by Richard Mosse
Curated by Anna O’Sullivan
Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin
February – March 2014
Review by Darren Caffrey
Part 1 of a 3 part series on Ireland at Venice 2013
The Enclave in the RHA consisted of a video installation and a small selection of exceptionally large examples of landscape photography. Each reflecting an apparent pastoral craze in retro active colour changing film, taking as a setting the various advantages of light and dark. The show is over but its showing and its perceived success is something which should not be overlooked.
Like war, sides take their toll on each. It is not anything close to us. It is alien. As seen in the cleverly titled Hollywood film Avatar (2009), the very indefinite forms of an alien war prove most plainly exciting to the outsider. In fact, James Cameron's blockbuster about war operates on the basis that a contemporary popular audience is a sucker for the augmentation of the difficulties of reality as applied to the lives of characters which are recognisably 'other'. And so, in the guise of a question, the work of Richard Mosse confronts the viewer – the line between the imagined and the real trade reflections. Terror is only real for those close enough to feel its effect, but the question is, does art really cross borders?
In common usage, an avatar is employed to connect the agencies of different worlds, serving as an instrument by proxy. It does so with the express aim of permitting user engagement as a vicarious pursuit, rendering the user as an externalised effect of their own action. Similarly, with sexual fantasy in role-play. The point is to produce a conceptual space, as an aid to the user's experience.
Mosse presents The Enclave against a backdrop of modern war photography, where stories are told as consistent with human relationships within the frame. The traditional battle painting has lost favour with popular sensibility. The advent of documentary photography has shown people and their lives, doing so in a way which underlines the inherent ‘truth’ behind every frame: that of speculative interpretation and the shaping of popular judgement. As if to illustrate the mechanisms which produce popular interpretation, Mosse's guidance is at once sonic and visual, and the curator's own statement refers to the undoubted credentials of composer and cinematographer alike, as though we are to be taken in by the experience of sensations, without any pause to refocus our means of judgement. Indeed, in the time before photography or video, art born of war came about through commission, most often the victor would request the souvenir and in so doing, the usual realms of objective reportage would defer to the entertainments of a prevailing story, that of aesthetic victory over the other, whomever they may be.
With the advent of video technology, travel naturally produced photo and video document. Of course everywhere is somewhere else from another set of co-ordinates in time or space. The immediacy of capture and release, which photographic technologies so much rely upon, is exemplified by the frame, producing an opportunity to reframe what is. This reframing is key to elaborating on the story of what is, and vital, if your aim is to tell your side of the story behind the image. Convincingly real, video and photographic frames reproduce with the constant principle that only what you see in the frame is real of the frame, everything else about your experience of that viewing is new to you. In simple terms, the dust on the television screen is new, the image within the frame is merely represented in a new format.
The Bayeux Tapestry depicts in its very weave the events which heralded the Norman invasion of Anglo-Saxon Britain, thus revealing the ways in which war shapes lives. The action relayed is a re-imagining of the action to which it refers. The long exposure for such representational methods offers a depth of subjective interpretation, each mark made by hand and meeting the work of many more. Today, it is more common for artists to propose the imaginative element as a suggestive statement and to then deliver it with such means as can be carried by the terms of conflicting forces. This is the sketchy outline of a service which appropriates cause as political carriage. Artists, when acting independently, do so as method of a practice of reproducing a gap between two or more points of contact.
But in the case of battle painting, which more objectively represented the results of action, so long as artists produced work which stirred emotion, the feeling was still contained within the banner of conquest. Such works were considered accomplished not by virtue of their artistic expression, but by the ‘accuracy’ of their account. Even so, for the purposes of marrying aesthetic principle and historical document, these paintings were often staged as opposed to captured in the moment of battle, proving especially popular as prints on tea-sets. By the end of the First World War, the early initiatives of a mechanised slaughter had left little taste for such trophies.
