The first encounter with his work was back in 2008 at the Mission of Chile to the United Nations at meetings I attended there. “A Logo for America”, a flag of the United States made up of lightbulbs turning on and off and flashing the words “this is not America” within the american flag, displayed like a mantra in Times Square in New York. A few years after I saw “A Logo for America”, it flashed up again at midnight one night in August 2014. I started following Jaar ever since, impressed by his ethic and his aphorisms: “All art is political”, ”All art has a critical dimension; when it doesn’t, it’s decoration”.
Jaar, more than just an artist is a dedicated activist for human rights. One of his more political and conceptual installations is the “Rwanda Project”, first exhibited in New York City in 1998. The project took place during the period of 1994-2000. This work of art evokes the place and the specificity of the deaths in the Rwanda Genocide, like the establishing shots of contemporary landscapes in Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah. It shows how the genocide occurred and how bodies flowed down rivers. It’s a representation of an ethical and aesthetic project with a very strong emotional charge. The text tells that over a five month period in 1994, more than one million Rwandans, mostly members of the Tutsi minority, were systematically slaughtered as the world closed its eyes to genocide”. This is how the exhibition begins. The text concludes by emphasizing the strong impression made upon the artist by the eyes of this witness, “the eyes of Guetete Emerita”. “Rwanda Project” wanted to create a volume that represented approximately one million slides, in reference to the one million dead in Rwanda. If Jaar’s 35 mm slides were made into a film it would be over 11 hours long.
But the most provocative and memorable work Alfredo Jaar has produced, is the first part of “The Sound of Silence” in 1995. An installation focusing on the life of the South African photojournalist Kevin Carter, a story about an individual photograph and its impact, and also a story about representation and its unequal effects. An astonishingly moving work on all sorts of levels. The New York Times art’s critic said: “using human tragedy as an artistic readymade has definite pros and cons. Relevance is usually guaranteed; the heartstrings are likely to be pulled” , Jaar’s work raises questions about the relationship between photography and representation; between the medium and its political implications. In a context where reality television shows and web-casting purport to democratize the means of representation. Jaar’s practice is a reminder of the growing gulf between actual representation and its fake imitations.
But the artist’s work involves much more than installations. Rather than showing in museums, his public interventions happen in more political and socially engaged contexts. They involve communities, work with other artists in collaborations, such as in Catia, Venezuela. In Catia, the poorest area of the city of Caracas, an area of the city where there are no cultural institutions his camera became a tool to show a reality. He created a protect called “Camera Lucida” in this impoverished neighborhood where he distributed 1,000 disposable cameras and went to thirty-seven different local institutions, like hospitals and schools to distribute the cameras and explain the project that would later become an exhibition of the photos.
Another social and educational project of Jaar’s took place in Finland where he worked with philosophers and intellectuals and put on show their letters all over Helsinki, with ideas about the brilliant educational system employed there.
After studying few of Jaar’s work, I wondered, what are the boundaries between social interventions and art? And as Jaar himself said one time when he quoted Jean Luc Godard: “It might be true that you have to choose between ethics and aesthetics. But it is also true that whichever one you choose, you will always find the other one at the end of the road. Because the definition of the human condition is in the mise en scène itself ” and then added “I don’t see any difference between ethics and aesthetics, I believe everything we do is political”.
Image by photojournalist Kevin Carter
*This is an essay I wrote for the European Graduate School admission.