New York

Alfredo Jaar

Few contemporary artists are as attuned to the power of images as Alfredo Jaar. His particular focus: those photographic representations of politically induced instances of human suffering that saturate the media and sear our consciousness with scenes that, paradoxically, can be neither truly remembered nor forgotten. Born in Chile and, since 1982, based in New York, Jaar has been consistently global in scope. Past projects have centered on the working conditions of Brazilian gold miners, the detainment of Vietnamese boat people by the Hong Kong government, and the slaughter of the Tutsi by Hutu death squads in Rwanda. Traveling to these sites, Jaar has taken photographs that, in their stark, no-nonsense style and emphasis on the human visage, recall those of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, along with current photojournalists. But rather than extend this documentary tradition, Jaar has used his pictures to reveal journalistic photography’s almost pornographic drive for a total disclosure that results not in the production of objective records but the creation of new forms of domination and dissociation.

Jaar’s work of the ’80s and early ’90s, which served as the basis of elegant but highly theatrical installations, typically obscured their imagery. Usually set in light boxes, the pictures were placed either too high or too low on the wall to be easily seen or in such a way that they could not be gazed at directly but only in a mirrored reflection. Through this device, Jaar drew attention to photography’s failure to capture or convey truth. But it also seemed, perversely, that he was trying to protect viewers from being seduced by the very pictures he had invited us to behold. Indeed, perhaps more than that of any artist associated with identity politics, Jaar’s images were prey to that classic conundrum of postmodern aesthetics: the desire both to critique representation’s ideological basis and to make use of its power to persuade and inform.

Jaar’s latest project, Lament of the Images, 2002, like a number of his works since the mid-’90s, dispenses with pictures altogether—but not out of any puritanical mistrust. Rather, Jaar’s installation (which was first shown at Documenta 11) exhibits a newfound respect for the documentary image’s capacity to promote and preserve historical memory. A darkened room contains three backlit text panels with glowing white letters. Two describe examples of the removal of images from the public sphere: Bill Gates’s purchase and subsequent burial (for “safekeeping”) of the estimated seventeen million pictures making up the Bettmann and United Press International archives; and the US Defense Department’s acquisition of all available satellite images of Afghanistan during the 2001 air strikes. The third text tells a more ambiguous and ultimately more disturbing tale of absent images: There are no photographs of Nelson Mandela weeping on the day he was released from prison. Forced to break limestone under the glaring sun during his twenty-eight-year incarceration on Robben Island, Mandela suffered retinal damage that left him unable to cry.

Instead of explicitly depicting the situations they document, these texts force viewers to conjure pictures in their mind’s eye. In the gallery’s second room, an enormous blank screen emanates a blinding white glare. On one hand, it alludes to the inevitable blind spots (and hence limitations) of all photographic documents. But the empty screen also serves as a visceral allegory of the fate implied by Jaar’s texts: a future in which the capacity to bear witness to one’s reality in the form of an image—and, by extension, to imagine a possible alternative to that reality—has been permanently withdrawn.

Margaret Sundell