Kodak Moment vs Eternal Return – Richard Mosse in the Ireland Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

I was walking down the street and this guy came barreling out of a bar, fell right in front of me, and he had a knife right in his back…And the blood, it was all wrong.  It didn’t even look like blood.  The hue was off, and I couldn’t even adjust the hue.  There I was seeing it for real, but it just wasn’t right.

– Richard Linklater, *Slacker*

We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a few hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.

– Milan Kundera, *The Unbearable Lightness of Being*

You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the peace.

– Nobody

You enter a spacious, dark room. The floors are black. The padded walls are black. The padded walls are black–you know that they are padded for acoustics, but it works on another level, too: this is a mad world we live in, and a little down time in a padded cell might do us all well.

You hear machine-gun fire and artillery shells in the distance as six screens light up. A shimmering river winds through an alien, fuschia landscape.

PlatonNorth Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012Digital c-print, AP, 183 x 229 cmCourtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Platon
North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012
Digital c-print, AP, 183 x 229 cm
Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

This is the Irish Pavilion at the 55th Venice Art Biennale, featuring photographer Richard Mosse’s six-channel video installation, made in collaboration with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and music composer Ben Frost. The film was shot on 16mm infrared military surveillance film that was invented to detect camouflage–“to make the invisible visible.” This is also Mosse’s stated goal–to make this invisible carnage visible–“to represent a forgotten African tragedy.”

The color green is rendered pink in this universe, but it is not like the whole color wheel is flipped. Blue is still blue. Flesh-tone is still flesh-tone. It is not like looking at a film negative–a complete inversion.  That would be too easy. There are no easy answers, here: no dualistic, black and white, false dichotomies. No good guys. No bad guys. No two sides in this conflict–this is a post-colonial fight involving at least nine countries and 20 armed factions. No one is innocent, and no one is completely to blame.

A soldier makes a scarecrow-type figure on a jungle footpath used by guerilla fighters. You wonder if these things have a name. You wonder if this is some kind of magical figure or an actual “scarecrow” to frighten the enemy watching through a sniper’s scope on a facing hill or the opposing screen. You note the contrast between the pink foliage and the figure’s green clothing. You wonder what color the clothes must be to appear green in this world of bubblegum pink. You wonder to whom they belonged before this scarecrow–to a fallen comrade or to an enemy?

More machine guns. More artillery. On one screen, soldiers in a hut eat some kind of gooey dough off of one, shared banana leaf. Each eats with one hand and holds a rifle in the other. They come and go.

Silence.

Urban scenes light up several screens. Morning commuters walk past corpses and dismembered body parts. These objects do not register, visibly, on the pedestrians’ affects. They have become mundane, inert things on a familiar landscape–so commonplace, so familiar, that they have been rendered invisible, like the mailboxes and dry cleaners you pass by, oblivious, on your own morning commute. You are grateful this immersive installation does not engage your sense of smell. You are grateful for that omission.

You see panoramic pink vistas of brushy hills, of lush jungle, of fields, of cerulean lakes. You see a deep blue river winding through this pink. The camera takes you along guerilla footpaths, to refugee camps, to a makeshift morgue manufacturing child-sized coffins. You see those coffins, (plural), laden, in a funeral procession. The earth is black.

You hear crickets. You hear a deep bass thrum. You hear sustained, dissonant chords. More spurts of automatic gunfire. A man sings a song. You do not know the language, you cannot even begin to ponder its meaning, but you can say that it is more rhythmic than melodic.

A group of adults carry, literally carry, a wooden house down a hillside. You are reminded of mobile homes back home, borne on tractor-trailers bearing yellow “Wide Load” signs. You are reminded of what seems to you a very expensive, very frivolous art piece back in your hometown, which also involved a moving house.

The camera drives you past throngs at a refugee camp. Many face the camera. They are wearing clothes like those you, yourself, have donated to Goodwill. “California” emblazoned across one t-shirt, pink SpongeBob Squarepants on another. You are reminded of a story told by Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, also involving the color bubble-gum pink:

I saved an example of “humanitarian aid” for the chiapaneco indigenous, which arrived a few weeks ago: a pink stiletto heel, imported, size 6 1/2…without its mate. I always carry it in my backpack in order to remind myself, in the midst of interviews, photo reports and attractive sexual propositions, what we are to the country after the first of January: a Cinderella.