Richard Mosse’s The Enclave is a video installation in the dark. Enticed by shades of colour and parts of stories, the audience is lured into the focus of the show. So obvious is the confrontation, without such proven tricks, those novel ones may have appeared disaffecting, perhaps off-putting. But even so the gap is found and we are treated to a scenery of action recomposed after the fact. Akin to the violent application of wet newspaper on-top wet newspaper, à la Papier Mâché, the events each take place as a layer without the sort of reference to meaning upon which facts are built. The result is a narrative which loops over the human landscape of an alien territory, transposing the everyday existence of men, women and children as an ensemble of self aware chaos and noise.
A colonial supplier turned Cold War proxy, the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.) is symbolically identified with two words, 'democratic' and 'republic', that lean heavily against a European history which has literally fought and destroyed in the name of an abject Africa. The technical proficiencies of this exhibition do much to obscure the path, but whatever the spectral wave, light falls on us all the same and no amount of painted light can disguise the mess which glares back.
It is a remarkable undertaking to escort oneself and their projected force throughout an undefinable territory of continual and seemingly sporadic conflict. And yet the pretty coloured pictures which have since developed for The Enclave appear somehow shallow. This is hardly the result of any specifically insincere intention. Rather it is more reasonable to presume that what occurs, while so deeply ensconced in politics of the other, is a sort of dislocation of one's own self-modelling processes. Decisions in such case meld into action and action in turn produces the turning of sides for and against. It can only be imagined that working between these sides of human interest and art interest: militia, rebels, refugees or angles, ethics and aesthetics, has warped the lens of Mosse's pursuit and produced in turn the absence of an issue.
Without doubt The Enclave allows us bear witness to the suffering of others, even so the man who holds the gun is doing so for him and so is the man who holds the camera and this is less a matter of utility and more a matter of opportunity. If, as the curator suggests, The Enclave manages to render the beauty of human suffering for all to see, I wonder if that beauty is simply the preserve of a privilege and a choice? If, when looking at the fast moving, life affirming footage of this video compilation, you are to entertain for a second the notion of equality, you must first concede that you are winning, no matter who fights for you, and so long as you are not the one expected to fight.
It would feel remiss to discuss this work in terms strictly of a purely sensational experience. This is a big project, for which many individuals are responsible, still others represented and yet only one man can claim authorship, his name now hand in hand with the visual experience of a red and green switcheroo. The accuracy of this manoeuvre, from supposed experiment to military use to finally discontinuation is a mythic commercial feat of utility in the marketplace. Is it precisely this absence of any issue beyond aesthetics which has permitted narrative circularities around the perceived success of this particular work?
Interestingly, one of the possible reasons the Congo goes under the radar of news reporting is exemplified in what 17th century Hobbes defined as a 'state of war'. A state where disorder is its adherence to a higher order, a state where consequence is explained by a divine beauty, or a state of transcendence above any one principle, in favour of interacted dissolve and most of all, in favour of the viewer located outside of the framed scene, such that gods may watch while men die.
If any, perhaps there is a lesson about taking an artistic project to its logical market conclusion. If it works it will be taken from you, from which point it will enter into a whole new economy of expression, where intention is written after the fact by those interested in such things. It is surely a choice with a certain degree of hope that each artist negotiates as they submit and propose work to a financial resource which itself must be recouping of its outlay, for the sake of the market.
In truth, art is a publishing industry. So, must the artist be continually seeking the ‘vanity’ of moral integrity when ethical behaviour is not necessarily de rigueur for the bigger markets to which it must always concede? Or need it simply cross the line?
“The subject of my work in Congo is the conflict's intangibility, the irruption of the real beneath the generic conventions - it is a problem of representation. The word Infra means below, what is beneath. A dialogue about form and representation is one of the work's objectives, so I don’t think it's a bad thing if people get hung up on the way Congo has been depicted, rather than what is being depicted. That's the point, really.”
(taken from artist interview, http://jmcolberg.com/)