Installation photos of "The Rwanda Project" at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
With this installation, titled "The Rwanda Project: 1994-1998," Alfredo Jaar responds to a special artistic problem of this last half century -- how to image mass death.
Jaar's work documents his encounter with some sites and a survivor of the recent genocide in Rwanda. It unfolds through text and image in four rooms in the gallery. In the anteroom, a silkscreened panel displays a lush, ruminative paragraph of text (by the 20th-century Indian philosopher Cioran), a fruitcake of dream-thought to set the mood. In the next dark room three large wall-mounted color photographs show landscapes by an unseen church where a mass murder occurred -- a field, a road through a canebrake, a lonely cloud in the blue sky. Small hand-drawn maps show the location of each photo and the direction of its taking.
The next anteroom holds a thin brightly backlit line of text in small type describing Jaar's interview with a survivor of the genocide, a woman who witnessed the death of her husband and sons, then fled with her daughter. "Over a five month period in 1994, more than one million Rwandans, mostly members of the Tutsi minority, were systematically slaughtered as the world closed its eyes to genocide," it begins. The text concludes by emphasizing the strong impression made upon the artist by the eyes of this witness, "the eyes of Guetete Emerita."
Jaar's installation concludes with a Baroque surprise, a vast light table piled high with copies of a single slide taken of this survivor's eyes, and I do mean "piled." It is a snake-like heap some feet high and several feet long, which could conceal a few bodies.
How many slides? "In the volume of a million," said a gallery assistant.
Jaar is not a photojournalist, and his work does not include images of dead bodies (those were the province, however belated, of the mass media). Rather, this is a media artist's encounter with holocaust, memorializing his tourism of the scenes of genocide. It shares the conceptual space of photojournalism and documentary film: cold, neutral, modern. But the work's referent is suffering, distant, incomprehensible, unimaginable pain and loss.
The work evokes the place of deaths, its specificity, like the establishing shots of contemporary landscape in Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah. (If Jaar's 35 mm slides were made into a film it would be over 11 hours long -- une image juste). It evokes the multitudinous victims of such acts in a way devoid of the corrosive irony of Chris Burden's Other Vietnam Memorial, a work that lists Vietnamese victims of the war in tiny type on numerous huge bronzed pages mounted on a pole.
Formally, Jaar uses space with extraordinary fluidity, the architectural space of the gallery, the space evoked by the photos, the space of the text, both its tenor and mode of display. He manages unobtrusively to engineer the sense of being afloat in the space of a book, or a booklike space, the very space of record. We move through a type of testamentary elegy founded on one encounter, one family's experience recited, the death of three, the flight to life of two.
Jaar has produced an extraordinarily necessary work of art. The Cambodian horror was the result of a Cold War world, and is thus politically comprehensible. The Rwandan genocide is not explicable in the duologic terms of the West. Its consequences and quandaries, including the infection of the new Congo state through refugees and allied armies, subsequent massacres, spectacular stadium executions, and accusations of United Nations culpability make it a genocide for the new century.
This grave political event of incomprehensible dimensions has been humanized by Jaar, whose work insists upon it as one million instances of the kind of personal grief he encountered. He does this by combining quantity and sameness in a single miniaturized image. One million deaths, one million absences, one million survivors' memories. With this work, Jaar has written a public brief for his kind of "political conceptual art."
Alfredo Jaar, "The Rwanda Project, 1994-1998," May 2-June 13, 1998, at Galerie Lelong, 20 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
ALAN MOORE is a New York critic and art historian.