New York

Alfredo Jaar

Previously, Alfredo Jaar has often shown us difficult images by employing various degrees of indirectness that signal a certain distrust in the ability of those images to tell us anything at all. In Real Pictures, 1995, for example, he sealed photographs of the Rwandan genocide in archival boxes, exhibiting them with written descriptions of the images. Lament of the Images, 2002, also featured text, here describing three paradoxical situations involving sight and blindness, representation and censorship, including the storage deep underground of the Bettman Archives of historical stock photography.

The artist marshals these strategies toward an investigation of perception itself—of how we do or don’t absorb, integrate, or ignore problematic images—so that we never see anything without being reminded that we are seeing. Jaar has arrived at an arresting method of integrating the political into his project without didactic residue. Even when his works involve urgent matters of conscience, they also allude to the ways in which we process such matters, rather than focusing on the indignation they prompt. In 1994, in one of his most brutally effective works, Jaar placed posters on advertising light boxes throughout Malmö, Sweden, that read, in bold black-and-white, RWANDA RWANDA RWANDA. Viewers were invited, practically dared, to let them become part of the visual noise of daily life.

Muxima, 2005, Jaar’s ardent new work and first major film, is at once more private and more direct. True, it does not avail itself of anything so traditional as a linear plot, largely leaving viewers to construct its argument for themselves, but its paradoxes and sources of sadness are in plain sight. Muxima is structured around different versions of the eponymous African folk song, and is divided into ten cantos, or vignettes—some as short as a single still image, others much longer—of scenes filmed in Angola. Here, Jaar doesn’t dilute or obscure his imagery; the tense, unlucky minesweeper, the mothers of missing children, the AIDS patient all contribute to an overall picture of a country wracked by poverty and instability.

The haunting song that plays behind Muxima’s images mitigates their impact somewhat. There is a sense of Angola as locus of contradiction—native culture thoroughly permeated by a now absent colonial power; a country rich in resources but not in money—but this flows from facts rather than from Jaar’s usual use of contrary grammars. The music’s minor-key descent echoes and underlines the images, and the lack of professional actors, effects, or lighting registers as the same kind of refusal to sculpt his images into a predigested narrative that has driven Jaar’s previous work. But Muxima, without the artist’s customary exploration of seeing and acknowledging as a public act, does not inhabit as interesting a space; it is, in the end, personal and sad instead of being truly public, and truly powerful.

Emily Hall