– Subcomandante Marcos, “CHIAPAS: The Thirteenth Stele – Part Two: A Death”

You see another boy, another Cinderella, wearing an oversized, novelty t-shirt, another obvious “gift” of western refuse. You wonder about the person who bought this “humorous” t-shirt that sexualizes little girls and makes homophobic insinuations about Girl Scouts. Was it a “gag” gift or did the purchaser intend to wear it him/herself? What kind of reaction did it evoke when they wore it to house parties and barbecues? Did they feel good about themselves when they dropped it in the donation box? Did they consider that it might find its way to a place where another woman is raped every minute?

Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012 Digital c-print, 152 x 122 cm, edition of 2 Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams
North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012
Digital c-print, 152 x 122 cm, edition of 2
Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

UN convoys trundle down a dusty road.

A stone-faced soldier stares down the camera, stares through the camera at the viewer–at you–chin up, unflinching, even as the camera pans around him.

The tension mounts. The video cuts quicken, jolting, shorter edits, while a didgeridoo drones behind two-way radio static. Static and feedback. Multiple voices, filtered through radio static, layered over one another. On one screen the camera follows a trail. On another, a soldier from an unknown faction demonstrates bayonet techniques. Across another, a female soldier runs in slow motion, guns blazing.

Multiple voices, filtered through radio static, layered over one another. You do not know the words, but you can guess that they are different languages. Two languages? More? Certainly they are all each others’ enemies.

Amidst all this, one, single gunshot and on one screen, one, single, eight-inch, white circle flashes…but that’s it, nothing changes, there is no break in the continuity on that or any other screen, nor the soundtrack.

Crickets.

A male soldier performs some kind of ritual on three female soldiers. He wields a bushel of pink grass like a magic wand.

A man is captured by a large group and dragged around by one leg.

What you assume is the film crew is greeted with a hug by what appears to be a high-ranking soldier at a military camp. His soldiers of lower rank stand aloof, stone-faced.

Another song–this time a woman’s or a girl’s voice–this time there is a melody. All six screens show images of water. The windy river. A man in a speedboat on a lake.  Waterfalls.

Some kind of concert or break dance show in what looks like a church appears on half the screens. The sound does not fit the celebration. Another dissonant chord, sustained.

You note the video has started again. It is on a loop. You have seen this all before. You are grateful for the padded walls. You make a note on the smart phone on which you’ve been recording notes that the phone contains rare earth “conflict” minerals, likely from the Congo, which are fueling this conflict.  You have caught yourself red handed.

The video repeats.

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The Enclave,” says the press release, is “a search for more adequate strategies to represent a forgotten African tragedy in which 5.4 million people have died of war-related causes in eastern Congo since 1998.”

Annie Dillard, in her book For the Time Being, recounts her daughter’s response to mass death in a tsunami:

On April 30, 1991–on that one day–138,000 people drowned in Bangladesh. At dinner that night I brought up the catastrophe. My daughter was then seven years old. I said that it was hard to imagine 138,000 people drowning.

“No, it’s easy,” my daughter said. “Lots and lots of dots in blue water.”

Five point four million people. Five point four million people.  Say that five point four million times. One study found that as many as 45,000 people die each month, most of them children. Another study (cited above) finds that over two million women have been raped during the past 15 years of conflict. Does it matter?  Will it “alter anything in the destiny of the world?”

Dots in blue water.

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At least five years passed between my purchase of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and my reading of it.  It’s not that I was lazy, or that I am that slow of a reader, I just couldn’t get past the first section. In that first section, the narrator discusses Nietzche’s idea of “Eternal Return.” The novel opens:

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it:  to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!  What does this mad myth signify?

Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.  We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a few hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.

Will the war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century itself be altered if it recurs again and again, in eternal return?

It will:  it will become a solid mass, permanently protuberant, its inanity irreparable.

If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre.  But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no one.  There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and a Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.

Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature.  This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict.  For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit?  In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.

Not long ago, I caught myself experiencing a most incredulous sensation.  Leafing through a book on Hitler, I was touched by some of his portraits:  they reminded me of my childhood.  I grew up during the war; several members of my family perished in Hitler’s concentration camps; but what were their deaths compared with the memories of a lost period in my life, a period that will never return?

