appear, increasingly detached from the surrounding image, as their bodies in turn fade to white, which gradually became a glaring, even blinding, light, outlined by the silhouette of their forms. Meanwhile, a gentle hum becomes a frenzied whirring. Presumably originating from the fans necessary to cool such a high-intensity lamp, the sound becomes – in its high-pitched agitation – a fitting aural accompaniment to the blinding light.
If the light evokes a camera’s flash, the image’s gradual coming into focus instead conjures up a photographic print in a darkroom, its contours slowly revealed in the developer’s bath, its graininess sharpening into detail. Once in focus, the picture gradually fades out, suggesting, perhaps, the slow leeching of memory from events or, more pointedly, the active, insidious erasure of memory by those for whom oblivion is politically expedient. As the women become drained of their personhood, leaving only empty outlines, we are reminded of the effect of politics upon actual bodies.
I was disappointed that Jaar’s first-rate work did not name the women and their murdered father. This risked further stripping their agency and individuality, leaving them merely victims or archetypes. They are these, too, to be sure. To that end, Wessing is asked in the installation’s video if his photograph recalls Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) or Osip Zadkine’s The Destroyed City (1951), a large sculpture of a buckling figure with upraised hands, which commemorates Rotterdam’s destruction by the Nazi Luftwaffe. ‘No,’ Wessing replies, ‘It’s more like a Greek tragedy; this had to happen in South America.’