THIS IS THE FOURTH in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with the Chilean-born visual artist, architect, writer, curator, and filmmaker Alfredo Jaar, who is currently based in New York.
BRAD EVANS: Your work directly deals with power, war, and violence. As an artist, why did you feel it was important to address such issues in your work?
ALFREDO JAAR: I have never studied art. I am an architect. For an architect, context is everything. As you can see if you look around my studio, we do not produce anything here. I am not a studio artist. I am a project artist. And I am interested in responding to the conditions of the world that surrounds and immerses us — especially the world of images. I confront this world, trying to understand the context and to act within that context. My modus operandi has always been the same: before acting in the world, I need to understand the world.
I have been faced with contexts where violence has been the catalyst for a series of political events and tragedies, which have forced my work in a particular direction. I must face and deal with the obligation to confront that violence. And in that process of engagement, I have tried to design the complex representations of that violence and make justice to the deep intricacies of the subject. Because I am aware that my work does not have an answer to this problem, I find myself creating what I call exercises in representation. And because I have confronted quite a few situations of violence, one exercise has taken me to another exercise, and today I think that I have learned a few things along the way. At least I hope that my most recent works deal with the problem of violence in a more considered and sensitive way. And perhaps this can be seen in my recent practice, where the more recent representations have deeper complexity and resonance, I think they communicate better my intentions.
Alfredo Jaar, Shadows, 2014. Mixed media installation. Overall dimensions variable. Photography: John Rohrer. Courtesy Galerie Lelong (New York), kamel mennour (Paris), and the artist.
Was there a particular moment in your life in which you felt or realized this was the direction you wanted your work to take?
It is not that I specialize in violence. I just think violence is our present condition. And it is not only physical violence that concerns me here, it is also psychological and political forms of violence. Some forms of violence suffer from total invisibility. Let us consider the case of killing drones, for example. I have become almost obsessed with them. We are killing thousands of people, most of them innocent, and they are dying in complete invisibility. Sadly, nobody is demanding that we stop this carnage. The casualties are always people without names. Will we ever know their names?
That violence might be invisible to us but it exists out there, and we will see the consequences of it sooner or later. I was thinking about this on my way to the studio this morning, when they announced they were searching for the Chelsea bomber, who is from Afghanistan. New Yorkers are shocked by this event at this moment. “How barbaric this guy who comes here and tries to blow us up!” they are probably thinking. How many thousands have we killed exactly in Afghanistan with our unmanned drone technology? It is a very well-known fact that we have killed hundreds of women and children. So, why are we surprised that this Afghan man is trying to bomb us?
Everything is connected. The only difference between these different acts of violence is that the violence we carry out remains mostly hidden. So how do we deal with this? How do I deal with this as an artist?
Let us remember that the artist is free and that the world of art is probably the last remaining space of freedom. I would never demand that any artist must deal with these issues, especially the invisible forms of violence that I have mentioned. That is not my intention. I personally feel the obligation, the need, and the responsibility to respond to that because I think it has consequences, and it says a lot about how we think about the world and our position within it, especially our relationship to other people. I am compelled to deal with the forms of violence our system exercises against less powerful peoples. It is something I have felt in a very spontaneous and natural way to confront because it was something I could not ignore. Our present condition, which as I said is violence, demands it.
I would like to now turn specifically to your piece The Eyes of Gutete Emerita. A number of critical theorists and philosophers have been particularly taken by this piece. Especially the way in which it disrupts notions of voyeurism, and what it means to witness the brutalities of violence. What do you strive for in your work when dealing with the problematic issue of witnessing violence as a spectacle?
I have always said that I am a frustrated journalist. I feel that in a way my work tries to combine what I would hope journalism should accomplish with what I think art does best. That is why my objective has always been to inform and to touch people emotionally through visual mediums. Art at its best illuminates us and it should also move us. I aspire to do all these things at the same time, but I have struggled to find the perfect balance. Many times I am accused of being too didactic or that my work appears purely informative because of the need I feel to include a certain amount of information, which I believe cannot be ignored. While sometimes I fall on the other extreme in which the work becomes too aesthetic and beautiful in its form. Perhaps in that context the information is lost. I am always struggling with this balance between information and spectacle. Working in that space between ethics and aesthetics.