This reconciliation with Hitler reveals the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything is cynically permitted.

Call me simple, but I just could not wrap my head around this idea of “eternal return,” so I found myself reading and rereading that first chapter, ironically enacting the very idea it discusses.

So, need we take note of this conflict which has been brewing in the Congo for some 15 years?  In the grand scheme of things, in geological time, it is utterly meaningless.  A few million people…most of them children…Who cares in a world where the population grows exponentially and is likely unsustainable, anyway?

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“What makes a nation worth saving?” I am asked by a woman representing Thierry Geoffroy’s Biennalist project.  This particular cell of the Biennalist is making a video for the Maldives Pavilion; the Maldives will soon be drowned by the rising sea if climate change continues unabated.

I do not know how to answer.  I do not believe in any state’s inherent “right” to exist, and she has further complicated the question by referring to the Maldives as a dictatorship, but the question is about “a nation,” not “a state.” A “nation” is a story, and I like stories…but then again, I don’t much like the idea of “saving” because saving implies a “savior.”

I am not sure how to answer but we have a nice chat, anyway: more questions than answers.

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An “enclave” is a territory that is completely surrounded by another territory.  The word “enclave,” in common parlance, is usually preceded by the word “ethnic.” An ethnic enclave would be an area occupied by one ethnicity that is completely surrounded by areas occupied by one or many different ethnicities–sort of like an island in a hostile sea.

Except water is much more predictable than humans.  Water freezes at 0°C and boils at 100°C.  There are usually four tides in a day.  Tsunamis do happen (see above:  dots), but even if the sea does drown the Maldives, there is likely time yet to evacuate.

This conflict in the Congo has been brewing for more than 15 years.  Not brewing–boiling–spilling over into neighboring nation-states (and sometimes even the consciousness of consumers using goods made with materials that come from there–see above:  smart phone).

Waves advance, and then they recede.  The shoreline remains unmoved–at least for the short term.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” said President Clinton, on a more globalized economy.

“But what if you don’t have a boat?” was a standard response from critics of corporate globalization.

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“‘They call us a dot on the map, said General Ojukwu, “and nobody’s quite sure where.”

This quote comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1970 essay, “Biafra: A People Betrayed.”

“Inside that dot,” Vonnegut continues, “were 700 lawyers, 500 physicians, 300 engineers, 8 million poets, 2 novelists of the first rank, and God only knows what else–about one third of all the black intellectuals in Africa.  Some dot.”

Do not connect the dots.  This is my advice to you.  Do NOT connect the dots unless you are prepared to confront an image of yourself, but this is not a “selfie” on your blood-soaked phone camera that you can just delete and retake until you are satisfied.  This self portrait will not be flattering.  There is no way around that.

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Some ten years ago I watched a documentary film called Megacities that made me feel uncomfortable.  It shows the lives of poor people in Mexico City, New York, Moscow, and Bombay.

In Bombay, one of the subjects works as a sifter of powdered dyes–the kind that are used to color the brilliant textiles that India is known for.  The viewer is shown an emaciated, impoverished old man–skin and bones dressed in tattered rags–completely covered in the most dazzling hues that rise from his sifter like plumes of colored smoke.  Reds and blues and pinks and purples and yellows and greens–a million shades of each–and they are beautiful.  The colors are beautiful.  The images of the man sifting these powdered dyes are beautiful.  The man is beautiful.

Poverty is not beautiful.  Sitting in a cushioned chair in an air-conditioned movie theater in San Francisco admiring the beauty of a real person’s suffering is…unsettling.  I feel complicit.  I feel guilty.

What came next was even more unsettling.  The viewer sees a Mexican mother preparing her children for their school day.  She feeds them breakfast; she escorts them to school.  She reads a risqué romance comic book on the bus on her way to work.

Work is a strip club–this single mother takes her clothes off on-stage for an audience of drunk, leering men.  The camera follows her there, too, on stage, and this particular club allows the men to grope the dancers, so it’s not what you might call a “passive” audience.  I note the blank look on the mother’s face.  The camera forces me to note the blank look on the mother’s face.  She has disassociated.  Her far-away eyes have glazed over.  Her mind has separated from her body.

I note the blank look on her face, yet I note, too, that I feel aroused, and I realize that my mind, too, is not the same place as my body. I feel dirty.  I feel tricked.  I feel complicit.  I feel…unsettled.

