April 2008, Alfredo Jaar @ South London Gallery


   Alfredo Jaar, detail from Untitled (Newsweek), 1994, part of The
 Rwanda Project 1994-2000.  

Alfredo Jaar: Politics of the Image
South London Gallery, London

Glistening light abacinates me upon entering the South London Gallery’s exhibition space. The issue of lighting is very important to the work of the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, who presents six works born of his enduring interest in Africa in his current exhibition Alfredo Jaar: Politics of the Image, the first major presentation of his work in London for fifteen years. “Lighting is an imperative to slow down, to contextualize and to frame properly each image so it makes sense, so it cannot be dismissed.[1]” The vertically arranged fluorescent lights aligned on the front of an austere zinc-clad light box illuminate the politics of the image and thus query our relationship to them.

Towards the inside of the gallery space, we step behind the lights, behind the gloss of the images, its contemplative functions and become aware of the cruelty of representation within the economics of a globalised media culture. In Searching for Africa in LIFE (2007) Jaar reflects on the (non)representation of African political issues in Western media. He collected covers of LIFE magazine between 1993-1996 and arranged them in a mosaic, inviting the viewers to examine this media landscape and explore what picture of Africa they have been presented with. The consequence of this reflection on one’s own relationship to visual representation is the realisation of the subordinating role the viewer takes up towards the politics of images.


 Alfredo Jaar, The Sound of Silence, 2006,
 mixed media installation - wood structure, zinc, fluorescent tubes, LED lights,
 flash lights, tripods, 8' video projection, looped, overall dimensions variable.
 Courtesy the artist. Photo: Andy Stagg

This becomes more than apparent in the 8-minute film The Sound of Silence (2006), which is projected inside the zinc-clad light box: the installation can only be entered every eight minutes in order to view the film from beginning to end, to regard the pain from its conception to execution. The film documents the social history around a photograph of a young victim of the 1990’s Sudanese famine, overlooked by a vulture. The South African photographer Kevin Carter took the image and, in fact, committed suicide after the image had won a Pulitzer Prize and after the public had accused him of not having intervened to save the child’s life. The way in which Jaar tells us the story of the photograph he avoids the simple representation of the image by means of suspending the image for text, narrating the problematic issues surrounding the image, from personal history to copyright law and publication figures. In her book Regarding the Pain of Others Susan Sontag emphasizes that photographs only commemorate part of what happened: “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us. [2]” The image alone cannot make sense of the traumatic reality that exceeds it, thus Jaar makes us imagine this reality. The instant in which the image is being revealed, flashlights spark out on the viewer and thus allude to his position as a witness of the pain of others.


Alfredo Jaar, Muxima, 2005, still from digital video, 36'. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong, New York.

Jaar reverses the media’s approach by suspending our usual relationship to the media that both documents reality and the way we view it. In the accompanying newspaper publication to the exhibition Jaar displays a series of the American magazine Newsweek’s covers which he picked according to the formation of the civil war Rwanda in 1994: it took 6 months until Newsweek devoted a cover to this topic. Arranging the covers of the magazine and the information about the massacres of Tutsi population side by side, Jaar highlights the problem of parallel societies, which do not intersect in their cultural and social issues, where the media contributes to the increase of the gap between reality and imagination, the truth and favourable obfuscation.


 Alfredo Jaar, The Sound of Silence, 2006,
 mixed media installation - wood structure, zinc, fluorescent tubes, LED lights,
 flash lights, tripods, 8' video projection, looped, overall dimensions variable.
 Courtesy the artist. Photo: Andy Stagg

Alfredo Jaar’s ongoing engagement with Africa is concerned with broader socio-political concerns related to the Western world’s responsibility to Africa and its development. The works ask for a rejection of the blinding process, a stepping beyond the dazzling lights upon entering the gallery space and exploring the paradoxical contribution of images to this blinding process.

[1] Anne-Marie Ninacs: Le regard responsable: une correspondance avec Alfredo Jaar, p. 58, in: Pierre Blache, Marie-Josée Jean et Anne-Marie Ninacs (Eds.): Le Souci du document. Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal. 1999.
[2] Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 89. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroud. 2003.


For more information visit the South London Gallery website.



Wiebke Gronemeyer is an independent curator and art writer based in London and Hamburg.
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EMAIL: wiebkeg@hotmail.com

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