For me the most sublime work of art manages this perfect balance where the spectator is illuminated by the information and at the same time is moved by the beauty and is also attracted by the complexity of the work in a way that makes the viewer want to go deeper and triggers within them the need to go and search further beyond the work of art. So that for me is the definition of a perfect work of art. Sadly, I do not think I have ever reached that perfection, though it is certainly the objective I aim to aspire and approximate.
What does this mean when thinking about intolerable images? Should the artist force us to confront the intolerable in order to reflect more intently?
I think this is the conundrum we face. We must represent the intolerable in such a way that it can be visible. That is really the big question of our times. And I do not have an answer to that question. Again that is why I like the concept of exercises in representation. The entire Rwanda project, for example, was an exercise in dealing with the intolerable in one-way or another. Now I feel that most of the works failed. But it is also true that working on that project for six years taught me something, so the later works were, I think, more successful in their attempt to navigate this intolerable situation.
I do not think there is any formula to this. Each tragedy or each intolerable image has its own specificity that we have to strive to understand and try to communicate to the audience in an ethically sensitive fashion. There is really no formula and no answer to this question. But we must still be compelled to continually ask it all the same.
Too often, political and cultural theorists will take the so-called aesthetic turn to appropriate the arts for new modes of deconstruction and critique. How might we resource the arts better in terms of both a critique of violence, and rethinking alternative political futures?
I think we are doomed because in the present moment we simply do not control the narrative. I think it is quite tragic and sad that the world of art and culture have such a bad representation in the popular world of media communication. It is absurd that intellectuals, who work with the means of representation, inventing every day different means of representing images of the world, do not control the narrative of even their own work. Most of the media is simply interested in the glamour of its spectacle, in the $100 million Picasso painting. And that is the issue we have to try to overcome. Artists do not have the image of a group of professionals that is seriously trying to deal with a major conundrum.
The major media networks, in terms of its political or social commentary, by and large ignore artists. When they are interested in us it is only because we contribute to the society of the spectacle in one way or another, and so I dream of a new relationship between art and journalism. Some artists and thinkers and philosophers are deeply committed to these issues. Only then might we perhaps create a new information world where we contextualize our shared problems and read them properly. But I do not know if the present state of media information controlled by a few global conglomerates and who are more interested in entertainment is ready for this kind of resistance. But you and me keep doing this because we are hoping that suddenly people will at least understand the potential for a real revolution in communication. And perhaps we would create a better society by understanding these issues and acting upon them together.
I am taken by the title of a previous interview you gave where you suggest the Artist is a Thinker. Does society need to take more seriously the idea of the artist as a public pedagogue whose visions are integral to how we might reimagine the world for the better?
This raises an important question: namely education. We need to begin with education here. How we deal with images ethically is of profound importance. But we do need to rethink how we educate in this age where violence and its spectacle are defining of the moment. Our image of art needs to change as much as the need to challenge the spectacle shaping our society must change. Art is so much more than a $100 million Picasso.
There is also a need to rethink how we educate about art in both its historical and contemporary contexts. I am often invited to give graduate seminars, and I begin by telling the students to stop producing stuff. Our societies demand that we simply produce and produce things without seriously thinking about what it contributes. This is as true for art as it is for any other form of production. There is a need to be mindful that we do not reproduce the spectacle. It is to take seriously the ethics of art as a form of social output.
I think your project is tremendously important. Though we all need to collectively question our impact on societies when the narrative is so dominated by a corporate conglomerate, which controls and mediates the image. I dream of an alliance between journalists, artists, and critical thinkers like yourself that will allows us to take the educative value of art and its broader impact much more seriously. I remain pessimistic, but retain the slightest of hopes.
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, whose work specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.