Alfredo Jaar, WHAT NEED IS THERE TO WEEP OVER PARTS OF LIFE? THE WHOLE OF IT CALLS FOR TEARS, 2018, neon, 19' 8 1⁄4“ × 15' 6 5⁄8”.

Alfredo Jaar, WHAT NEED IS THERE TO WEEP OVER PARTS OF LIFE? THE WHOLE OF IT CALLS FOR TEARS, 2018, neon, 19' 8 1⁄4“ × 15' 6 5⁄8”.

Alfredo Jaar

Alfredo Jaar, WHAT NEED IS THERE TO WEEP OVER PARTS OF LIFE? THE WHOLE OF IT CALLS FOR TEARS, 2018, neon, 19' 8 1⁄4“ × 15' 6 5⁄8”.

Its windows covered with red film, the gallery emitted a luminous glow, but this was no disco. Entering, viewers were enveloped by a dense fog that forced them to move about cautiously, drawn to a red neon sign that covered the entire back wall, its letters very far apart, elongated like falling teardrops and nearly illegible. The words had to be reconstructed one by one so that their meaning could be felt in all its painful effect: WHAT NEED IS THERE TO WEEP OVER PARTS OF LIFE? THE WHOLE OF IT CALLS FOR TEARS. This is also the title of this 2018 work, taken from the letter of consolation written around 40 CE by the Stoic philosopher Seneca to his friend Marcia after the death of her son. In it he exhorts her, in deeply felt and morally forceful language, to resist the irrational impulse of sorrow. Alfredo Jaar allowed this emblematic phrase to glimmer in the fog, reacting to the tyranny of the large gallery space by filling it not with objects but with a feeling, a mood that is suspended in poetic uncertainty.

The artist, something of a stoic himself, has long demanded that we deal only with what is relevant; the themes he embraces are humanitarian emergencies, political oppression, and social marginalization. This site-specific installation, which exudes grief for human suffering and the uncertainties of our time, grants us access to an intimate space of reflection, in a true spirit of compassion.

Designed as a sort of crescendo, the exhibition continued to unfold on the second floor with Lament of the Images, 2002, which lent the show its title. It was made of two massive aluminum light tables of the kind that photographers use to examine slides, transparencies, or negatives, one standing in the middle of the room, the other suspended, upside down, above it. Slowly descending from the ceiling, the upper table drew close to its lower twin, its steady motion like a long breath. Eventually the tables met, and since there was no other light source in the room, visitors were left in the dark. This lasted for two minutes, and when the tables separated, their bright surfaces again gradually lit up the space. These tabulae rasae inevitably brought us back to ourselves and to the people around us, while the absence of images made us aware of our dependency on representation. Minimalistic, bare objects, they nevertheless had the power to change the physical and psychological space. The work was an exercise in simplicity.

If at first there was emptiness, then only one (doubled) object, on the top floor we found a human story, with real people, real consequences. For Shadows, 2014, the second part of his ongoing “Trilogy of Light” series, which began with The Sound of Silence, 2008, Jaar selected a dramatic photo from a sequence shot by the Dutch photographer Koen Wessing in Nicaragua in 1978, when it was ruled by the US-backed Somoza regime. Projected on a large screen in a two-minute loop, it depicted two women, crushed by the news that the police have just killed their father. Their weeping faces and distorted body postures were the essence of grief. But soon the background faded to black, and their bodies also slowly disappeared, saturated with light, until only their silhouettes remained. From behind the screen, a light with a total power of six thousand watts passed through them, and for a few seconds illuminated the room with an almost unbearable intensity, blinding us. An afterimage effect caused their shapes to stay imprinted in the retina for some time, like ghostly presences loaded with the inescapable truth of pain.

For Jaar, images are not innocent, and each one might contain a concept of the world. In Shadows, by the force of a single image, the artist provided us with the tools to identify with a dramatic situation, making it physically impossible for the viewer not to feel empathy. And it was precisely our awareness of this shared anguish that made the meaning of the fog downstairs evident: We cannot approach human sorrow except through the veil of discretion and pietas, the veil of tears.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.