Published  31/03/2014

Alfredo Jaar: interview

Alfredo Jaar: interview


Alfredo Jaar was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1956. He attended the Chilean-North American Institute of Culture, Santiago, and the University of Chile, emigrating to the United States in 1982 at the midpoint of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Jaar, an internationally renowned artist and film-maker, is the recipient of numerous awards, including Spain’s Premio Extremadura a la Creación (2006), a John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation award (2000); and a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1985). He has had major museum exhibitions throughout the world and has participated in Documenta and numerous biennales, such as São Paulo and the 2013 Venice Biennale, where he represented Chile. Jaar lives and works in New York.

Jaar’s primary theme in his installations, photographs, films and community-based projects is the politics of images and the conflicted, complicated readings of images that represent war, disease, famine and other events of social, economic and political injustice. A testament to global corruption and imbalances of power, Jaar’s crusading work has focused on genocide in Rwanda, oppression in Brazilian gold mines, poverty in oil-rich, cash-poor Angola and the violation of human rights in all its abhorrent forms. One of his most powerful, widely seen and controversial works is the installation The Sound of Silence (2006), based on a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph by South African photojournalist Kevin Carter of an emaciated toddler menaced by a predatory vulture during the Sudanese famine of 1993, a complex and disturbing study at the juncture of aesthetics and humanity.

Jaar received the 2014 award for distinguished artistic achievement and was the keynote speaker at deFINE ART, the Savannah College of Art and Design’s (SCAD) annual showcase of international art, which this year opened on 18 February, and includes, in addition to Jaar, Tim Rollins and KOS, Sam Nhlengethwa, Orly Genger, Nicola López, Viviane Sassen and Dustin Yellin. Jaar premiered Shadows, a new installation that is the second part of a planned trilogy centered on a single searing image that began with The Sound of Silence. This time, the image was of two grieving women taken by the late Dutch photographer Koen Wessing in 1978 in Nicaragua during the revolution. Jaar’s work shows the image emerging from a pale ground, coming slowly into sharper focus, the two young women, just told of their father’s death, running towards their house, their bodies twisted in anguish, arms thrown up, sharply angled, likened by Jaar to a totentanz (dance of death). The image becomes brighter and brighter as the landscape disappears, the ground becomes black, finally appearing as a sharp white silhouette before everything dissolves into a blinding white light that hurts the eyes, followed by blackness, and the flash of the afterimage. With Shadows, Jaar showed Faces (1982), an installation of anonymous Chileans cropped from newspaper and magazine clippings from September 1973, when a coup by Pinochet toppled Salvador Allende’s government.

Jaar spoke about his exhibition to Lilly Wei at the SCAD Museum. The following is an excerpt from a longer conversation.

Lilly Wei: Would you talk about your exhibition Shadows?

Alfredo Jaar: Shadows is the title of the exhibition and of the new commission. There is also Faces, an earlier work that I suggest we discuss first. Both deal with the politics of images, a great concern of mine. The new work focuses on images taken in Nicaragua in 1978, so I decided to combine it with images from Santiago de Chile from 1973, a period of upheaval that is similar in both countries. In 1973, it was the year of the military coup in Santiago; I was 17 years old. We didn’t know what was happening. The communist and socialist presses were shut down; the television stations were shut down. The only national television station working was the one controlled by the government. All the media were censored, controlled by the government. There were rumours of people disappearing and being killed, but everything was controlled and we didn’t really know. In 1982, I finished my studies in architecture and film and decided to leave Chile.

LW: And you came to New York?

AJ: Yes, and the first thing I did when I arrived in New York was to buy old newspapers and magazines from September 1973 because I had never seen images from that period. Now I have a vast archive. In 1982, I created Faces. It was a very simple operation. I clipped images that I thought were spectacular taken during this time. Some were famous, others not. I cut them out roughly with scissors, although usually I am much more of a perfectionist. I decided to blow up a detail of one of the faces. I hoped that by rescuing these images from the crowd and by looking at their faces in a large format, you will question them, you will be able to read everything you need to know about the dictatorship in them. Most of these people are dead. Because I blew these up from newspapers, the quality is not good, but it doesn’t matter. It is simple, but it contains all the mechanisms that I would use later as an artist.

