by Richard Mosse Ireland at Venice 2013 and its Irish Tour at
the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin January 29 – March 12, 2014
Opinion and review
by Jim Ricks Part 3 of a 3 part series on Ireland at Venice 2013
Jones: Is contemporary photojournalism more about daredevilry and
showmanship than nuanced storytelling?
Ritchin: In recent years the tendency has been to elevate the
messenger over the message, a strategy which effectively keeps their
more painful imagery at a distance. The courage of the photographer
is celebrated while the circumstances of his or her subjects becomes
somewhat secondary. As a result the photograph becomes less of a
window onto the world and more of a mirror reflecting the distorted
priorities of the culture consuming the imagery.
Mother Jones, “Can Photojournalism Survive in the Instagram
Era?”, by Jeremy Lybarger (1)
violence of war is not an unfamiliar subject for artists, providing
the basis for countless works portraying symbolic and individual
heroism or martyrdom. It was Francisco Goya’s Disasters
of War (1810 – 20) that may
have been the first Modern portrayal, and protest, against war, its
atrocities, and the parties that perpetuate it. Disseminated widely
as intaglio prints, the body of work makes no celebration of causes
and despairingly, at times even angrily, depicts the boundless human
suffering he witnessed in Spain during the Peninsular War of
Dead Confederate soldier at the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, Mathew Brady
the mid-eighteenth century Roger Fenton, followed shortly thereafter
by Mathew Brady and his team, were the first to photographically
document war. Ever. Their bodies of work, evidence of the Crimean
and American Civil Wars respectively, were in stark contrast to the
heroic war painting known to centuries past. They portrayed, almost
uniquely, two types of images: the portraiture of soldiers, officers,
politicians, and the grim post-battle landscape. However, contrary
to what James Merrigan suggests in his review of The Enclave
in Billion #70 (2), this was not done out of any stylistic
concerns or pretense; this was not Romanticism. Instead, they were
both limited to what the technology of early photography allowed.
That is, the exposure times needed to capture the latent image on a
glass plate with a large format camera, which were far longer than we are
accustom to today. Thus precluding photographing anything in motion;
any action. Leaving only the margins; the still and stayed images of
bodies, either posed in full regalia or decomposed in a trench.
photography has followed the evolution of technology (thinking of the
frontline handheld 35mm SLR work of Robert Capa’s in the Spanish
Civil War, World War II or the colour images of Susan
in the Sandinista’s Nicaraguan Revolution) and continues to do so
with the likes of iPhones and Instagram. Photo theorist Fred Ritchin
discusses this thoroughly in After
According to the PR for his latest publication, Bending
the Frame: At the Crossroads of Photojournalism, Documentary and
for a paradigm shift in photojournalism. This shift will, according
to Ritchin, require a turn away from the ego of the photographer: a
turn towards the subject.”
Mosse too is affected by the influence of technology, although
consciously, and anachronistically, straddling the line between the
documentary and the artistic. Mosse has travelled to the Congo on a
few occasions in the last years, first completing Infra
and then his Venice commission for the Irish Pavilion, The
Enclave. In both he used
infrared film to produce still images and, in the latter, videos
transferred from 16mm film. Infrared film scientifically captures
light waves human eyes cannot detect, and reveals it as pink. Easily
processed in standard slide film chemistry, it has been frequently
noted by Mosse and others that there was an inherent connection to
armed conflict because infrared film was ‘developed’ for
military purposes. It is a not so inspiring
fact that infrared film has been around for 70 years and its use, by
and large, is exclusively for a very mundane practical sort of work.
Vegetation changes in the Tennessee River valley are not front page
news or art. In a video interview Mosse also acknowledges the
Psychedelic movement’s gimmicky use of Infrared as the beginning of
its more contemporary unfashionable-ness in photo/art circles.
embraces the infrared medium’s subtle shift in wavelength in an
attempt to challenge documentary photography, and engage with the
unseen, hidden and intangible aspects of eastern Congo’s
comparison between detecting unseen energy waves to detecting
information beyond the normative range of knowledge is intriguing.
