New York

Alfredo Jaar

Spring Street and Avenue of the Americas subway station

Last December, Alfredo Jaar leased all of the advertising space in a downtown New York subway station for the entire month. On both northbound and southbound platforms Jaar installed photographic posters and graphic information created by the artist. There were no explanations or descriptive texts to accompany the installation; the public was left to depend on its own analytic resources. Rushes was the third part of a four-installation project based on a trip the artist took to Serra Pelada, Brazil, near the mouth of the Amazon River, in the summer of 1985. Two of the installations were mounted earlier last year at the Venice Biennale and at the Center for Contemporary Art in Indianapolis, and the final segment was installed at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery in January of this year.

On the desolate plateau in Brazil visited by Jaar there is a gold rush under way. He went there to document this strange event through slides, video, and interviews. Tens of thousands of men have left their homes and families to follow an obscure rumor in the remote hope of instant prosperity. A few of them find small amounts of gold; most find nothing. The site of this gold rush is a huge, muddy crater that is slowly being excavated with crude tools and human labor. The miners make many trips each day to and from the base of the deep bowl. There in the crater they fill burlap sacks with soil and mud that have already been panned for gold. The heavy bags are then carried on back, shoulders, or head via narrow and treacherous paths and frail ladders to the top of the crater, where the contents are emptied along the rim. Each day the hole becomes deeper, the trips become longer.

On the black poster panels of the subway station Jaar installed a selection of his photographs from this site, arranging them singly, in pairs, and in three-and four-part groupings. The grainy images—panoramic views of the Brazilian plateau as well as details of ladders, sacks, faces, straining legs, and mud-caked feet—were in black and white, pale tints, and full color. Their rawness contrasted with the colorful slickness of the advertisements normally displayed on the subway platforms. In the long waiting area, interspersed with his photographs, Jaar placed bright graphic signs announcing the world gold prices in Frankfurt, New York, Paris, and London. This is the kind of concrete information that commuters who take the subway line to Wall Street can understand; the connection to the photographic images, however, was perhaps more difficult to divine. The point that Jaar seemed to be making in Rushes is about the material desires that drive human beings, whether a white-collar employee of Wall Street rushing to work, or a Brazilian peasant leaving every possible security to search for elusive veins of gold. For many people even the vaguest promise of newfound prosperity justifies the greatest obsession. The differences between Serra Pelada and New York City are of circumstance and condition. The more surprising similarities are psychological and visceral. There is no comfort in the notion of otherness in Jaar’s world view; the dirty, desperate conditions of gold mining in South America share a kinship with the sale of the shiny ore in world markets.

Art in the subways is not a new phenomenon, but Jaar’s project was exceptional for several reasons. He used the raw material of the long, linear environment in a way that was legible for both pedestrians and train passengers. Through the conventions of advertising, he brought a third-world event to the attention of a cross-section of citizens in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and, in doing so, broke through the self-protective barrier of otherness that is often induced by bourgeois affluence. Jaar is one of only a few artists who choose to use public space and art to present information that encourages free thought and the development of political consciousness.

Patricia C. Phillips