LW: You only made 11 of them?

AJ: Yes, so I decided to show them together, the original clipping with the enlarged photostat of the face. This one was obviously taken in the National Stadium, where an estimated 40,000 political suspects were taken by the government and most were later killed. This man whose face is blown-up knows that he is going to die; his face contains an entire history. This young man is walking by the palace of La Moneda after the 11 September bombing, where Allende had died. If you look at his face, it says everything we need to know in its sadness and resignation. Then I found a magazine with pictures from the funeral of Pablo Neruda, a Nobel laureate in literature and Chile’s most famous poet. He died a week after the coup and there were rumours that he had been murdered, but that wasn’t true. This is his widow, and I think this is his sister, but most important for me is this hidden little girl, whom I rescued, and the sadness in her face says everything to me. In crowds, you don’t see individuals; you forget they are human beings.

LW: Would you say this rescuing characterises your entire project?

AJ: Yes, it is a lot of what I do.

LW: Would you discuss Sound of Silence, the predecessor to Shadows?

AJ: Sound of Silence is a film that lasts eight minutes and is dedicated to a single image, the most extraordinary image ever taken about famine in the world. It has been my single most successful work, made in 2006, and has been shown in 18 countries and six languages – Chinese, Japanese, Russian, French, Spanish and English. We will do it in Finnish when it is shown there. So far, it has been installed 25 times and continues to be requested. I decided that it would be the first of a trilogy dedicated to a single image. The challenge for Shadows was huge. I had to match the Sound of Silence, but it couldn’t be the same. Many years ago, I had been struck by an image by Koen Wessing taken in 1978. It was an extraordinary image of two women who had just learned of the killing of their father by Somoza’s National Guard in Nicaragua and they are running home. Wessing happened to be there. This image has always been in the back of my mind. I started researching it and remembered that Wessing was in Chile in 1973. He created a small book he made by hand, like an artist’s book although he didn’t know anything about artists’ books, and he called it Chili, September 1973. It has no text, not a single word. It’s pure image, and with it he wanted to tell the story of those terrible events. It has become a classic and very rare, but I have a copy that I found in the 80s; it’s one of my most precious treasures. I started analysing this book and searching for interviews with Wessing, and when he was asked why there wasn’t a single word in it, he said he didn’t trust words, he didn’t trust critics and historians, he only trusted the image. I found that interesting. Since Sounds of Silence was eight minutes of words and one second of an image, I thought I might use Wessing’s book as a structural reference for Shadows, in homage to a great photographer.

LW: It must have been quite a departure since so much of your work is text-based, or at least balanced between text and image.

AJ: Yes, and it was uncomfortable for me because I need words, my work tends to be very didactic and I need to explain. I’m always trying to strike a perfect balance between information and poetry – information so people will know exactly what I’m trying to say and poetry to make a beautiful work of art. And that balance is impossible. Sometimes I fall into the didactic part and it’s too informational and sometimes I fall into the beauty and it’s too sweet, too beautiful. The challenge is how the hell do I – with a single image and without words – tell the story like Wessing did in his little book?

LW:  How did you?

AJ: I had an exhibition of Sound of Silence two years ago in the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam. Afterwards, the curator, the director and others from the museum asked me about the next part of the trilogy. I said that I wasn’t sure, but I had the image. And they asked me by whom, and I said, by coincidence, a Dutch photographer, Koen Wessing. And they jumped. They had just acquired Wessing’s estate, so it was a sign from heaven. They gave me complete access to the archive and I discovered the two contact sheets with 36 pictures that told everything that happened before and after the single image I had chosen. I decided to select images from before and after from the contact sheets, and to control myself and not use a single word. And that’s how I created this installation. Three images into the space, the main image, then another three images out, to complete the story.

LW: So you used the images as text with no words at all?

AJ: Well, I couldn’t help myself, so there is a sheet of information for people who are desperate to read about the story and the Somoza military dictatorship.

LW: You called it the golden age of photojournalism?

AJ: It was the golden age of photojournalism, of black-and-white photography and photojournalists. Wessing was famous for taking only one or two rolls of film with him and waiting for the decisive moment to shoot (for this one, he said in a film, his hands shook.) He didn’t need to take thousands of images. He only needed the right moment and took one.


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