The press release outlines further intention in the installation:
disorienting and kaleidoscopic installation is intended to formally
parallel eastern Congo’s multifaceted conflict, confounding
expectations and forcing the viewer to interact spatially from an
array of differing viewpoints. The Enclave is an experiential
environment that attempts to reconfigure the dictates of
photojournalism and expanded video art.”(4)
The Irish Times he
try to reduce the situation in Congo to a simple, conventional
narrative,” Mosse says, “would be dishonest.” (5)
Ok, so let’s
look at the facts; the RHA exhibition. After passing through a gallery
with some of the largest mounted on glass landscape photographs I
have ever seen, we enter a second darkened gallery with 6 screens.
The audience is shown 30 minutes of ultraviolet film footage edited
into a non-linear montage. There is a discordant soundscape overlaid
throughout. In everything, green is magenta. The footage was shot
recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a region that has
endured a series of brutal dispersed wars, genocides, massacres in
the last 20 years. The subject of the footage itself is varied,
showing soldiers in a variety of activities, a funeral, crowds, a
community celebration, a refugee camp, the landscape, a birth...
(please see Adrian Duncan’s review in Paper Visual Art for an
insightful read on this). Cumulatively, this makes up the
installation and the artist will have it that all this is to be seen
in rethinking and examining the “hidden aspects” of a series of
wars and massacres.
this work does not spark any further curiosity in me to learn more
about the conflict itself. The political and social features of the
conflict here are rendered incidental to the more important business
of how the place and people of the conflict might be aestheticised.”
Paper Visual Art, by Adrian Duncan (6)
Relying solely on
this conceit, Mosse, rather than framing his subject matter in such a
way that we see another layer, or creating a project with a
structural shift away from the norms of documentary film, falls back
on a rather unrigorous methodology. Unfortunately this revealing of
the unseen exists as scientific fact in the film itself, but only
symbolically in the meaning of the installation. I doubt very
much this work has revealed hidden layers of the conflict to anyone.
The photographic effect is eye candy – novelty (pink trees can also
mean that it is perfectly alien, in not such a metaphorical way). The
conceptual premise Mosse has put forward remains singularly an
extended, unarticulated, superficial and purely symbolic visual
metaphor. It has no connection beyond this symbolism to any greater
idea; to anything bigger than the author. And because of this, the
way of seeing and presentation is determined by the author’s
intuition entirely. It is absolutely subjective, as there is no
guiding principle. Any point, any attempt at uncovering the unseen is
a construct imposed by Mosse and his team.
show’s immersive installation blankets the issues of the Congo in
another layer of ethical problematics. Jumbled screens provide
repetitious footage visible from both sides, leaving
an impression of broken shards of mirrors reflecting. It is
fragmentary – cubist and symmetric. The audience is unable to see
the whole picture, the entirety. De facto, this is Mosse proposing
to the audience that there is no singular fixed way of seeing this war, or war
at all. That military conflict fragments one's perspective; that it
is chaotic in the Congo. And fair enough. But confusion is the
lasting message: a physical embodiment of the artists’ sentiments.
By not creating a system of interaction based on a critique of, or the inversion of, the author/subject relationship (and by extension then, utilising one that is only guided by the author’s needs), Mosse appears to be embarking on a kind of extreme tourism or consumerism. Besides tourism,
another similarity of The Enclave might be to a human zoo. Not as flip as it might initially seem as
it turns out... In 1914 there was Kongolandshyen,
a Congolese human zoo in Norway. A village of around 80 was
recreated for the country’s centennial Jubilee Exhibition and was
on public view for 6 months. Apparently contention, muffled racism, and an arrogant pseudoscientific wonderment, what I would regard as responses typical of that time, were generated in Norway by this exotic display(7). Dressed and housed in native trappings,
this confinement becomes performative. This 'village' provided a form of entertainment based largely on preconceived and culturally constructed notions in Europe of Africa, Black, Other. Certainly exhibiting ‘other’
people confined and on view to the public only reinforces
stereotypes, not enhancing any real knowledge of their lives, or of them as people. From an ethical point of view, does The Enclave contribute anything but
stereotypical portrayals of Africa to the West?