I feel the same way leaving “The Enclave.”

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“Of primal importance to me is beauty,” says Richard Mosse in an interview about “The Enclave.”

Beauty is one of the main lines to make people feel something. It’s the sharpest tool in the box.  If you’re trying to make people feel something, if you’re able to make it beautiful, then they’ll sit up and listen.  And often if you make something that’s derived from human suffering, or from war, if you represent that with beauty, and sometimes it is beautiful, it creates an ethical problem in the viewer’s mind and so then they’re like confused and angry, disoriented. And this is great because you’ve got them to actually think about the act of perception and how this imagery is produced and consumed.

If Mosse’s aim is to present suffering in an aesthetic beautiful way in order to “disorient” his viewer, then in my case he succeeded.  His method, his focus on aesthetics, has a way of drawing viewers in, to look more closely at what they might otherwise find repulsive.  But to what end?  He says he wants to make people “feel,” but Edward Abbey has instructed us that “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.”

“Compassion is an unstable emotion,” writes Susan Sontag.  “It needs to be translated into action or it withers.”  However, she continues, “photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses.  A call for peace.  A cry for revenge.  Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.”

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In his New York Times article “Into the Dark Chamber: The Novelist and South Africa,”  the Nobel Prize winning South African writer J.M. Coetzee describes his first novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, as being “about the impact of the torture chamber on the life of a man of conscience.”

Though it is ostensibly “about” torture, Coetzee’s novel does not serve up explicit depictions of what happens in the torture chamber.  The door closes, the bolt slides shut, and screams are heard.  In the context of the novel, this is more than horrifying, and in the article referred to above, Coetzee questions the ethics of explicit portrayals of torture; some, to him, verge on pornography, and he gives some very convincing examples.

“If the novelist finds in squalor the occasion for his most soaring poetic eloquence,” he writes in The New York Times, “might he not be guilty of seeking out his squalid subject matter for perversely literary reasons?” And even worse than cheap titillation, Coetzee suggests, rather than questioning or condemning the state power exerted through torture: these explicit depictions might be said to reify and magnify state power by instilling this graphic horror in the readers’ imaginations.

Yet the article opens with a discussion of the apartheid regime’s ban on photographing prisons.  “The response of South Africa’s legislators to what disturbs their white electorate,” he writes, “is usually to order it out of sight.”

Coetzee is hardly the first to express this tension, this contradictory impulse, between depicting atrocities and glorifying them, but there are, essentially, four possible positions to consider:  1) it is journalism (documentary) and in service of human rights; 2) it is journalism (propaganda) that exploits the wretched to sell newspapers, raise funds for NGOs, or stoke nationalistic impulses; 3) it is Art that illuminates general truths about wickedness and perseverance in “the human condition; or 4) it is art that exploits the wretched for the audience’s perverse, sadistic pleasure.

Much has been written on this subject–as recently as the current issue of The Atlantic.  From the first war photographs of Britain’s Crimean War (1854) and the US Civil War, through Jim Crow lynchings and the World Wars, and on to the Vietnam War (whose end was probably hastened by war images), propagandists of every persuasion have sounded off on the in/appropriateness of depicting the dead and the doomed.  The success of the the anti-war movement during Vietnam is probably what prompted the Pentagon to clamp down, subsequently, on press access, so that during the first US-Iraq war, though we might have “enjoyed” 24-hour, “play-by-play” war reporting from CNN for the first time, it was mostly a one-sided pyrotechnics show with “smart bombs” and tracer bullets lighting up the night sky.  The Balkans conflict offered US audiences more “objective distance” to view images of massacre as statements of the depravity of humans with unrestrained judgement, without the taint of complicity, but the Afghan and Iraq wars following 9/11 (and 9/11 itself) did not afford US audiences that same luxurious distance.  Reporters were “embedded” with the military.  Events such as the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein were staged for the camera. The US press self-censored images of casualties on both sides–we saw nothing of the siege of Falluja–and the public was instructed to “Support the Troops” even as the press kept quiet through an unstated, de facto ban on images of flag-draped caskets of fallen soldiers.  The phrase “disaster fatigue” entered our lexicon with Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, and the Boxing Day tsunami, but when the people of Iran rose up in their Green Revolution of 2009, the western press could not get enough, replaying Neda Agha-Soltan’s on-camera death ad nauseum.

