Alfredo Jaar is a multidisciplinary artist currently living and working in New York. He was born in 1956 in Chile, and lived there until 1982 when he received a scholarship to study abroad.
His artistic practice falls under the category of conceptual art, nevertheless he has always been deeply connected to photography, image making and politics. Jaar’s first artworks such as Gold in the Morning (1986) or 1+1+1 (1987) bear witness of his long standing interest for vulnerable and often undermined populations. The first ten years of his career were marked by a body of work in which the subject matter were miners, immigrants, minorities or laborers in developing countries. But, unlike photojournalists, his images were always accompanied by complex devices specially made to focus on a handful of images in order to draw the audience’s attention into a specific topic. Indeed, here lies Jaar’s fundamental distinctiveness as he’s an artist deeply intrigued by the powers of images and yet completely aware of the latter’s treachery. Adhering to Guy Debord’s views exposed in his book, The Society of Spectacle, Jaar questions through his works mass media and the role of images in our image driven society. According to Jaar, magazines, billboards, and image outlets contribute to an ‘eye-paralysis’ provoking a numbness in our senses and spirits. By being exposed to gore images of corpses or dying people each day, mass media has contributed to the opposite of what they seek, instead of awareness and empathy they are at the core of a numbing effect making us immune to any type of representation, however shocking.
Alfredo Jaar, Lament of the Images, 2002
Three illuminated texts, light screen, text by David Levi Strauss
Overall dimensions variable
Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Museum of Modern Art, New York and the artist, New York
Courtesy Alfredo Jaar and Goodman Gallery London, Johannesburg, Cape Town.
In 1994 after witnessing the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, his artistic practice became even more radical. How can one pretend to signify the horrors of mass murder when images by definition are but fragments of reality? Affiliated to postcolonial attitudes, Jaar rejected the idea of building the imagery of an African genocide through haunting images; nonetheless, neither could he ignore what he witnessed. Therefore, how did Alfredo Jaar construct a memory for the Tutsi genocide?
The death of the image
The first series dedicated to the Rwanda Project, Untitled (Newsweek), shows the covers of the American publication Newsweek. For several months, the subject is completely ignored and when they decide to address it, they do so by publishing the photo of a weeping child among corpses. This image symbolizes a conflictual trend in photojournalism where victims from non-Western countries are displayed in a position where they are patronized. Indeed, if we take a closer look at images from newspapers or other media, victims from far away wars are photographed and shamelessly shown to viewers. In her book Regarding the pain of others, Susan Sontag explains that this tendency started as a way of preventing war and raising awareness among Western populations on wars and conflicts at the other end of the world. However, the disturbing effect it intended to provoke soon wore off giving birth to a hunt for images in which “shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and a source of value.” Even if the objective is to inform, the constant exposure to these images blinds us and annihilates the image’s powers. Running away from these codified representations of grievable bodies, Jaar opted instead for another alternative: describing the horrors he saw.
Alfredo Jaar, Untitled (Newsweek),1994
Seventeen pigment prints
19″ x 13″ / 48.3 x 33 cm each
Courtesy Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg/Cape Town, Galerie Lelong & Co., New York, Kamel Mennour, Paris, Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin and the artist, New York
Hesitant of the effect of images, Alfredo Jaar’s work first entered a phase of denial. The first pieces he produced soon after the genocide are distressing and there’s no visual representation of any kind; only words can be read, one can only see the name of a country, succinct descriptions he cut from newspapers, or phrases in postcards stating that people remained alive despite the dangers. During this specific stage, his work is more akin to ekphrasis than to photography as he detailed what he witnessed. There are no photographs of the massacre, instead he solicited his audiences’ imagination to construct a mental image from the descriptions he made. Rhetoric here is a surrogate for visuality, for in a world where images are banalised, words are more likely to reach his viewership and trigger a reaction, and this is the artist’s main objective, to move his audience through beauty and information. What it’s staged in these artworks is a lack of faith for photography, for Jaar the discipline completely failed its role to document and to unveil the truth.
Alfredo Jaar, Rwanda Rwanda,1994
Public intervention, Malmö, Sweden
Courtesy Alfredo Jaar, New York, and Goodman Gallery London, Johannesburg, Cape Town.
Nevertheless, on some rare occasions Jaar chose to show images taken in Rwanda. Embrace and Kigali share in common their special framing and the allusion to what it’s not there, the out of frame reality that photography ignores. For example, Embrace shows two young kids hugging each other. They both look into the same direction; they seem horrified as they hold each other but the spectator can’t see what is in front of them. By igniting the viewer’s imagination, once again a physical image is not shown but rather suggested. This underlines photography’s nature for to photograph is to frame and to frame is to exclude, but what is left aside in these images is always the spectacle of violence. Jaar prefers to show moments of vulnerability through the prism of affect, these feelings connect its viewership and the subjects he chooses to show. Also, another particular strategy implemented by the artist is to use the out of focus when showing individuals. Some photographs like Six Seconds and Fear reveal more of his experience in Rwanda, nonetheless the individuals depicted are always blurry, heightening again the inaccuracy of photographs to portray a catastrophe.
