Richard Mosse at Portland Museum of Art
In the deepest corners of our collective Western imagination lives a place called the dark continent—Africa. This source of human genesis is now a place filled with mystery, fear, and endless war. For over a century European re-discovery of Africa yielded repression, slavery and destruction. Now the African continent is reaping what colonization has sowed.
In the central heart of Africa lies its richest and most menacing place, the Democratic Republic of Congo. A country of 77 million equatorial people spread across a dense, verdant, resource rich land mass roughly the size of Western Europe, D.R. Congo has been unraveling since its independence from Belgium in 1960. In 1997 civil war broke out fueled by corruption, and a struggle for natural resources by international corporations. To date the war has killed an estimated 5.4 million people and displaced millions more. It is into this, the darkest of the dark continent, that the Irish-born photographer Richard Mosse entered in 2010, camera in-hand.
The Portland Art Museum (PAM) is hosting Richard Mosse’s exhibit The Enclave. The documentary photography and film footage, is visually riveting in unexpected ways. Mosse stumbled upon infrared film, long forgotten and sidelined for being photographic kitsch as his primary medium in The Enclave. The film was developed by a collaboration between the U.S. military and Kodak in the 1940’s to distinguish between military installations and dense green overgrowth. Mosse’s photography displays the dense Congolese jungle in vibrant red-blue hues while leaving the human mark of trails, buildings, trucks and human flesh unchanged. The lushness of D.R. Congo becomes an otherworldly colorized fantasy that pushes the outcomes of conflict into a cinematic space akin to Kubrik’s finale in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The adroitly timed exhibition sits poised against elevated American racial tensions. It tugs at Portlanders (and white Americans) shame, fear and confusion. It reveals the hidden truths of war when our daily experience is curtained off from our collective military actions abroad. The shocking pinks and reds reveal black faces against an alien landscape that mimics the European-born, white colonialist fear of the ‘other’. The Enclave is a psychedelic explosion of color that simultaneously fractures our visual ground while heightening our empathy.
The exhibition at PAM is split into two rooms, one containing the large format photographs and the other the video installation. The photos are dimly lit, elevating their enigmatic proposition. Mosse owes more to the work of Edward Burtynsky than traditional documentary war photographers James Nachtwey or Lynsey Addario. The photography is less interested in the action of conflict than its aftermath. The work is all about residuals, deeply rooted in landscape photography, subtly rendering the changes manifested out of the depravities of war. Ruin porn is all too often war photography’s de facto position and Mosse elegantly avoids those trappings. His power lies in his ability to break from the obviousness of wars destructive terror like the blood and guts of dead bodies. Ireland, Mosse’s birthplace, is a country with a long history of civil conflict which informs his focus on the mundane, the bucolic, and the penetrating tension of stillness that is largely what war is. Action may be an attention-getting vehicle that shocks us, but Mosse’s photography wants us to look more deeply into the soul of conflict by examining its quiet moments and subtle residue. As anyone is aware from watching horror films, the greatest tension comes from the tension of inaction.
Bursting sounds roar from a darkened opening in the other room in the exhibition space. Entering an unnerving and disorienting pitch black you’re confronted with a room filled with six hanging projection screens displaying infrared film footage that Mosse directed while in the D.R. Congo. Sounds ranging from peeping insects, wind through jungle grass, and water washing ashore to artillery fire, and the singing/shouting voices of people, becomes a symphonic accompaniment to sometimes dissonant film footage. The infrared film makes military camouflage clothing look like Haute couture at a Paris fashion week. The pink-pony color shatters any normalcy that otherwise dulls our sense of war. The lack of actual on-screen violence creates a persistent, unnerving tension and at one point the screens go black as the echoing sounds of artillery fire rain from the ceiling speakers. Most disorienting are the filmic apparitions of bizarre military exercises and community parties. Film footage of the deceptively calm waters of lake Kivu (itself prone to limnic eruptions that spontaneously release volumes of CO2 choking the life out of everything near its banks) is played on separate screens while other screens play footage of celebrations showing tribal leaders feed money into the pockets of prancing women. The underlying culture and landscape are presented as is and yet intuitively you realize all is not right.
The Enclave first opened at the Irish pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013 and is promised to travel on to other exhibition spaces. In a time when conflict is the disposition of superpowers and terrorists, it is important to reveal its deep human roots. The Enclave implausibly juxtaposes a distant war as a play on our collective humanity, while maintaining a powerful aesthetic. Despite the use of infrared film,The Enclave avoids falling into gimmickry or kitsch. Seldom does documentary photography and film hold such potency while maintaining a delicate aesthetic ambiguity.
The Enclave is on view at the Portland Art Museum through April 12, 2015