At least two whole books have been written in the English language on the subject of war photography in the past ten years, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Suffering of Others (2003) and Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance (2010).  Sontag approaches these loaded images with the cold, distrustful, unemotional detachment of a reporter, whereas Linfield seems more willing to embrace the more emotional subject position of an art audience.  Both allow for much complexity, even as they disagree on the relative merits of when, where and how images of suffering are shown to whom and by whom and to what end, but one of the many things they agree on is the inevitability of war.  Writes Sontag:

Central to modern expectations, and modern ethical feeling, is the conviction that war is an aberration, if an unstoppable one.  That peace is the norm, if an unattainable one.  This, of course, is not the way war has been regarded throughout history.  War has been the norm and peace the exception.

Linfield takes an even bleaker (realistic?) stance:

This book is…written, though with great reluctance, against the progressive view of history: against the belief, sustained since the Enlightenment by liberals and the left and taken up more recently by neoconservatives, that the arc of modern history bends toward freedom and justice. This is the tradition in which I was raised; I continue to cherish it. But I have come to believe that it is the experience of degradation, immiseration, violence, and defeat that defines the lives of millions, and that in large part defines history.

Both seem to find some value in at least “bearing witness” to atrocities, though Sontag places less trust in the audience’s judgment.  Of critics from Sontag’s school, Linfield writes, “they fear not just the obedient, automatic reactions of the viewer but her disobedient, politically incorrect ones.  They worry that our unfiltered gaze–our intuitive reactions–will reveal things about us that may not be good.”

In this way, Linfield is more generous:  she allows me my humanity as I watch Megacities, she maintains that, even if this class of images verges on what might be called pornography, “not all pornography is ‘bad’–that is, exploitative, degrading, or violent,” and “[r]ather than illuminate an actual phenomenon, the term ‘pornography,’ like the term ‘orientalism,’ is used as a weapon whose main job is to shame the accused and to silence free discussion.”  She dismisses what she considers this shallow critique by saying, “pious denouncements of the ‘pornographic’ photograph reveal something that is fairly simple: a desire not to look at the world’s cruelest moments and remain, therefore, unsullied.”

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Kony 2012 broke YouTube records for viral videos–more than 100 million views in less than one week.  The stated purpose of that campaign was to bring warlord Joseph Kony to trial via western intervention by riling up the citizens of western powers through celebrity endorsements and media campaigns whose aim was “to make Kony famous.”

A less clumsy, more palatable way to say this is that the campaign aimed to “raise awareness,” and thereby influence the citizenry to influence policy-makers.  Apart from the celebrity endorsements, they aimed to “raise awareness” through their pre-packaged “awareness products”–t-shirts, bracelets, posters, bumper stickers, baseball hats, and other such branded merchandise. There is much to question in Kony 2012’s methods (and scruples), but their purpose, at least, is crystal clear–bring Joseph Kony to trial in the International Court of Justice.

“The Enclave” offers no such easy answers.  There is no bracelet. There is no tote bag. There is no glossy pamphlet with a handy envelope to mail in donations to another harmless yet ineffectual NGO with a tick-mark beside a preset amount with its own cutely-named donor class. There is no pithy slogan like “Kony 2012” with a singular boogie man on whom to pin the blame.  There is no call to action–no mailing list, no pledge sheet listing which companies to boycott–no call to action, whatsoever.

What is “The Enclave” trying to tell its audience?

RMO_Enclave_123

Richard Mosse, The Enclave, 2013.
Installation view of Love is the Drug.
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.
Photo © Tom Powel Imaging inc.

Is “The Enclave” merely another “awareness product,” a beautiful, immersive experience to remind art patrons they are lucky to be born someplace other than the Congo?  How would this same installation be received in the church where the concert/breakdance it depicts?  Or in the military barracks?  Would those audiences receive it with the same passivity?  Or, recognizing the distinguishing visual and audio cues that people like me are missing, would they, too, experience this as a generalized tragedy, the inevitability of war, or would they read it as a call to action, i.e. vengeance?