What is The
Enclave? What is its objective? It was made for a major art exhibition. It is an interpretation from a
non-expert, non-local. It adds little to the knowledge of the region nor convey the experience, lives, thoughts... dreams of the Congolese. On the contrary, Mosse is embedded with a militia. Throughout the work it is unclear whose side
we are standing on. I accept that this may be a conscious decision as well. But these military figures appear to be acting, carrying out exercises for Mosse's team. Can we speculate that these uniformed men were paid, bribed, given gifts? Meaning and ethics alike become
masked and impenetrable with the combined experience and understanding of the filming, installation,
technology, point of view, and interaction. The Enclave is not a documentary nor is it for promoting knowledge.
This need not necassarily be a bad thing. As it has been put forward that documentary war photography needs to
be seen in the appropriate contexts. Contexts like books, a place of
solemnity and for private contemplation. But far more importantly, the supremacy of war photography (thinking of the multitude of views of the Vietnam
War, the full colour portraits of brutality and anguish) has been
challenged. Not least of which are the desensitisation to, and
spectacle of violence and the glamourisation of the military. And (almost always) alienatingly at the expense of portrayals of ordinary
people. Ritchin has posited that what we need is not war photography,
but peace photography. Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of
Others asks: “Is there an antidote to the perennial
seductiveness of war?” (8)
Andrew McConnell’s Joséphine
Nsimba Mpongo, 37, practices the cello in the Kimbanguiste
neighborhood of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
a number of photo-documentary projects have taken place in the Congo
in recent years that address these concerns. The likes of Irish
photographer Andrew McConnell’s Joséphine
Nsimba Mpongo, 37, practices the cello in the Kimbanguiste
neighborhood of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo summarises
a unique, subtle, and humanising approach to documenting people’s
lives there. The Living
series by Jana Ašenbrennerová is another example. In
a way it is understandable for Mosse not to repeat the style of these
works in trajectory or methodology. He is making art after all, not
I appreciated Mosse’s original Infra series.
The early traditions of war photography, both landscape and
portraiture, were realigned to be reassessed through an applied use
of infrared film. A different and succinct body work. I liked
that it drew me into the subject. The inverted colour spectrum
momentarily pushes away the visual cliches and the semiotics of
‘soldier’ or ‘war’. Naysayers seemed to think it was
gimmicky, commercial, a one liner. I also wouldn’t disagree, and I still like it.
But the artist’s
direct way of seeing in Infra,
gives way to an ultimately meaninglessly complex presentation of
visual montage in The Enclave.
We see the Congo through the lens of a frenzied onlooker, capturing
snippets of everyday life and set-up shots with paramilitaries.
Multiple screens angled to each other, overlapping, not presenting
any one view, and repeating haphazardly. All lending itself to
obvious sculptural, physical, experiential metaphors. The sound
engineering adds a menacing, tense drama to the installation while
overwhelming the real sounds taking place while filming. Is this not
an experiment in Hollywood’s emotive techniques? Experience the
drama, but what of the actual content? But what of the structure of
engagement? Indigenous people brought to a western theatre
for fractured observation – The Enclave is disempowering for
the subject. It has major ethical problems.
Merrigan followed up his review of The Enclave
with The Limelight Also Comes in Magenta,
a piece speculating as to the source of discontent with the work that
apparently has sprung up amongst artists. He cites the (almost)
uniquely Irish form of jealousy: begrudgery. He pooh-poohs the
disparagers' "unsolicited discussion" and colourfully contrasts
Mosse’s detractors to the general public: “it has become farcical
why the inner circles of the local art scene are so emotionally
invested – torches and pitchforks at the ready. While strangely,
but maybe not surprisingly, the ‘general’ public bloody LOVE
I disagree that any criticism to an artwork on view to the public
could ever be unsolicited, I think he raises an interesting
consideration: that of the inner-circle (artists, curators, students,
writers) and public split. I would however use this thought
inversely: we cannot gauge art by its ‘ticket sales’.
