Alfredo Jaar

Half a century after the end of the Holocaust, Alfredo Jaar presented Real Pictures, a project that speaks of a more recent genocide—the massacre of close to one million Tursi in Rwanda. To his credit, Jaar raises the question of how such an “event” can be represented, while ruefully reminding us how unlikely it is that the word “Butare” will ever achieve anything like the resonance of “Auschwitz.”

For Real Pictures, Jaar sifted through the thousands of photographs he took during his journey through Rwanda, Zaire, and Uganda in the summer of 1994. He visited the massive refugee camps in Zaire, near the Rwandan border—testaments to the West’s delay in responding to the genocide of an African people—where he photographed those who escaped the Hutu only to fall victim to cholera or dysentery.

From these photographs, Jaar culled hundreds of images and printed them; all of these were included in his installation, yet not one was visible. Each of the eight-by-ten-inch photographic prints the artist selected was packed in a separate archival box. The boxes were massed together in a series of monolithic configurations, most arranged in low rectangular fields, others stacked or in rows. A description of the image each box contained was printed on the exterior in concise, clinical language. Occasionally, these texts related details as inconsequential as the kind of tree visible in the background. It is this eerie juxtaposition of the banal and the horrific that lends Jaar’s captions the ring of truth. Softly lit, the installation itself was situated in a U-shaped cul-de-sac. In another room, a library, well-stocked with information about the history of Rwanda and the Tutsi massacre, occupied one side of the space, while a video loop projected the captions on the storage boxes against a monochrome screen.

The question Jaar’s project raises is whether art can help us to understand the meaning (or meaninglessness) of genocide. His insistence on language rather than icon reaffirms the Balkan writer Vicenç Altaió’s assertion that “Images have an advanced religion. They bury history.” Our sophisticated culture is all too familiar with the ways in which the consumption of visual representations may be confused with engagement. This powerful knowledge of images and their codes carries no moral imperative. We can view this or that representation of a woman, an African-American, a Native American, or a Rwandan child starving to death, but the image as such is mute.

Jaar knows this, but for now his response echoes that of the late George Rodger, a cofounder of the renowned Magnum photo agency. Rodger—among the first war correspondents to enter Belsen in 1945—stored the photographs he took in boxes and didn’t open them again for 45 years. For a decade now, Jaar has been showing us how to look at events that have remained unavailable to us in one way or another despite political and economic ties. Whether it is the “exoticisms” of the so-called third world, or the near-invisibility and exploitation of non-Western subcultures in our midst or at our borders, Jaar has always tackled the problem unhesitatingly in and through images. Much of his work, it has been argued, has been conceptually sustained by the analogy he creates between the ways in which an individual’s self-image develops and how a society chooses to represent its culture. For this project, Jaar pulls back to reassess his strategy; the result is a significant transitional work that challenges a number of commonly held opinions about Jaar, art, and politics. Its importance rests simultaneously on what it is not and on what it withholds.

Michael Corris