The latest main exhibition in the Underground Gallery at the YSP had opened on 14 October, the day before our visit last weekend. It’s devoted to the work of a Chilean artist, Alfredo Jaar – “a pioneering practitioner of socially critical art” (Claire Lilley in the Exhibition Guide).
It’s a very different type of exhibition to those normally shown at the YSP as the works on display are not sculpture in the usual meaning of the word, but “installations”, film and photography.
Describing himself as “an architect making art”, Jaar constructs spaces and intricate light systems to navigate the ambiguities of what is represented and misrepresented in photographic and other media. (Exhibition Guide)
Unlike most of the major YSP exhibitions, there is only one of his installations outside the Underground Gallery (Tony Cragg’s sculptures sited outdoors from the previous exhibition are still there and will remain in place until March). This is a new work which will become a permanent exhibit in the grounds once the exhibition is over – relocated elsewhere as they won’t leave it in it’s present location immediately in front of the gallery. This work – The Garden of Good and Evil (the exhibition is named after it) – takes the form of a grove of 101 trees sited in tubs along the length of the Underground Gallery open-air concourse. Inside this mini forest there’s a number of steel cells, of different sizes, which are meant to reference ‘black sites’, the secret detention facilities around the world operated by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Visitors could wander through the trees discovering the individual cells – all different but all with a one-metre square base.
The work was inspired by a poem, One Square Metre of Prison, by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Without being aware of this the work is perhaps an interesting curiosity, but knowing the inspiration it certainly made me consider and think about how people are imprisoned for their beliefs and hidden away from public view by governments, terrorist organisations etc. And with clandestine prisons, in practice illegal or only of borderline legality, themselves hidden from view by governments so that they can be ignored by the citizens – out of sight, out of mind.
Inside the gallery there are three major installations and a small number of other works. No photographs allowed, but the nature of most of the works meant that this was not that appropriate.
The first of the major works is The Sound of Silence (2005). Visitors enter a steel cube and sitting in the dark watch a video work telling the story of a South African photographer, Kevin Carter, leading to his image of a young victim of the 1993 Sudanese famine. The photographer stood and observed a young starving child being watched by a vulture, waiting for the appropriate moment to snap his photograph. A shocking image resulted which drew global attention to the famine, leading to aid being sent to help the victim. But the image raised serious questions about the role of the photographer and raises serious ethical questions. He did nothing to help the individual but, on the other hand, the picture may have contributed to aid saving the lives of others. The suffering of one saving the lives of many others? This clearly troubled Carter himself and he later committed suicide.
The second of the major works, A Hundred Times Nguyen (1994), has 100 images of a little girl the artist met while visiting ‘refugee detention centres’ for Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong in 1991. Jaar who photographed her five times at five-second intervals. He took four of the images altering the order in which they are shown using all possible combinations to make 100 pictures which are displayed on the walls of the gallery. In this work the artist addresses “compassion fatigue” and
articulates the importance of the individual through many of his installations, rather than focusing on the mass of victims of the devastation and oppression he has witnessed. (Exhibition website)
The third major work Shadows (2014) uses images taken by photographer Koen Wessing over a single day, early in the 1978 Nicaraguan Civil War, following a farmer’s murder. Entering a darkened room six of the images are displayed on the wall. Visitors then move through to a second darkened space where the seventh image is projected onto the entire back wall of the room, which shows two women grieving after the death of their father, shot by Somosa’s National Guardsman and left by the side of the road. The image alters as it is observed, the two grieving daughters being isolated from the picture and then altered and turned into a bright white silhouette. The room then goes completely dark and the image is retained on the retina, gradually fading away after several seconds.
I’m not sure what the artist’s intention was, but I felt that it is easy to put aside the shocking images of suffering but here it wasn’t quite so easy to forget and perhaps that’s what we all need to do.
Although I’m sure many visitors will grumble about the “unorthodox” nature of the exhibition – not “proper art” will no doubt be heard – this is the second video based exhibition we’ve seen in the underground Gallery. The other being the Bill Viola exhibition we saw at the beginning of last year. That was intended to be “a sensory experience with space to pause and make time to reflect and enable an emotional or even transformational experience”. However the current exhibition is quite a different experience. Unsettling and thought provoking in a different way and making political points about cruelty and suffering and the role of the artist.