The politics of art

SEARING IMAGE: Alfredo Jaars Shadows, above, and, inset, the artist with his new work The Garden of Good and Evil.Pictures: Jonty Wilde and Scott Merrylees
SEARING IMAGE: Alfredo Jaars Shadows, above, and, inset, the artist with his new work The Garden of Good and Evil.Pictures: Jonty Wilde and Scott Merrylees
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Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s latest exhibition showcases the work of Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar. Yvette Huddleston reports.

A neon sign at one end of the corridor in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s Underground Gallery reads ‘I Can’t Go On I’ll Go On.’ It is a pretty stark message.

A famous quote from Samuel Beckett’s 1954 novel The Unnamable, it certainly gives pause for thought and, according to Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar whose work is showcased in the Sculpture Park’s latest exhibition, it is the perfect metaphor for the times in which we are living.

There’s no arguing with that, but it could equally be an accurate description of what Jaar has been doing in over thirty years of creative practice. In his work he has consistently, fearlessly, confronted head on difficult themes such as conflict, humanitarian trauma and the politics of image-making.

“Alfredo is an artist whose work I have been looking at for over 15 years,” says Clare Lilley, director of programme at YSP. “He is one of the most politically engaged and respected artists working in the world today. And this exhibition is part of a strand of programming exploring contemporary global issues. One of the reasons I wanted to work with him is because he draws our attention to these things but he is also a great artist and what he makes is a sort of visual poetry. It was a bit risky to put this show in the programme but people are really responding to it.”

The show, which runs until April next year, includes a specially made new piece The Garden of Good and Evil presented in the open air and visible through the windows of the gallery. Among a beautiful grove of trees are concealed elegantly fabricated steel cells which reference the ‘black sites’ or secret detention facilities operated by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in various locations around the world. The work has a fairytale quality about it in that although it is enchanting, it contains a darkness within. “The idea of the piece is that it is almost pushing into the gallery,” says Lilley. “It was interesting, when I asked Alfredo to make something here I hadn’t imagined he would do something for the outside, but apparently he’d had this idea in mind for years and here he saw the possibility of doing it.” After the show closes the trees will be planted on the estate as a lasting legacy of the project.

Jaar’s initial training was in architecture and his work encompasses photography, text, installation and filmmaking. He says that he approaches each piece he creates as an architect and is a strong believer in the power of a single idea. “Alfredo distils things down to very few or a single image that comes out of our visual overload,” says Lilley. “He asks the question how do you decide which images to look at? And he makes those images extremely insistent.” This is evident in several of the works on display.

The piece A Hundred Times Nguyen takes up all the wall space of one of the rooms in the gallery. It is a series of four photographs, in different permutations, of a young girl who Jaar met in 1991 when he visited a camp in Hong Kong where Vietnamese refugees were being held. “He was in the camp for several days and took over a thousand photographs,” says Lilley. “This little girl Nguyen took hold of his hand and walked around with him. He took just five photographs of her and that was it. After he came home he decided to just show these four images of her. By doing that, as in much of his work, he focuses on the importance of the individual. You feel an empathy for this child and in a way she stands for every child who has had to go through what she has gone through.”

It is extremely moving and, although the work dates back to 1994, it has a profound resonance to today as we continue to see images in the media of vulnerable young children fleeing conflict in their homelands to seek refuge elsewhere. Another work which highlights the experience of the individual is The Sound of Silence, an eight-minute soundless film of text telling the story of South African photojournalist Kevin Carter and the consequences of his controversial 1993 photograph taken during the famine in Sudan showing a tiny, starving child with a vulture ominously looking on. The picture, which first appeared in the New York Times where Jaar saw it, attracted much praise but also severe criticism. In 1994 Carter was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for the image, but just a few weeks later he committed suicide. “What Alfredo is saying is that we are all witnesses, we are all culpable,” says Lilley. “For many decades the West had watched famine happening and did nothing.”

Shadows explores the violence of the last days of the Somoza military dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1978 through the pain of two young women who witness their father being shot dead on the street. Inspired by a series of black and white photographs by the Duch photojournalist Koen Wessing, it takes a single image of the daughters, their faces contorted by grief, their arms in the air. Projected onto a screen in a darkened room, the image gradually gets brighter and brighter before being abruptly shut off. You are left in the dark with the searing image etched as a shadow on your retina.

None of this is comfortable viewing, but that is precisely Jaar’s point. It is too easy to turn away from the suffering of others. On the walls at various points around the gallery are quotes from the artist, including this one: “generally we are taught how to read, but we are not taught how to look” – that is exactly what this exhibition is teaching us. And it is a very powerful lesson indeed.

At Yorkshire Sculpture Park until April 8, 2018

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The neon work Be Afraid of the Enormity of the Possible 2015, a quote from Romanian writer E M Cioran, one of Jaar’s favourite authors. “He is known as the poet of pessimism,” says Lilley. “Alfredo says that the great thing about Cioran is that when he reads his work he feels optimistic in comparison.”

The poster work You Do Not Take a Photograph You Make It 2013 appropriates a quote that has been attributed to the great American photographer Ansel Adams. Jaar uses the phrase to encourage reflection on “the most basic but overlooked fact of photography: that images are not innocent.”