“Are you an artist or a journalist?”
Marcel Feil, the Deputy Director of artistic affairs at Foam, wasted no time getting to the big questions. The recipient was Richard Mosse, who had arrived in Amsterdam that morning for the installation and opening of his exhibition The Enclave.
Once the jokes about typical Dutch candor died down the Irish photographer swiftly dismissed the idea that he might be a journalist: “I’m an artist, though I’ve got documentarian blood.” Journalists, he said, work on tight deadlines, report to editors, and—perhaps most significantly—have to do things like “fact-check.” “Human experience,” Mosse reflected, “is not limited to facts.”
The Amsterdam exhibition comprises four large photographs from Mosse’s series Infra, but the heart of The Enclave is the eponymous six screen film installation that formed the centerpiece of the Ireland Pavilion presentation in last summer’s Venice Biennale. A psychedelic pink palette characterizes the photographs and films, which were shot between 2010 and 2012 when Mosse was embedded with rebel groups in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The bubblegum pink and radiant magenta, present wherever one would expect lush, tropical greenery, are the results of Kodak Aerochrome, a now discontinued film developed by military strategists that registers infrared light invisible to the naked eye.
Richard Mosse, First we take Manhattan, 2012; © Richard Mosse / Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Expression of the invisible is a key function of the project, both literally and metaphorically. The ongoing Congolese conflict is not black and white; it lacks clear-cut conceptual and geographic dichotomies like evil/good, rich/poor, north/south that might make it nominally easier to understand. Some thirty factions operate in the region, with ever-changing alliances, and the number of casualties is astonishing: it’s estimated that as many as 5.4 million people have been killed since 1998. The Enclave depicts a war that in its opacity and complexity has gone widely unnoticed by the outside world.
As much as Infra and The Enclave document this conflict, the medium is also the message. In spite of their ostensive subject matter, Mosse’s candy-colored portraits and landscapes are beautiful. Can war photography be beautiful? Should it be? History paintings glorify battlefields, yet photography’s implicit veracity makes that same majesty feel wrong. What happens when we acknowledge the tropes and signifiers of war photography—that grainy, blurry, Robert Capa anti-aesthetic—and let them go? What makes pink less natural than black and white anyway?
Color and beauty are at the heart of the project, but the physical installation bears as much metaphor as the infrared film. Artist and author Hito Steyerl has written that multiscreen projections “create a dynamic viewing space, dispersing perspective and possible points of view. The viewer is…dissociated and overwhelmed, drafted into the production of content.” With six screens projecting intermittently, The Enclave demands active viewers—you cannot simply settle in for the forty-minute presentation. Double-sided screens hang at oblique angles throughout the room and when you think you’ve found a good vantage, the one you’ve been watching falls blank and another behind you picks up. Sometimes all six are running; other times just one or two. It's a fractured image for a fractured nation that's not meant to be easy to watch or understand. Composer Ben Frost’s haunting soundtrack, an arrangement of distorted field recordings, adds further complexity to the projected choreography.
Richard Mosse, Platon, 2012; © Richard Mosse / Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
There’s an unsettling geometry reaching beyond the screens’ inconvenient angles. Cinematographer Trevor Tweeten’s Steadicam work features long, linear shots, but the editing, sound, and distributed projections upend any sense of natural flow. The camera moves down roads, following paramilitary and UN-marked vehicles; it shadows soldiers up winding slopes, trekking through tall grass and dense foliage; it trails children around an internally displaced persons camp. But it never arrives anywhere. Time comes in incomplete shapes. With nothing but a shifting horizon, there’s no resolution, only endless dispute.
It’s worth noting that the Foam installation is tighter than its Venetian iteration. In the large Venice space, visitors could navigate freely in and out of the screens’ central territory (though most seemed to stick to the periphery, perhaps vying for a wider view). The Foam setup is smaller, more intimate; with four of the screens backing onto the room’s walls, it forces viewers inside the enclave to encounter the action and one another.
As a solution to an aesthetic or conceptual problem, The Enclave seems so simple and elegant you almost ask: Why didn’t I think of that? (Answer: Because who wants to go to a Congolese war zone with a tremendously volatile film that needs to be stored frozen?) The specialist film reveals something about an inhumane conflict, but equally, the conflict reveals something about perception, about photography. The Enclave is much more than jewel-toned landscapes or photojournalism. It’s a treatise on fact, fiction, beauty, and the burden of representation. It’s a document of human experience and a glimpse at the invisible.
(Image on top: Richard Mosse, Safe from harm, 2012; © Richard Mosse / Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)