Euphemistically speaking, Mosse’s The Enclave is a box
office hit, but is getting the thumbs down from the critics. It is
with reason that I find this comparison to Hollywood apt. Mosse
employed the slick, (and familiar) professional techniques of
mainstream cinema and advertising, with surround sound and jarring,
repetitious imagery accentuating the transformed candy-like
appearance of the leading role: the landscape. Unfortunately, the
Congolese play themselves as extras without speaking parts.
Regrettably, there are no easy answers to the countless considerations in creating exemplary lens-based work in 'conflict regions'. Mosse
documented rebel enclaves and sites of human rights violations in a
way which attempts to overturn traditional realism, and see beneath
the surface. But this only takes place in a symbolic way, not in a
real way. It is the unfulfilled potential of this possibly
empowering project that is The Enclave’s biggest failing.
The spectacle of a technological trick foregrounds the concept, and
the Congolese. Ultimately what is Mosse trying to say? What I was
left with was a prevailing sense of an unethical sensationalism.
Richard Curtis, Richard Mosse and Bono in the RHA, Dublin. Photo: Julian Behal
Jim Ricks is an artist based in Dublin. He recently toured Afghanistan with the collaborative project In Search of the Truth.
An interview with Anna O'Sullivan Commissioner/Curator of The Enclave by Richard Mosse
at Venice 2013 and its Irish Tour at the Royal Hibernian Academy,
Dublin (January 29 – March 12, 2014) and Ormston House, Patrick
Street & 6a Rutland Street for Limerick City of Culture
(March 27 – May 5, 2014)
Part 2 of a 3 part series on Ireland at Venice 2013
Can you tell us a little about the
process of selection for you as the commissioner/curator? Were you
The Commissioner/Curator and the artist
is a team effort with the Commissioner/Curator putting the artist
forward. Richard and I came together and worked on an application
initially, got shortlisted to one of four teams, which was followed
by an intensive interview.
And about your choice of Richard
Mosse? Have you been aware of his work for long?
In 2005, after twenty-three years
working in the New York art world, I moved to Kilkenny, Ireland to
run the Butler Gallery, a not-for-profit contemporary art gallery
with a permanent collection, based in medieval Kilkenny Castle. Over
the past nine years I have been working on the development of a new
museum for the Butler Gallery, a build that is scheduled to begin in
2015. I met Richard Mosse through his parents, Susan and Nicholas
Mosse, a renowned Irish potter from Kilkenny. I would meet Richard on
his visits home from his studies at Yale University or later from his
working trips to sites of conflict around the world. I loved
Richard’s energy and his passion for life. I was extremely
impressed with his practice and hoped to work with him one day on an
exhibition at the Butler Gallery. When a call out for the 55th
International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia was
announced, Richard and I teamed up together, made a proposal, and got
through to a shortlist of four candidates. We were required to make a
presentation and were rigorously interviewed by a panel of art
professionals and executives from the main funders Culture Ireland
and the Arts Council of Ireland . We were astounded, and both so
proud, when we were chosen to represent Ireland at the 55th Venice
Did he have much competition?
It was a very competitive process with
some very worthy Irish artists shortlisted for this most prestigious
of art exhibitions.
This might sound funny, but I
think there is a sense that Venice is akin to the Olympics of art,
especially in a smaller nation like Ireland. What are your
thoughts on 'National Representation'? And how this worked out?
It is a big deal to represent your
country on any platform. Richard and I were both very proud to be
selected and then really happy that the Irish Pavilion received such
an immense amount of press and attention. It was immensely rewarding.
What do you think is strongest about
his work? Or draws you to it?
