Past: February 11 → March 12, 2011
Alfredo Jaar’s Art of Illumination
Let us begin with light and luminosity, transparency and illumination. When we think of these terms, we tend to relate them to the way things appear — to the quality of objects, spaces, images, and the like. But on a basic level, these associations are merely supplementary to the more fundamental, reactive, and metabolic sensations; that is, their somatic effects on the body, on the eye: the way we look, how we see, and what we see. To a large degree, these reflexes have one thing in common: the nature of appearances and the process of image reception. However, once we cross the threshold of how the body processes and the eyes absorb their surroundings, we arrive at a second juncture: the role of contemplating, reflecting, judging, and making sense of what we have seen. In short, how we see, read, and think the image.
Alfredo Jaar’s current exhibition avers a surplus of these frames of perception. In bringing the present group of works together, Jaar has purposely placed before the viewer, within certain regimes of seeing and perception, a series of sculptures, photographic images, graphic prints, and a video that focus intently on the way what is seen is illuminated, both in the sense of the visuality and the visibility of forms and images. In a profound sense, what he offers the viewer becomes an enlightening and probing mechanism that digs into the deeper truth of the subject. In this exhibition, Jaar presents us with an inventory of his critical procedures in which protocols of reading, viewing, and analysis are the principal mechanisms of engagement.
That inventory is comprised of appropriated covers of global newsmagazines and newspapers, and includes his monumental Searching for Africa in LIFE (1996), a framed installation consisting of five vertical panels on which he assembled 2,158 covers of Life magazine, which span every edition published, up to the date when the work was composed. Jaar’s array of visual stimuli also includes other appropriated magazine covers, such as From Time to Time (1996), a panel of nine Time magazine covers: three images showcase wild African animals — lion, leopard, and gorilla — the other six feature malnourished or starving Africans. To the Western media, apparently such images are two sides of the same currency of reportage on African-related stories. Along this same line are other examples of Afro-pessimism, in which Africa is played out in the global unconscious, in extremis, as the world’s basket-case of abuse and deprivation. As such, Greed (2007), displaying a single BusinessWeek cover from December 10, 2007, opens with the headline: “Can Greed Save Africa?”. […]
Beyond Africa is Business Week Magazine Cover, December 24, 1984 (1984), a seminal work that is also one of the most important in Jaar’s then-evolving critique of the convergence of global media and global capital. This work is in two parts: the first is a single display of a color image of the magazine cover with two photographs. On the top left corner, just below the magazine’s logo, is a small image of a crouched young Indian woman, resting her head on the palm of her left hand; her eyes are bandaged shut. Centered on the lower portion of the cover is the face of a pensive-looking European man, photographed with soft lighting and chiaroscuro shadows, providing an even softer backdrop to his seemingly contrite expression. The man is Warren Anderson, then chairman of the American chemical conglomerate Union Carbide. His company’s pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, had caused one of the world’s most catastrophic industrial disasters when, on the night of December 2-3, 1984, its plant leaked fumes of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, killing thousands of people, permanently impairing and disabling thousands more, and sickening tens of thousands. Between these two photographs is a headline in thick black letters that dominate the cover: “Union Carbide Fights for Its Life.” The other part of this work is a vertical stack of the same cover, this time rendered in black white and divided into its four components: magazine logo, Indian woman, cover headline, and European man. The dissonance between the cataclysmic loss of life and the cold-hearted concern for the survival of Union Carbide is one of shocking ambivalence. The analysis of such ambivalence has become a signature of Jaar’s retinue of visual and textual rhetoric.
In a second inventory, Jaar presents the front pages of newspapers, such as Humanité et Cœur (1996) from the front page of the August 1996, issue of Libération which shows the French police storming a sanctuary church where sans papiers (migrants without legal papers) had taken refuge from expulsion. The central concern of both newspaper features spotlights the question of immigration and the plight of immigrants. Both are directly linked to the only video in the show, Du Voyage, Des Gens (2011). […] In the video, an aged female fiddler, a Roma, is playing a fugue-like tune on her ancient instrument in front of the hulking industrial armature that is the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The contrast between post-industrial architecture and its postmodern rationalism is hard to square with the rabid nationalism with which the political far right has stigmatized so-called foreigners, and in 2010 targeted the Roma for brutal expulsion from France. The plaza in front of the museum is a civic space where diverse publics converge and the fact that performances such as the one recorded by Jaar are daily occurrences somehow undoes the nativism of nationalism. […] But against the backdrop of virulent police attacks against the Roma in France, and the expulsion of many of them (no doubt prompted by President Sarkozy’s attempt to criminalize immigration and his general antipathy towards immigrants), the simple, uninflected image of this woman playing her instrument in open view in Paris, places a nimbus of light — like the ones used to spotlight the portraits of Graça Machel, Aung San Sui Kyi, and Ela Bhatt in Three Women — around the inextinguishable presence of the beleaguered Roma in the French public imagination. […]
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