New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 25 SUMMER ISSUE AUGUST 2012 July 31 to September 4, 2012

Alfredo Jaar in Berlin

“I remember her eyes. The eyes of Gutete Emerita”
Evanna Folkenfolk
Installation view of “Real Pictures” by Alfredo Jaar. Source:
Alfredo Jaar, Installation view of “Real Pictures”

Alfredo Jaar’s succinct but lethal description of the 1994 Rwandan genocide is projected in white light along a dark hallway in his recent retrospective, The Way It Is. An Aesthetics of Resistance. Though the notion of classifying this work with contemporary buzzwords like “multi-media” seems a belittlement of its depth and gravity, this is a multi-media masterpiece. The exhibition takes over most of the first floor of the Berlinische Galerie, filling various chambers and walkways with bright, hollowed lights, subtle, elegiac narratives, architectural designs and harrowing videos––all detailing human suffering: how it is understood, communicated, and alleviated.

His monographic retrospective – spread over three of Berlin’s contemporary art galleries: the Berlinische, the NGBK, and the Nationalgalerie – is a structural masterpiece as well, both in the physical and figurative sense. In Real Pictures, the first of two installations, one hundred archival photo storage boxes house more than five hundred and fifty photographs arranged in architectural shapes in a darkened room. Lit only by a spotlight, the room is silent and grave, as are the people who enter there. For it is no longer a gallery space––but a memorial.

On each box words are engraved, both objective and lyrical, describing the photographs. Regarding the Ntamara Church massacre, Jaar writes: “Taken 5 seconds later, this photographs shows the rich blue sky, a bit of the tree line, and one perfect white cloud hovering above the church. The stench of death still lingers.”

The second installation is of those very eyes, the eyes of Gutete Emerite, a survivor of the Ntamara Church massacre and the Rwandan genocide, duplicated onto one million slides. Strewn into a pile at the center of the room like corpses in a “mass grave”, each slide has a streak of white reflecting of the camera flash in the woman’s eyes.

Installation view of “Real Pictures” by Alfredo Jaar. Source:
Alfredo Jaar, Installation view of “Real Pictures” 2012

At the installation’s edge are a number of loupes, meant to draw our eyes nearer to hers, to the very reflections of ourselves as voyeurs. “I'm interested in the eyes of the audience being only one centimeter away from the eyes of Gutete Emerita. I am suggesting here that her eyes acted as a camera that saw something that we could not see.”

Jaar’s response to these realities of atrocity and apathy is to re-engage the audience, to strip through layers of indifference to re-ignite our humanness through empathy and responsibility. He does this by teaching us how to see again, something that he believes we’ve lost the ability to do. The careful structuring of the exhibition – the curating of which Jaar had an integral part – is a deliberate attempt to start from scratch, to relearn how to see, and, consequently, how to feel. He does this by omitting images, by presenting them with words, by using light to blind and darkness to illuminate, by reversing the very mechanism of camera lucida. He wants viewers to feel more than either compassion or entertainment when viewing representations of suffering. He wants, in the words of scholar and documentarian Ariella Azoulay, to restore their citizenship through viewing.

The presentation is done skillfully. Everything is calculated to elicit an almost involuntary emotional response. Jaar was an architect long before he was ever considered an artist, and it shows in the organic integration of his pieces. In an interview with The Brooklyn Rail, he said, “My whole concept of searching for the essence of a place or a space or an issue really comes from architecture. I still consider myself an architect making art.”

This article originally appeared, in a slightly different form, at BerlinArtLink

“I remember her eyes. The eyes of Gutete Emerita” by Evanna Folkenfolk