One answer can be found in Linfield’s assessment of her two favorite photographs from the recent US-Iraq war:

[B]y refusing to tell us what to feel, and allowing us to feel things we don’t quite understand, they make us dig, and even think, a little deeper…we can use the photographs’ ambiguities as a starting point of discovery:  by connecting these photographs to the world outside their frames, they begin to live and breathe more fully.  So do we.  Instead of approaching these images as static objects that we either naïvely accept or scornfully reject, we might see them as part of a process–the beginning of a dialogue, the start of an investigation–into which we thoughtfully, consciously enter.

Linfield trusts the audience.  Sontag wants images of atrocities to be as ugly, aesthetically, as their subject is morally.  But does it matter?  The question remains.

According to Nietzsche, as understood by Kundera’s narrator, because this war is happening only once, it does not matter.  Except this “war” has been going on for at least 130 years, going back at least to the annexation of the Congo by Belgium’s King Leopold II (as his private colony).  “[U]p to ten million Congolese died” Linfield tells us, “from overwork, starvation, disease, or outright murder in the years 1880-1920.  No surprise, then, that it was in the Congo reform movement that the phrase ‘crimes against humanity’ was used for what may have been the first time.”

Leopold and his henchman were beyond brutal.  His armies would mutilate, kill, and eat the women and children of whole villages as punishment for not meeting their rubber extraction quotas.  Finally, after decades of brutality, it was international pressure–aided by photographic evidence–that compelled Leopold to relinquish his private kingdom in the Congo to the state of Belgium.

Mark Twain, in his satirical 1905 pamphlet King Leopold’s Soliloquy writes:

The kodak has been a sore calamity to us. The most powerful enemy that has confronted us, indeed. In the early years we had no trouble in getting the press to “expose” the tales of the mutilations as slanders, lies, inventions of busy-body American missionaries and exasperated foreigners who bad found the “open door” of the Berlin-Congo charter closed against them when they innocently went out there to trade; and by the press’s help we got the Christian nations everywhere to turn an irritated and unbelieving ear to those tales and say hard things about the tellers of them. Yes, all things went harmoniously and pleasantly in those good days, and I was looked up to as the benefactor of a down-trodden and friendless people. Then all of a sudden came the crash! That is to say, the incorruptible kodak — and all the harmony went to hell! The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn’t bribe. Every Yankee missionary and every interrupted trader sent home and got one; and now — oh, well, the pictures get sneaked around everywhere, in spite of all we can do to ferret them out and suppress them. Ten thousand pulpits and ten thousand presses are saying the good word for me all the time and placidly and convincingly denying the mutilations. Then that trivial little kodak, that a child can carry in its pocket, gets up, uttering never a word, and knocks them dumb!

As a character in in Twain’s imagination, Leopold is frustrated by the incorruptibility of the photographic image.  He is able to bribe reporters, but he can do nothing to stem the tide of amateur photographs escaping to the presses of the free world.  Today, of course, digital images can be manipulated to depict anything imaginable–so Mosse’s strategy, to push through realism into surrealism, might be one of the few remaining ways to arrive at the truth.

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“Salvation” is a tall order, but there is solace, at least, some semblance of significance, lent by the myth of “Eternal Return.”  I wonder if, by fixing images of a moment in time on light-sensitive plates or paper, photographers are freezing that moment for “eternity,” and thereby ensuring their “eternal return” (as Keats wrote of art in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn“).

In the padded room, the video loops back and starts over again.  Pixels–dots on the screen.  Just dots on the screen.  Cinderella and her singular, pink stiletto.

And amidst all this din and this commotion, one, single gunshot and on one screen, one, single, eight-inch, white circle flashes…but that’s it, nothing changes, and there is no break in the continuity on that or any other screen.

3 thoughts on “Kodak Moment vs Eternal Return – Richard Mosse in the Ireland Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

  1. Hank

    Yeehaw, Harbeer! What a ride. I’m glad to see Megacities described so well, along with its pornographic results. I’ll look for The Enclave now. Mass death is no easy subject, I’ve got to say. Years ago, my buddy Seth and I debated how to conceive of the massacre at El Mozote – as a subject of reporting – by applying a metonymy: bottle caps.

    Reply
  2. paul hester

    herb~I stumble upon your words & insights, assuming these challenging thoughts are fresh from your current moment in Venice, only to get to the end and learn I am two years behind you. But timely in its recurring internet life. Thank you for questioning and connecting and offering space for our doubts to blossom

    Reply

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