In the Issue 72 of Fraction, Portland artist David Ondrik critiqued The Enclave, Irish artist Richard Mosse’s current exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. In his review, Ondrik charges that The Enclave was primarily made for Mosse’s profit and suspects that “it only offers a new way to ‘otherize’ Africa to Westerners.” I believe the exhibit is an important piece that is much more complex than Ondrik suggests. While The Enclave uses the language of photojournalistic forms and idioms as a launch point, it decisively moves beyond a documentary framework to deal powerfully with the ongoing hidden nature of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the disorienting effects of war for those caught in its midst, and even ideas of photographic truth.
As you may have read elsewhere, Mosse made his photographs and films using Kodak Aerochrome, a discontinued infrared color film that turns natural greens into bright magenta (ok, pink). Visitors typically take in the matter-of-fact wall text, browse through the large photographs and conclude that the work is photojournalism with a twist: white photographer visits war-torn region and documents the devastation, all while using a special kind of film that gives the pictures a unique look. Looking just at the photographs, this is understandable.
If The Enclave as a whole weren’t able to successfully transcend “journalism with a twist” I would tend to agree with Ondrik. (As it is, I understand his point about “otherization” and can’t help share some of his unease.) Where a lesser project would likely raise worthy issues, it might not go much deeper, and any sales of such a work would be tantamount to selling voyeuristic pictures of war horrors; but that’s not The Enclave.
It is the film installation that changes the entire exhibition and is the key to understanding the photographs themselves. The seamless forty-minute loop is projected onto six double-sided screens suspended throughout a large room, with two screens mounted against the wall and four clustered in the middle. The screens are arranged such that one cannot observe all of them simultaneously. A minimalist soundtrack combines recorded audio with composed sounds, all played loudly in the space. It adds up to an edgy and disorienting experience. This disorientation evokes our understanding of foreign conflicts, which is inherently structured (and limited) by our perspective, and the limited information that we are able to glean from the images. To those who know the place, perhaps these images are recognizable, but throughout the film Mosse goes to great lengths to obscure rather than reveal.
Color is one obvious way he obscures his subject matter. The false color distorts reality and, rather than minimize this distortion, Mosse highlights it. The images are still beautiful, but the coloration touches nearly everything, just as the conflict (and as some have suggested, the lingering effect of colonialism) is inescapable. Aerochrome film wasn't designed to show the world as it really is, but as an abstracted version to reveal hidden information. Beneath the incredible beauty in the photographs and the film lies a country that has been completely consumed by conflict.
Were this film about creating a “true” story of this place and conflict, it would likely deal much more with the specifics at hand. The film includes no interviews, no truly personal interactions with those who might shed light on the conflict, and no battle scenes. Instead, Mosse shows a group of loosely connected moments, some focused on individuals, others on groups. We have no true, reliable narrative.
I keep coming back to a striking scene with a man striding into the water until he is completely covered. As the long take continues, I continue to watch, transfixed, to see if he will reappear: he never does. In reality he presumably swam out of the shot after becoming submerged. Mosse regularly explores this edge between fact and fiction. Soldiers strut and pose for the camera, they stage a mock battle for the camera, complete with "dead" soldiers lying around. Just when everything seems to exist in a fake pink dream world, we pass another soldier, this time truly dead, bleeding out, lying in the road.
The scene with the submerged man comes towards the end of the loop. Not long after it, we see gorgeous shots of water from the beginning of the loop. The first time it appears, the water represents a natural beauty that stands in stark contrast to the horrid violence being perpetuated between humans. The second time around, though, it’s clear that water, too, conceals. No longer is it merely a pristine landscape, now it's a quiet killer, hiding unknown horrors beneath its surface. By placing those scenes so near each other in the loop, Mosse calls the rest of the film into question: what was real? what else appeared one way only to be radically changed by subsequent information?
Returning to Mosse’s photographs after viewing the film, they begin to resemble the water, in that the first reading might just be a cover for the hidden meaning underneath the surface. On one hand, the pink coloration provides a pretty contrast to an ugly subject, making the work unique and saleable in a way that most other photojournalism might not be. On the other hand, the photographs’ traditional photojournalistic structure masks deeper questions about how such evil could exist in such a beautiful place, the visible and invisible impact that war has on a place, or our inability to fully comprehend trauma.
Ultimately, it’s odd to me that Ondrik’s primary takeaway from Mosse’s tour de force is that it’s about Mosse’s economic benefit and his exploitation of Africa’s otherness. Though we are told that the specific subject of Mosse’s work is conflict in DRC, I doubt that this specific conflict is truly the subject of the artwork. Rather the work deals with bigger ideas: disorientation, the uneasy transformation of reality into a photographic image, and perhaps most fundamentally, of war itself.
Nick Shepard is a photographer based in Portland, OR and he currently teaches at Humboldt State University. His work will be featured in the Photography Now 2015 at the Center for Photography at Woodstock. For more, please visit nickshepard.com.