While I was initially drawn to
Richard’s still photography, it was his film work that really
impressed upon me the power of what he had captured of this forgotten
African tragedy. The Enclave is an intuitive, beautiful and
tough work about this intangible war in the Congo. It is a work of
contemporary art that makes visible something that is beyond the
limits of language. We had huge numbers of visitors to the Irish
Pavilion and many of those viewers exited the installation quite
overwhelmed and moved by what they had witnessed. While artists today
are adept at delivering slick video installations, Richard has
created a work of immense power that has truly connected with people
and given a voice to this war, where every man and woman’s job is
survival. This is an immense achievement.
Infra was a body of work Richard had developed a few years prior
and The Enclave being an extension of this.
What was the process of developing the exhibition like? Did you
work very closely with Richard? Or was he developing the
I saw the beginnings of the 16mm film
work and was impressed with the multi-screen approach. Richard was
working on this body of film work for over a year. When we got the
invitation to represent Ireland in the Venice Biennale Richard
returned to the Congo to secure further footage. The contract for
Fondaco Marcello, the venue I eventually rented for Ireland, was a
year long lease. This allowed Richard to edit the work in the space
in March 2013, which was hugely beneficial to him and his editor
Trevor Tweeten. I visited him in Venice during this process and
had input and discussions with him on the installation for The
Enclave and the exhibition design for the photographs. At
that time I met with the carpenter, electrician, carpet layer etc.
and planned what needed to be done in advance of our opening. We were
lucky in that a lot of what was needed to be carried out to transform
the space was achieved in April, before there was a demand for the
time of every workman in Venice for all the other Pavilions.
Mosse's work has been noted for
also being commercially viable, as both a fact and as criticism. Did
you work with Jack Shainman Gallery towards the show? How
involved were they, if at all?
The healthy sales of Richard’s
photographs has allowed him to develop the production of his film
work and helped him to fund his many trips to the Congo. The Jack
Shainman Gallery were supportive and helped with the sales of the
benefit print, which was produced to assist in the Fundraising to
deliver this ambitious and costly presentation.
What were the differences
between curating this scale of a show and other exhibitions you
have done? Was it a lot of pressure?
I worked in the private sector in New
York for many years as an art dealer and have curated six exhibitions
a year during my nine year tenure as Director at the Butler Gallery.
Delivering The Enclave in Venice and the subsequent
Irish Tour was a huge job and ultimately a two year commitment. The
challenge is that one continues to have a full-time job also whilst
pulling this off, so the double-jobbing is intensive. Yes, it was a
lot of pressure, especially the fundraising. I was committing to and
spending money I wasn’t sure I would be able to raise so it was
intense at times. As it turned out, it all worked out very
successfully, which was a huge relief. It was an amazing experience
to present a project such as this to a wide international audience
and one that I will never forget.
The reaction so far has been
phenomenal. We have had feedback that it was a favourite exhibition
of many who visited Venice. The word of mouth recommendation has been
extraordinary and the Irish Pavilion became a ‘must see’
exhibition in Venice.
Did you expect the reaction that the
work received? In terms of popular media attention and
also in terms of criticisms?
I was delighted that The
Enclave stirred people up in so many ways. The response was
incredible and something I truly hadn’t anticipated. Richard had
received a lot of attention from the press for his
previous Infra series and so I knew the press were
positioned and curious about what he was going to achieve in moving
image in Venice. As it turned out he surpassed everyone’s
expectations. I think the criticisms were a healthy response. The
work is challenging on many levels so I expected the lively debate
around the ethics of the work, its intent and its enduring memory.
Did you find his project
problematical in any way?
While this is a tough subject to make
art about, Richard Mosse has brought this humanitarian tragedy to the
attention of an audience that needs reminding of the horrors of war.
This work of art does pose some disturbing questions, one of which
is, what does it mean to make human suffering beautiful? The Enclave
delivers a pure and unapologetic approach to understanding the Congo
through the eyes of an artist, transcending facts and statistics to
penetrate our sensibilities on every level.