«I want to be able to move you, challenge you, touch you, irritate and provoke you. That’s a political task—but a difficult one. How do I work? With information and emotion, information and culture, information and spectacle…» (Alfredo Jaar)
Field, Road, Cloud
I would like to go in medias res and point out, pars pro toto, one of Alfredo Jaar’s most important cycles of works, which I once purchased for the Daros Latinamerica Collection:
Field, Road, Cloud are the succinct titles of three landscapes, beautiful in appearance and photographed by Alfredo Jaar in Rwanda in 1994. Arcadian and harmless, they could be the product of a tourist’s camera. Cloud turns to the serenity and boundless freedom of blue skies and a white cloud. Next to the photograph a small sketch indicates the exact location of the shot, so we learn that the cloud image was shot in front of Ntamara church. So far so good. Except that we read “Bodies 500?” below the sketched outline of the church. The body count refers to the civil war in Rwanda in 1994, when the Hutu majority attempted to eradicate the despised Tutsi minority in an act of genocide unparalleled in recent decades. Some one million people were slaughtered in three months, 500 of them during a Sunday service in Ntamara church.
One million-fold eyes of Gutete Emerita
A brightly lit band of lettering tells us about Gutete Emerita’s fate: she saw her husband and sons hacked to death by machetes in front of Ntamara church. Then she managed to escape with her daughter and has returned now to the site of the slaughter. She stands in the midst of bodies rotting in the sun and looks at Alfredo Jaar. Confronted by the ghastly scene, he had taken the picture of the cloud above the church. And now he shoots another picture: The Eyes of Gutete Emerita.
In the next room we find ourselves in front of an enormous light table. On it is an endless array of pallid ashen slides, forming a mountain-like massif. Taking a closer look at the slides we find ourselves confronted with the same image over and over again: the eyes of Gutete Emerita, reproduced one million times. They stand for the one million people who lost their lives in Rwanda in the course of one hundred days in 1994, without causing much of an uproar in the international political arena. We could almost be in a morgue as we pick up a slide to examine it in the cold light, then put it back on the clinical, aseptic light-table in order to move on to the next, hoping that it will reveal more than the last one did. In vain…
Compassion for exploited and tormented people runs like a red thread through Jaar’s entire oeuvre. He deals with such issues as exploitation, exile or immigration movements, underscoring the utter lack of prospects for inhabitants of the erroneously so-called third world. The economic, social and political magnitude of these issues today attests to the importance of his artistic approach. Yet Jaar himself has been accused of feeding into the system by exploiting the subjects of his photographs in order to transform them into aesthetically consummate and consumable, market-oriented works of art. Jaar initially avoided representation in his work on Rwanda, possibly wearied by this reproach. If we want to speak of the unspeakable, we cannot photograph it on a 1:1 scale. Aesthetic transformation must not simply be countenanced; it is the very foundation of coming to artistic terms with such issues.
Pictures that move us
Much like a Holocaust monument can never fully live up to the actual historical events, Jaar is also unable to render a full account of the reality in Ruanda in the year 1994. But he does provoke thoughts and images that lead us to the verge of inexpressible mental and physical anguish and the unfathomable abyss of this human catastrophe. The people involved in the events are not presented as instrumentalized evidence, but preserve their dignity. Jaar manages to bridle socially romanticizing inclinations and inner emotional turmoil. By means of a reduced vocabulary and concise information, he succeeds in giving naked horror an aesthetic voice that, to a certain extent, makes it tangible and at least minimally subject to rational grasp.
Gutete Emerita’s eyes stand for all the eyes of the people, past, present and future, which have suffered, are suffering, or ever will suffer a similar fate. The individual character of a single destiny fades and is transformed into a discharge of suspended sediment thrust upwards into a mountainous heap, an amorphous whole of highly informed parts. Inevitably one is reminded of the Nazi concentration-camp photographs, showing mountains of clothing, shoes, hair, dentures, and bodies. We stand defenseless and stunned before this garbage dump of time, before a mutely accusing infinity that piles up in front of us like a burial mound. We look at history and it looks back at us relentlessly through the eyes of Gutete Emerita. We are numbed by the randomness, the indifference, and ultimately the insignificance of historical events; we are overwhelmed by powerlessness in the face of eternally recurring sameness.