New York

Alfredo Jaar

New Museum

In the decade since Alfredo Jaar left his native Chile to live in New York and began to exhibit internationally, his art has explored the relationship between the so-called first and third worlds. Entitled “1 + 1 + 1,” this exhibition, which originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, brings together projects based on Jaar’s extensive research and travel to the gold mines of Serra Pelada, Brazil; a toxic waste dump in the small village of Koko, outside of Lagos, Nigeria; and, more recently, detention centers for Vietnamese refugees, operated by the British Hong Kong government. Jaar returns from his adventures armed with firsthand experience and ample photographic documentation of the ravages of multinational capitalism. Intent to give the Other a face—sometimes haunting or vacant, sometimes innocent or gleeful—and to provoke in the viewer a greater “family of man” compassion for their/our plight in the global morass, Jaar composes seductive installations that utilize series of framing devices. Employing various modes of visual or theatrical displacement—light boxes, mirrors, and, more recently, angularly tilted architectural walls and billboard-size photographic murals—he carefully choreographs our encounter with the Other. The occasional introduction of textural elements underscores the extreme irony of the rhetoric that sustains the exploits of late capitalism and points to the ideological suppositions at the basis of Jaar’s activity: that art can stimulate awareness in ways that news reportage cannot, and that meanings can be revealed by manipulating the viewer’s conceptual perceptual, and physical relationship to images.

(Un)framed, 1987–91. a larger-than-life photographic mural of a group of male youths from Serra Pelada, punctuated by several mirror-and-glass panels leaned against its surface, is supposed to trigger a flood of discoveries concerning both our complicity in cultural crimes and our inherent humanity despite it all. In Frame of Mind, 1987, a work in which we can only perceive two light-box images of the faces of muddied Brazilian miners indirectly reflected in a pair of low-hung, gilt-framed mirrors, we are supposed to be stirred to feelings of compassion. By frustrating the viewer’s desire for a gratifyingly whole image, and by withholding the narcissistic fulfillment afforded by a mirrored self-image, fragmentation and displaced desire are meant to promote ethical or political enlightenment.

The problem with this work goes beyond the simple matter of preaching to the converted. It is rather more insidious in that the images are presented as real, while the colonizing instincts that motivate artmaking and viewing are not. Jaar presents his luscious color images of Brazilians, Nigerians, and Vietnamese in fixtures synonymous with vanguard art, and, despite altruistic intentions, he perpetuates a notable shortcoming of the vanguard tradition—the suppression and/or denial of subliminal ideological contents that threaten to erode the freedoms that this art supposedly champions. What Jaar has never been able to overcome or perhaps even to confront is that, subjugated to the virile perfection of mirrored and photographic surfaces and Minimalist forms, these Other bodies and their admittedly deplorable circumstances are eroticized as spectacular events of suffering to be rehabilitated and consumed for our pleasure. We play peekaboo with Jaar’s sheltered images, for they hold out the glittering prize of exotic/erotic interest made palatable with the grease of principle, conscience, and morality.

Jan Avgikos