Alfredo Jaar

Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts (MCB-A)

“There is no torrent of images,” according to Jacques Rancière. In his essay for the catalogue to “La politique des images,” the recent retrospective devoted to Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, the philosopher writes that the oft-stated idea that there is an excess of images—seducing and anesthetizing us—is a cliché generated by the very machinery of power that lies behind these images. The media don’t show us too many images of the ugliness of our world, Rancière argues, but rather too few. Since the late ’70s, Jaar has used his sharp eye and great sensitivity to cast light on the mechanisms of strategic omission.

Conceived by the artist in collaboration with curator Nicole Schweizer, the exhibition presented a nonchronological overview of his work. It opened with Out of Balance, 1989, an installation comprised of six long, narrow light boxes mounted on the wall horizontally at various heights, which display portraits of Brazilian gold miners photographed against a white background. As in many of Jaar’s installations, light becomes a metaphor for rendering images visible or invisible, the authorial power that can choose to illuminate an image or consign it to darkness.

Light also plays a central role in the installation The Sound of Silence, 2006. Three hundred neon tubes cover one side of the exterior of a room within the room, swathing it in blinding white light. The viewer’s eyes eventually adjust, painfully but also cathartically—as if Jaar were proclaiming, “Let there be light,” and bidding us to cast off our old viewing habits to achieve a conscious seeing. The interior, by contrast, is illuminated only by a film projection that soundlessly relates, using white typewriter graphics against a black background, the story of South African photojournalist Kevin Carter and a famous photograph he took in Sudan in 1993. The text of the story is interrupted by a jarring explosion of flashbulbs, which subsides to show the photograph of a half-starved girl dragging herself along on all fours (watched by a vulture), as if it were a ghostly afterimage. The text returns to relate the fate of Carter: He won a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph but was condemned by some for having failed to help the girl; soon afterward, he committed suicide.

The problematic nature of images is at issue as well in Real Pictures, 1995–2007. Three weeks after the genocide in Rwanda ended, Jaar traveled to the country and collected thousands of photographs of survivors, writing down their stories. The pictures, however, are not visible in the final work: They are encased in black boxes arranged in such a way that they simultaneously recall archival storage boxes and gravestones; each box bears a text that describes the photograph contained therein. Jaar uses the strategy of ellipsis to rethink representational systems.

Both Untitled (Newsweek), 1994, and Searching for Africa in LIFE, 1996, address the war in Rwanda as well as the media’s general indifference to Africa. Jaar collected Newsweek covers to demonstrate that the magazine waited sixteen weeks after the start of the massacre before featuring the topic. The second work shows sixty years of Life magazine covers, 1936 to 1996, presented in miniature on five panels, making it clear that when Africa appears at all, it is represented by wildlife, masks, and other exotica.

The exhibition concluded with Jaar’s well-known early series of interventions, Studies on Happiness, 1979–81, created in Santiago during the military dictatorship. In the first section of this seven-part work, Jaar asked passersby in the street, “Are you happy?” Under a regime that suppressed freedom of expression, this innocuous question—which the artist also inscribed on signs throughout the city—became a politically subversive act. Like all of Jaar’s work, it gives voice to what is suppressed and silenced.

Valérie Knoll

Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky.