Some pictures may be worth a thousand words, but certain ones are worth an installation.
Alfredo Jaar’s exhibition, Shadows, made its world premiere at the SCAD Museum of Art on February 18. The installation is actually part two of a trilogy concerning the power of extraordinary photojournalistic images. Shadows, in particular, was inspired by the work of Chilean photographer Koen Wessing, from his book Chile September 1973, which focused on the damage caused by General Pinochet’s military coup and the resultant 17 year long military dictatorship in Chile.
Jaar uses Wessing’s photos as a story without text, taking the viewer one-by-one through a single moment of tragedy. Entering the installation the left hallway showcases three photos embedded in the wall mounted in front of LED screens. The photos glow eerie and white, leading to a larger room with a single photo covering most of the main wall. The photo is of two women, arms suspended in grief after just learning their father was killed in the coup, the arrival of his dead body as the first clue of his death. At first, the photo seems to be a larger version of the others, then over time the background begins to darken and the figures begin to illuminate, growing brighter and brighter until the whole room is blind with white silhouettes on fire.
When comparing this installation to his first, The Sound of Silence, it’s genuinely interesting even from a completely formal standpoint. The Sound of Silence, as opposed to Shadows, is centered around one photo as well; however the story is told in a completely opposite way: through text in a video, with just a three second flash of the image close to the end. Jaar is truly ingenuous when it comes to story telling. However, I think it’s important to mention that if you haven’t seen The Sound of Silence, Shadows may not hit you quite as hard.
Jaar’s fascination with images in the media started when he began tracking the coverage of the Rwandan genocide in the media. One day, he picked up the New York Times and found a tiny story on page five casually written about 35,000 people washing up on the Kagera River—mentioned “as if they were flies”. From this moment on, Jaar decided no image was innocent, and he is still seeking out important, vital photojournalistic images, giving them the attention they need and deserve.
Jaar is the artist we need right now. We are constantly over-saturated with images from the media who decide to run stories about Miley Cyrus instead of the riots in Ukraine or the protests in Venezuela. But this isn’t only the fault of the media, it’s the fault of artists as well. Many artists I’ve known, when asked about the depth of their work, will step back, shaking their heads, saying they don’t like politics, they don’t like getting political. I’d like to cite a Jaar quote that is a perfect response to that reaction:
“I do not accept the term political artist. We are all artists and we are all critically engaged with the world because we act in it, so everything we do represents a conception of the world in that sense. We are all political. When it is not political, when it is not critical, when there is no conception of the world, that is not art. That is decoration.”