The Garden of Good and Evil, Alfredo Jaar 2017
I didn’t know what to expect of this exhibition but as we were at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park we thought we should scrub the mud off our walking boots and have a look. And I am extremely glad we did.
Born in Santiago, Chile in 1956 Alfredo Jaar is internationally acclaimed as a “pioneering practitioner of socially critical art”. His work poses difficult questions about society, art and culture. He chooses subjects that are not in the mainsteam and are often manipulated by the media. He focuses particularly on political oppression, humanitarian concern and human and civil rights abuse. Jaar describes himself as an “architect making art” and works with light, text, photography, film and, in the case of this exhibition, living trees and metal structures. He often works with appropriated media images.
The exhibition consists of just six works which is no bad thing as several of them are emotionally and intellectually challenging and demand some concentrated attention.
The Sound of Silence 2006
An intense wall of LED light strips almost blind the viewer as you walk into a dark cinema space. Inside a silent film tells the story in old typewriter text of South African photojournalist Kevin Carter. Carter took a photo during the Sudan famine of 1993 of an emaciated child curled up upon the ground with a vulture looking on. First published in the New York Times it attracted both praise for raising awareness of the famine and an onslaught of criticism because he stood by and took the photo instead of shooing away the vulture and helping the child. In 1994 Carter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and shortly after he committed suicide.
The work draws our attention to the dilemma faced by many journalists working in war and disaster zones. They often witness heartbreaking scenes but are powerless to help but they can raise awareness of what is happening. In this case Carter was already traumatised by the horrific scenes of death and dying that were happening all around. He chose to take the photo rather than help the child. No one knows what happened to the child. He must have questioned this decision many times and clearly judged himself harshly.
I walked away deeply disturbed by this story. I found myself contrasting it with the Michael Buerk and Mohammed Amin’s 1984 report for BBC drawing attention to a “biblical famine” in Ethiopia. This was viewed as a transforming moment in modern media history because it demonstrated how news reporting can draw attention to humanitarian disasters and galvanise action by governments, aid agencies and the public.
Clearly the Pulitzer Prize judges recognised Carter’s achievement but for others the image of the vulture looming over the child must have been too much to bear. Did Carter’s desire to get this most dramatic photo override his compassion? We don’t know.
It’s a deeply disturbing photo which we only see for a brief moment following a bright photographic flash of light towards the end of the film. You can see it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_vulture_and_the_little_girl
We are blinded as we enter the installation and blinded again by the photographer’s flash towards the end. Was Carter himself also blind to the way his photo might be received?
In this work Jaar again explores the power of documentary photos – this time a series of seven taken by Dutch photojournalist Koen Wessing and recording the 1979 revolt against the Somoza military dictatorship in Nicaragua.The images show the reactions of two women on learning of their father’s murder; he had been shot by National Guardsmen and left by the side of the road. The final image is on a large screen in a room of its own and has been manipulated by Jaar by gradually fading the background and adding bright light to the silhouetted figures. The installation concludes in flash of very bright white light, like a photographer’s flash. It is so bright that it fixes this image of extreme grief onto your eye. It is a very emotive piece, one that is hard to forget.
The Garden of Good and Evil 2017
This major new piece of work, which will become part of the YSP’s permanent collection, is just outside the Underground Gallery and consists of 101 evergreen trees in square wooden planters. Concealed in the grove are a number of steel cells representing secret detention facilities (hidden ‘black sites’) around the world operated by the US Central Intelligence Agency. The one metre square cells reference Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s 1986 poem One Square Metre of Prison – Darwish has been imprisoned many times following the Israeli occupation of his country in 1948.
I wonder if 101 trees might be a reference to George Orwell’s Room 101 in 1984?
You can walk among the 52 metres of ‘forest’ and spot the cells. I thought it a clever piece, perfectly suited to its site.
Personal reactions and thoughts about my own practice
I reacted very strongly to all of the pieces in this exhibition. They spoke to me because of my background of working with news organisations and journalists and photojournalists and also my particular interest in text in art.
This exhibition reminded me that I have unintentionally lost sight of an earlier aim to create work that focuses on major news events and disasters, as I did for a while during Drawing 1. Of course these can also be historic. As I research further into the Great Famine for my parallel project there may be potential to work census reports, parish records, old newspaper clippings, government policy etc into my artwork either in a direct way or reinterpreted.
Jaar’s Shadows 2014 made me recall the sketchbook work I have been doing with two silhouetted figures and their relationship with each other and makes me realise there is plenty of scope to explore my own ideas in this area further.
The Garden of Good and Evil, Underground Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park runs until 8 April 2018. For more information visit: https://ysp.org.uk/