Alfredo Jaar, Six Seconds, 2000
Lightbox with color transparency
Lightbox dimensions: 38” x 26” x 5” / 96.5 x 66 x 12.7 cm
Courtesy Galleria Lia Rumma, Milano/Napoli, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg/Cape Town/London and the artist, New York
This lack of faith for photography reached its peak in 1995 – one year after the genocide – when he unveiled to the public his piece Real Pictures. The work is structured as a whole, it comprises several black boxes containing photographs, and at the top of each there’s a description for each. With this piece, Jaar goes even further in declaring the death of the image and erecting funerary monuments for all the victims he encountered. The objects he constructs bear a resemblance to Donald Judd’s specific objects and to minimalist aesthetics for their neutrality and anthropomorphic complexion. According to Judd, three dimensionality enables the public to see space through a new light while helping them to situate in the present. This might be a reason why Jaar decided to use these neutral forms: to situate the viewer in the present and not project him to an exotic place he knows only through clichés. In addition, Robert Morris declared that simplicity of shape does not necessarily translate into simplicity of experience, rather the contrary as form gives us an idea of proportion and scale, it works as a unifying force where the geometrical shape gives us a sense of our own body. Therefore, these sculptural artworks create a framework for participation in which the viewer imagines and experiences while inhabiting the space he’s in, which helps him read the work in his own terms.
Alfredo Jaar, Real Pictures, 1995
Color photographs in archival boxes, silkscreen
Overall dimensions variable
Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co. New York / Alfredo Jaar and Goodman Gallery London, Johannesburg, Cape Town. , Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne and the artist, New York
But if minimalists searched to erase any notion of the exterior world, Alfredo Jaar’s work always intended to voice his outrage before the genocide. Even in his most radical work like Unseen (100 Days in 1994) where there are no images, not even a description, only plain black boxes scattered all over the floor, Jaar’s desire was to pay his homage to the victims. To better understand his intention, Georges Didi-Huberman’s book Images in spite of all gives a clear elucidation as to why it is relevant to attest. In the book, Huberman asserts that even if the Holocaust exceeds any jurisdictional perspective, every notion of fault and justice, one must persist in showing photographs and evince such dreadful events because they are proof of what happened. In spite of the unimaginability of such a slaughter, Jaar persists and shows not the image but a form of it, an object resembling an archive. Huberman also insists on the importance of archives, to him the latter opens a myriad of possibilities. He defines it as a breach in time where the past and the future dialogue, a breach where history is always revisited and reconstructed. Seemingly Real Pictures is not a defeat, it’s an embryo, a source of information that lies unopened and ready to be used by those who were affected by the genocide.
Real Pictures, 1995
Color photographs in archival boxes, silkscreen
Overall dimensions variable
Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York, Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne, the artist, New York, and Goodman Gallery London, Johannesburg, Cape Town.
Furthermore, Jaar’s mourning doesn’t last forever, and while it surely has an enduring impact on his artistic practice, it never prevents him from using images. Yet, they do transform and appear always ethereal, fleeting. His work Epilogue, is a three-minute video in which a woman gradually appears in the frame, she stays in frame for some time and later disappears leaving the audience staring at a blank screen. This artwork clearly symbolizes Jacques Derrida’s concept of specters as explained in his book The Specters of Marx. For the philosopher, a specter is defined by its dialectical nature, it’s the “visibility of the invisible”, an appearing image that soon after disappears. Epilogue is intangible and vanishing, it epitomizes the memory of the Rwandan genocide which is haunting and always on the run.
Let there be light
After the Rwanda Project, Alfredo Jaar focused his attention towards images that he recuperated from different sources. The first artwork from a trilogy exploring the power of images is titled The Sound of Silence. The piece echoes the structure of a theater, one must go inside to learn about the story behind the iconic photo taken by Kevin Carter, a South African photojournalist who documented the apartheid and the famine crisis in Sudan. The mini theater runs a video, and at the end of it the emblematic photograph by Kevin Carter – where a vulture lurks around a famished baby – is projected for a few seconds…then, light takes hold of the space blinding the viewers. The mise en scène awakens the spectator’s curiosity while giving a background for the image. Storytelling is of the utmost importance for the artist, he often uses editing to better assemble his artworks. We wish to inform you that we didn’t know pertains to the Rwanda Project and is mounted in the manner of a film, revealing that an image is a part of a progression of events, a fragment of something larger and it’s never isolated. Hence, The Sound of Silence is an attempt to contextualize Kevin Carter’s image, to cultivate a critical judgment among viewers and to teach them how to deconstruct a photograph.
