On ViewYorkshire Sculpture Park
October 14, 2017 – April 8, 2018
New York-based Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar makes work that gets beneath the skin. Using the sparse formal language of minimalism, he creates haunting installations (often inspired by a single photograph). While the content is taken from incidents of state oppression, genocide, famine and human rights abuse (and Jaar’s own experience of these atrocities), the force of his work is its poetry.
Jaar is acutely aware of the risks of exploitation posed by photographing human suffering. As Walter Benjamin observed in his 1934 essay The Author as Producer, photography “has succeeded in making even abject poverty, by recording it in a fashionably perfected manner, into an object of enjoyment.” These moral and ethical questions are embedded in Jaar’s rigorous conceptual works which examine the politics of image making.
For instance, A Hundred Times Nguyen (1994), Jaar’s earliest work in his current show The Garden of Good and Evil at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) in northern England, lays bare the process of constructing an image. In one room a hundred images of a little girl, Nguyen, are displayed. She befriended Jaar when he visited a detention camp for Vietnamese boat refugees in Hong Kong. The child stares at the camera with older-than-her-years eyes that follow the viewer around the room. Looking closely, one perceives four variations of the image, placed in different sequences and one repeated sequence. In one the girl, who was born in the camp, half-smiles mischievously, in another she appears hesitant, in the third her expression becomes almost expectant, and in the fourth a note of wistfulness creeps in. What happened to Nguyen? Was her family resettled or repatriated? Thinking of the millions of children like Nguyen living in camps today, the work feels timely as well as accusatory.
A Hundred Times Nguyen belongs to the retrospective section of the exhibition, which is located in an indoor gallery and comprises works on paper, neon texts, photographs and immersive installations. Outside, extending 164 ft (50m) along a sheltered concourse is a major new commission, The Garden of Good and Evil (2017), from which the exhibition takes its title.
The Garden was inspired by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s 1986 poem, “One Square Metre of Prison,” which contains the line, “I love the particles of sky that slip through the skylight—a meter of light where horses race.”
Entering Jaar’s installation, the visitor is enveloped within the verdant greenery of 101 trees planted in cubic bases in a grid formation. It is only as one advances along the ranks of evergreens that one realizes the grove is dotted with the cold grey edges of steel cells concealed among the trees. There are nine cells, which have a one square meter (11 square foot) base and can be entered, some are surrounded by bars, others are built with solid walls and a skylight, some squat cubes, others double height. Two of the cells are constructed so it is impossible for any light to enter, calling to mind the secret prison Tazmamart, located in the Moroccan desert, where political dissidents were kept by the government for years in dark cells so small that they could only kneel or sit. However, Jaar’s cells are not references to abuses by authoritarian non-western regimes, but to the black sites the CIA uses for detaining and torturing our very own “terror” suspects. Jaar’s work is rarely commissioned by U.S. institutions, but the Yorkshire Sculpture Park has a reputation for boldness and has exhibited socially critical artists such as Ai Wei Wei, Amar Kanwar, and Shirin Neshat. The installation will be moved to a densely wooded area of the park after the exhibition closes and become part of the YSP’s permanent collection.
Separating the indoor and outdoor spaces, the gallery’s long glass facade allows for dialogue between Jaar’s sinister garden and the works inside the gallery. Indeed, there is a distinct resemblance between prison bars and the white bank of vertical LED light strips flanking the exterior of Jaar’s most famous work, The Sound of Silence (2006), which is visible from outside. This work and Shadows (2014)—also shown here—are part of an ongoing trilogy concentrated around single images and employing light and darkness to dramatic effect. The wall of light at the entrance to The Sound of Silence is intended to purge the visitor’s mind of all prior images before they are plunged into a darkened theatre within a metal cube structure. Inside, an eight-minute soundless film projection narrates the life story of the South African photojournalist Kevin Carter. Carter won worldwide renown—and generated worldwide controversy—for his 1993 photograph of an emaciated, Sudanese toddler threatened by a leering vulture. He was awarded a Pulitzer prize for this image and committed suicide shortly afterward. In The Sound of Silence, Carter’s photograph flashes up for a fraction of a second and is gone. The effect leaves the viewer feeling guilty; overwhelmed with a sense of collusion and their own inaction.
The centrepiece of Shadows is an enlarged image of two young Nicaraguan women, their expressions frozen in grief at the moment they learn their campesino father has been murdered by U.S.-trained National Guardsmen. The photograph was taken by Dutch photojournalist Koen Wessing in 1978 during the Sandinista revolt against military dictatorship. The viewer is encased in darkness as the image of the two women gradually bleaches into a blinding white silhouette on a black background; there is no text or sound to detract from the visual void. During a walkthrough of the show, Jaar noted that there were one million LED watts behind that image. As he put it, “I wanted the audience to physically, viscerally feel the pain.” In an adjoining room is displayed a sequence of six photographs to which the image belongs and which succinctly tell the story.
If one is tempted to despair by the horror captured in these works, Jaar counters this with two paradoxical neon text works. “I CAN’T GO ON. I’LL GO ON” (2016), a characteristically absurdist line from Samuel Beckett’s 1953 novel The Unnameable. And the other, “BE AFRAID OF THE ENORMITY OF THE IMPOSSIBLE”, a quote from the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, known for his overriding pessimism. “I used to read him when I was depressed because his pessimism is always worse than yours.” Both phrases, while acknowledging the bleakness of existence, could be interpreted as containing a kernel of hope amid the prevalent hopelessness of conflict, war, displacement, growing nationalism and xenophobia.
A third text work takes the form of a pile of posters bearing the words “YOU DO NOT TAKE A PHOTOGRAPH. YOU MAKE IT.” Supposedly attributed to Ansel Adams, the phrase for Jaar encapsulates the notion that images are never innocent. Jaar’s photographic works bear this out.
The Garden of Good and Evil is a disconcerting, important exhibition. In this age of short attention spans, politics via twitter, and the wholesale undermining of journalism by politicians and the media, Jaar presents us with elegant, solemn works with the hope we will “go back to seeing.” Mass tragedies are distilled into pure expressions of individual grief and affliction. Confronted with these images and with Jaar’s insistent humanity, it is hard to resist their power.