Anguished, powerful, and problematic as they are, there is a heavy bar to what images of war and suffering can do, and what they can carry beyond cynicism, voyeurism, or spectacle.
For Alfredo Jaar’s Shadows, which continues his effort of gazing out from and into iconic images of war, there is a further limitation: when an image is both problematic and compromised — as Susan Sontag and others have written of war photography and its potential for disregard — what can be done when reusing such a picture that doesn’t inevitably misuse it?
The show, on exhibit at Galerie Lelong, is the second of a planned trilogy of multimedia works. The first, “The Sound of Silence,” focused on Kevin Carter’s controversial Pulitzer-winning photograph of a starving child stalked by a vulture, fashioning a silent slide-show that paired text and dramatic lighting along with its loaded image. In her review of that show, Roberta Smith explored the power and pitfalls of Jaar’s use of such a readymade photo:
Using human tragedy as an artistic readymade has definite pros and cons.
Relevance is usually guaranteed; the heartstrings are likely to be pulled.
But the art may be overshadowed by the story, which may in turn be trivialized and exploited by the art.
By comparison, Shadows is a simpler show. Still focused on a single iconic image, Jaar examines Koen Wessing’s “Estelí, Nicaragua, September 1978” (1978), the Dutch photographer’s picture of two daughters twisted by grief, who have just learned that their father was murdered by the military. Taken during the last days of the Somoza regime before it was overthrown by the Sandinistas, the photograph just as well could have been taken in the regime’s first days — or perhaps any day.
The show opens with a video interview with Wessing, in which the photographer reflects on this photo’s uniqueness, noting how it resembles “… a Greek drama. That happened to take place in Latin America.” This sense of timeless, placeless grief is at the center of Jaar’s attention; he explores the photo’s power, but also questions its and our strength to witness and remember.
Following the video, in which Wessing also shares how, led by locals, he came to take several photos the same day he took the “Estelí” picture, is a darkened hallway of light boxes displaying these other images. Situated in this way — windows of light in a dark room — the photos evoke the blinkered record from which “Estelí” memorably but only partially could report. Without text or video to guide us, meaning is now left only to the imagery. Which leads directly to the show’s centerpiece: a dark room where an enlarged, illuminated image of the daughters is projected against a wall. Gradually the background fades away, and the women emerge into brightness. Overpowered by the light, the photo is dramatically active, the audience actively passive before this shinning image of pain.
And then it all goes dark, the afterimage straying on the eye for a few moments before it disappears and the eyes adjust. All of which is baroque and theatrical, supercharging an already moving photo. But I would stop short of calling it “hackneyed” as Martha Schwendener does in the New York Times. For though the work emanates a kind of power and perspective, beneath it is a bedrock of frailty and uncertainty. In Shadows, the impressive, brightly lit images expose their own weaknesses and short range.
Burning bright and lingering, shadows sticks around, but not for long. Jaar seems to believe in photography as much as he doubts it, exploring how we react to the image when we are given more time, depth, and consideration. Yes. You see more and for longer. Jaar’s visual manipulation opens the mind and image to something larger, like that of an infrared telescope capturing the brightness (and darkness) unseen by the unaided eye. But what of it? Shadows exposes “Estelí’s” strength as a testimony of war and grief, underscoring its tragic form and resonance, highlighting what is so moving about it. But the work also reveals “Estelí’s” failure as a witness of significance and change, that while it can be so powerfully moving, and perhaps no more powerful than here, it may still be left behind, lingering only so long before our thoughts pass to something else. It reminds me of how a flashlight looks in a very dark, expansive place — shooting ahead, but only so far before the darkness wins outs; a sign of light’s limit and darkness’s range.
At the center of the work is us. Seeing the brightness of faraway stars and dust fills the emptiness of space. But does seeing the bright flashes of grief fill human emptiness or only add to it?
Shadows continues at Galerie Lelong (528 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 28.