Alfredo Jaar, Epilogue, 1998, 35 mm silent color film transferred to DVD, 00:03 minutes, Courtesy Galeria Oliva Arauna, Madrid, Lelong & Co. the artist, New York and Goodman Gallery London, Johannesburg, Cape Town.
His second piece from an ongoing trilogy, Shadows, also emphasizes the different components of a photograph, only this time, contextualization differs. Jaar took inspiration from a book by the Dutch photographer Koen Wessing, the former contains no words, only images taken by Wessing during some of his assignments. Images from the photographer’s negatives are part of Shadows, at the end of the installation Jaar exhibits a photo taken in Nicaragua where two young women learn that their father has been killed. The image is shown first as a whole, then the landscape disappears, only the women are visible; soon after they too fade, only the outline of their bodies is visible until they turn into pure light. The mechanism is the same in The Sound of Silence and Lament of the Images, light is not seen as knowledge but as obtrusion. If photography is a discipline using light as a medium it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is synonymous with truth. The Spanish essayist and photographer Joan Fontcuberta states that photography is fiction, a good photographer to him is not someone showing reality but someone who knows how to lie well. We tend to see the discipline as the mimetic art by excellence, we believe it portraits reality the way it is and works as a mirror. But even mirrors are ruled by intentions, they can be either used for scientific purposes or as poetic devices. Nothing is as objective as it seems, and a photograph is never there alone, taking it is an act, a decision; because of this it’s always subjective. When Fontcuberta affirms that a good photographer lies well, he implies that the creator of the image doesn’t think of his work as an immovable truth but knows the limitations that go with it. So, photography, even when closest to the event it wants to depict, never tells the truth.
Mixed media installation
Overall dimensions variable
Photography John Rohrer
Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York, Kamel Mennour, Paris, Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin,the artist, New York and Goodman Gallery London, Johannesburg, Cape Town.
The collection and copyright of Koen Wessing is administered by the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, The Netherlands
In an effort to dismantle the exotisation of Africa, The Rwanda Project takes the shape of a visual patchwork. Jaar tries to put the pieces of the genocide together knowing that absence is the condition of such labour. But by building funerary monuments and transforming his photographs into archives, he leaves the door open to reinterpretation and revisitation. After his iconoclast period, images return accompanied by words and properly contextualized. Additionally, the non-image, what some like to call his photo-conceptualist works, seem at first like a defeat, however they are rather meditative artworks examining the politics ruling images nowadays. Never wholesome, images always evaporate leaving viewers with more questions than answers. In this respect, Alfredo Jaar’s body of work shares a lot in common with the documentaries by the female filmmaker Trinh t. Minh-ha, her artistic practice revolves around identity, cultural politics and gender theory. Both ponder about questions of identity and use archives in order to construct it. They too share the same ideology regarding documentary and characterize it as illusory, fictional gleams of information. Seeing photography not as an à priori but as a social and cultural construction leads to reevaluate the essence of images, what he displays is neither photography nor conceptual or minimalist works, they’re hybrids and in-betweens, cross-disciplinary forms of expression escaping fixed definitions.
Balsom, E., 2020. ‘There is no such thing as documentary’: an interview with Trinh T. Minh-ha. Frieze, [online] Available at: <https://frieze.com/article/there-no-such-thing-documentary-interview-trinh-t-minh-ha>
Brückle, W. and Mader, R., 2004. Alfredo Jaar. A conversation with Wolfgang Brückle and Rachel Mader. Camera Austria.
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Fontcuberta, J., 2015. La Cámara De Pandora. La Fotografía Después De La Fotografía. Barcelona: Gustavo Gili.
Fullerton, E., 2019. When the light goes dark. Elephant, [online] pp.168 – 175. Available at: <https://alfredojaar.net/press/> [Accessed 5 May 2020].
Jaar, A., 1998. Hágase La Luz. Barcelona: Actar.
Jaar, A., 2011. Alfredo Jaar – The Sound Of Silence. [online] Vimeo. Available at: <https://vimeo.com/20323311> [Accessed 2 May 2020].
Judd, D., 1965. Specific Objects. Arts Yearbook, 8.
Morris, R., 2020. [online] Arts.berkeley.edu. Available at: <https://arts.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/robert-morris-notes.pdf> [Accessed 2 May 2020].
Rancière, J., 2008. Le Spectateur Émancipé. Paris: La Fabrique Éditions.
Sontag, S., 2003. Regarding The Pain Of Others. Picador.
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