New York

Alfredo Jaar

Alfredo Jaar, an artist who has committed many years to examining the potentialities of art’s response (and perhaps responsibility) to those at the extreme margins of life or in the crosshairs of social/political/existential crisis, produced an unremittingly complex and disturbing installation in 2006, The Sound of Silence. Originally presented at DiverseWorks in Houston within the context of FotoFest 2006 (and subsequently in a number of international contexts), the work here made a long overdue appearance in New York.

Passing in front of a vast array of vertically organized fluorescent bulbs—a veritable wall of light on one side of a large aluminum-clad structure—viewers are momentarily optically overloaded. Here, light materializes as space, swiftly dematerializing into all-consuming luminosity. This is perceptual manipulation of the highest order, certainly strategic on Jaar’s part, effectively provoking questions about the visual, cultural, and political conditions (or consequences) of how we allow ourselves to be manipulated. To venture further into this installation might lead one into optical and cognitive obliteration. Yet there is a desire to continue, to be further manipulated. A wall text indicates the rules of the game: not to enter the enclosure until the red light turns green. Jaar interpellates the viewer as subject and controlled body, thereby reenacting the inscription of power within space—an ironically critical maneuver.

Playing within the darkened enclosure is a soundless film in which a textual sequence appears on a black ground, conveying a narrative about the peculiarly tragic life of freelance South African photojournalist Kevin Carter. We are informed that Carter became known as a risk-taking photojournalist in apartheid South Africa, and eventually traveled to Sudan, shooting an image that would be published in the New York Times in 1993: a picture of a starving, emaciated Sudanese child watched over by a patient vulture. A narrative excerpt: HE POSITIONED HIMSELF FOR THE BEST POSSIBLE IMAGE / HE WAITED 20 MINUTES / HE WAS HOPING THE VULTURE WOULD SPREAD ITS WINGS / BUT IT DID NOT / HE TOOK HIS PHOTOGRAPHS / AND CHASED THE BIRD AWAY / HE WATCHED AS THE LITTLE GIRL RESUMED HER STRUGGLE / HE SAT UNDER A TREE AND LIT A CIGARETTE / TALKED TO GOD / AND CRIED / KEVIN / KEVIN. We then read that, in 1994, just a couple of months after receiving a Pulitzer Prize for this very picture, a distraught, haunted, and perhaps guilt-ridden Carter committed suicide; and that the fate of the child in the photograph remains unknown. We also learn that the rights to the image are held under the auspices of Corbis, owned by Bill Gates. Flashes of light then violently penetrate the space, and we are interpellated once again, becoming the unsuspecting object-victims of a feigned photographic gaze, and Carter’s photograph appears furtively onscreen, like an afterimage.

The Sound of Silence triggers some important questions. Do we need such images so that we can be confronted with what we might not want to believe is inextricably connected to our own lives: the suffering of others? Is Jaar here endeavoring to deconstruct the relentless transfiguration of bare human empathy into its banalized cousin: manufactured pity? Does the eliciting or production of our suffering (a guilty conscience, or the pain of knowledge itself) have a chance of becoming politically transformative or socially restorative? If everything is connected to everything else, how might we understand where our “responsibility” as alienated observers begins and ends? As traumatized, incapacitated witnesses, groping about in the space between passive outrage and mobilized action, are we unwitting accomplices in the symbolic reproduction of conditions of power that produce inequity? Jaar may be suggesting that we are perpetrators and victims, objects and subjects, endlessly exchanging roles in the grand feedback loop of the scopic field, at once complicit and exonerated. Is art sufficient to the task of unpacking these contradictions, or should it complicate matters further?

Joshua Decter