PRINT December 2017

Books: Best of 2017

Lucy Kumara Moore

When I say that Incoming (Mack) was the best book of 2017, what I mean is that, of all the books I encountered this year, it more than any other prompted exceptionally thoughtful—if divergent—critical responses, while also garnering an extremely high level of interest from the general public.

Published concurrently with Richard Mosse’s exhibition at the Barbican, London, earlier this year, Incoming documents an eponymous installation by the Irish artist: three wall-size screens displaying striking video footage of refugees, fleeing Northern Africa and the Middle East, at the borders of Europe. Working in collaboration with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, Mosse created this footage using a military-grade thermal-imaging camera, which can detect, with astonishing detail, the heat of human bodies at a distance of nearly twenty miles. (In some cases, Mosse filmed his subjects across the Syrian border, from Turkey.) The traumatic scenes of Incoming, picturing so many ghostlike figures,were beautiful on-screen, and in the book they are reproduced with a metallic ink that is similarly seductive. In a year of political turmoil in Europe, focused considerably around issues of migration, the work feels deeply important.

By Mosse’s own admission, this visual technology dehumanizes its subjects, “portraying people in zombie form as monstrous, stripping the individual from the body” and reducing the figure to “mere biological trace.” This troubled some critics. But others, such as Duncan Wooldridge, argued that the thermal imagery—in which all figures, of both soldiers and refugees, are rendered as mere corporeal stuff—actually foregrounded the shared vulnerability of all human beings.

What I found compelling was the way in which this work challenged the idea that we only empathize “usefully” when we encounter the emotional recitations or visual traces of consenting individuals, which in the case of traditional photo documentary is somehow assumed to be “truthful.” Mosse’s use of thermal imaging cameras did, I agree, deny the viewer empathic access to the filmed refugees on an emotional level. But the focus on the subjects’ physicality reminded us that these are bodies like ours, emanating heat and sharing our need for warmth, shelter, and sustenance. It proposed a powerful new way to engage with art and politics—through a kind of “physical empathy.”

Lucy Kumara Moore is the owner and director of Claire De Rouen, London.