Although the world is in colour, many photojournalists see it in black-and-white. When a photographer seeks to capture the brutality of a war or the pathos of its victims, colour is often seen as a distraction. The very absence of colour seems to symbolise the unbridgeable gulf between the world depicted in such images and the everyday life of audiences in the big western cities. Such pictures portray a world of extraordinary cruelty – it is left to the viewer to supply the compassion.
This kind of photography is routinely praised for its realism. It exposes ugly truths largely ignored by the mainstream media, preoccupied with sport and celebrities. It strips away the mythologies of Hollywood in which evil is always conquered by the right kind of hero, with the right kind of values. It is also acts as a corrective to state-sponsored propaganda. A good photojournalist would find a gallery of horrors on Manus Island, in the unlikely event of ever being allowed access.
Yet for all of its power and humanist convictions, photojournalism is not a straightforward window onto the world. It is subject to pictorial conventions in the way subjects are identified, isolated and presented. Colour photography is so commonplace that the absence of colour becomes a theatrical device. Rare is the documentarist who can resist some form of editorialising, overt or discreet.
The disputed status of photojournalism is explored at the College of Fine Arts Gallery in The Enclave – a multi-channel, audio-video installation by Irish artist, Richard Mosse. Although only in his early thirties, Mosse has made a reputation for himself with images of Saddam Hussein’s abandoned palaces; the wreckage of the former Yugoslavia; and the aftermath of earthquakes in Iran, Pakistan and Haiti.
In The Enclave, a surprise hit at last year’s Venice Biennale, Mosse has travelled to the Congo, one of the most lawless countries in the world. It is a land scarred by ongoing conflicts between rebel groups whose aims and allegiances keep shifting. The only constant is the victimisation of a civilian population that has endured years of mass murder, gang rape, disease and deprivation. In his catalogue essay, Jason Stearns estimates that 5.4 million people have died since 1998.
Combatants not only inflict violence on each other but on the wives, children and parents of their opponents. Those suspected of favouring a rival group are liable to be exterminated. Mosse himself describes the civil war in the Congo as “a conflict so pathologised that it is well past the point of human comprehension.”
This desperate situation echoes the barbarity of the Belgian occupation of the Congo that provided the backdrop for Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899).
Although Conrad’s novel was written in vague, poetic language it struck a blow against King Leopold’s rule. Kurtz’s famous phrase, “The horror! The horror!” seemed to sum up the agony of that notorious colonial enterprise. Years later, when muttered by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now (1979) it had the same resonance for the Vietnam War.
Mosse had Conrad’s allusiveness in mind when he chose to employ a type of infrared film called Aerochrome, developed during the Cold War by Kodak in consultation with the United States government. Intended for aerial surveillance, the film is more sensitive than the human eye, able to expose camouflaged positions in areas of dense vegetation. Everything the eye renders as green is transformed into shades of shocking pink.
It’s hardly surprising that before being declared obsolete, Aerochrome was used for psychedelic album covers for Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead.
When we enter Mosse’s installation it appears we have landed on some new, psychedelic planet. Armed soldiers stroll around in lurid crimson jungles. Overgrown plants in fuschia or magenta loom on all sides. The piece, which lasts more than 40 minutes, incorporates cinematography by Trevor Tweeten and a soundscape by Ben Frost, but there is no narrative per se. The film appears in discontinuous fragments on multiple screens, inviting viewers to roam freely inside the exhibition space. As we move from one screen to the next the atmosphere becomes steadily more menacing.
This is accomplished by an artful use of montage, as soldiers patrolling with weapons are intercut with scenes of a verdant, fairytale landscape. A woman gives birth by Caesarian section; people take part in an amateur talent quest sponsored by the militia; a child is buried in a makeshift coffin; faces stare on all sides as the camera moves through a refugee camp. In one surreal episode a soldier in uniform walks slowly into a lake until he disappears beneath the surface.
Mosse renders the viewer’s point-of-view identical with that of the camera, immersing us in these scenes, while Frost’s score leaves a buzzing, ringing sound in our ears. Occasionally we stumble across a body lying on the ground in a village, or by the side of a road like a dead animal. It would be gruesome, perhaps unbearable, if it weren’t for the views of the tropical landscape and the ubiquitous pink that gives the action such an unearthly touch.
Even as we feel the looming violence of this place the pink backdrop transforms each segment into a stage set, in a deliberate refusal of the ‘realism’ claimed by conventional photojournalism. Instead of the black-and-white certainties of a world in which good and evil are easily identified, we are plunged into a bright pink nightmare, our every move fraught with danger.
Mosse is seeking to engage the senses, not simply the intellect, but that flood of pink sends mixed messages. It’s an ingratiating colour – a colour that tries too hard, lapsing into camp and kitsch. Such impressions are difficult to reconcile with the subject matter of this installation but Mosse makes no attempt to ease our disorientation. The work is his response to a bewildering, intractable conflict that doesn’t recognise anybody’s rules.
There will be some who read The Enclave as a critical comment on Africa – a continent with more than its share of violence, tribal hatred, poverty and corruption. But there is another Africa, and William Kentridge has shown his faith in that ideal by his continued residence in Johannesburg, the town where he was born. No matter how universal the themes of his work, Kentridge sees South Africa as a continuous source of inspiration.
In SO, his eighth exhibition at Annandale Galleries, Kentridge revisits motifs that have recurred in his work for more than a decade, but in new configurations. A set of ingenious Rebus sculptures may be viewed in two different ways.
A rebus is a device that uses images in place of words – or in the case of Ian Rankin’s maverick policeman, John Rebus, actions rather than words. Kentridge uses this duality as a kind of visual play. A fruit bowl turned around becomes a cone; an ampersand becomes a human head in profile; a telephone becomes one half of a reclining nude, completed by a sculpture of a rubber stamp. It’s left to the viewer to try and make connections between alternating images.
The Rebus works are one of the highlights of a typically busy display, which includes a major freestanding sculpture, numerous prints and drawings, and a new film.
I can’t hope to unpack all the ideas crammed into these works, beyond noting that Kentridge is becoming increasingly enamoured with language, or rather the limits of language. He draws motifs on pages of the Oxford English Dictionary, as if to point out the inadequacy of words.
The most impressive work on paper is a 42-panel gridded picture of a tree, called Remembering the Treason Trial (2013). It refers to the 1956 trial of Nelson Mandela in which he was defended successfully by Kentridge’s father, Sydney. Apart from the obvious pun of ‘tree’s on trial’, the work is covered in sentences, some portentous – such as “The invention of Africa”, others more mundane – “Whilst waiting for his father to come home.” The piece blends historical memory with personal recollection, drawing the private and public realms into one all-encompassing image.
Mandela was the sturdy tree that survived the long winter of Apartheid. Maybe one day the Congo will find new shoots of life springing up from those blood-soaked jungles.
Richard Mosse: The Enclave
COFA Galleries UNSW, until 7 June
William Kentridge: SO
Annandale Galleries, until 24 May
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 10 May, 2014