CHICAGO — There are photographs that strike me as insurmountable. An image of presumable lovers, falling hand in hand from the World Trade Center as it burned. The image of a Vietnamese girl, screaming from the burning effects of napalm. The pain these photographs elicit is debilitating and the experience of seeing them is voyeuristic, not productive. The act is over, the misery finished, but the image remains.
Two video installations currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago place the viewer within images and their history, and demand we look at them differently. From the permanent collection,“The Sound of Silence” (2006), by Alfredo Jaar, actually prepares the audience for its requisite duty: to be engaged, calm, and critical. Entering the gallery room we are confronted by a wall of intensely bright fluorescent lights. As our eyes fail to adjust, we walk past to see a large, minimalist steel cuboid. The steel is sterile, like aliens made a Dan Flavin-inspired spacecraft.
At the back, we find something I’ve always wanted from museum screenings: a signal for when the movie is in progress or about to start. A note on the floor asks us to wait, letting us know the piece is eight minutes long. How many times have we all entered a video art piece midway, leaving us confused and less likely to follow along?
Once the light turned green, we stepped inside. More like a slideshow, the video is silent, and consists almost entirely of black and white text walking us slowly through the life of South African photojournalist Kevin Carter. Carter became known for his work with the Bang Bang Club, especially documenting the cruelty of the South African Apartheid.
We come to the story of his most infamous photograph, that of a Sudanese girl, nearing death from starvation, while a vulture looms behind her. The video walks us through to how Carter got there — how he found the girl, crawling alone and seeking help, and how he waited 20 minutes for the right shot. Afterwards, Carter chased the bird away, but did nothing else for the girl except share her image with the world.
The photograph earned Carter a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 and The American Magazine awarded it the picture of the year. The public outcry against Carter’s inaction, along with the cumulative suffering he had documented over the years, helped lead to his suicide shortly after. The moment we hear of Carter’s suicide, four lights flanking the screen blind us with one synchronized flash, and we see the photograph in discussion, for but a moment.
With the flash, the image becomes both seared in our memory, but also obscured. This flash, coupled with the installation as a whole, demands that we take our time and take care of our reactions to media. Throughout the rest of my time at the museum, I was mostly remembering that bright glare and all the tragedies behind the photograph, unable to focus on anything else.
Luckily, I saw The Propeller Group’s exhibition first. I spent most of my time focused on the two-screen projection,“The Guerrillas of Cu Chi” (2012). One shows “Cu Chi Guerrillas” (1963), a grainy black-and-white propaganda film in Vietnamese with English subtitles celebrating the ferocity of the Viet Cong fighters in a district outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Facing this, is present-day footage of the same area, now an international destination, showing tourists shooting guns at $1 a bullet.
The contemporary footage is a slow-motion tracking shot, with the tourists appearing to be shooting right at us. Western tourists strike macho poses, as older Vietnamese men stand by to instruct and guide. Like the flash of the four studio lights in Jaar’s installation, these guns, and the perspective of the two screens, place us in the crosshairs of the grand narratives told by states, and how history really plays out. The dizzying dichotomy forces the viewer to become an active subject. How do we confront history, when narratives of us versus them so quickly collapse on themselves? How do we reconcile these two narratives?
The artists’ concerns lie not only in what images contain, but how they are presented. At the end of Jaar’s narration, which focused solely on Carter’s life, it abruptly switches to the legal ownership of the Sudan photograph: Corbis, the company owned by Bill Gates that possessed the rights to one of the largest photography collections in the world before it closed this year. What Jaar hints at is the supremacy of the business of circulating photography, perhaps overriding the intentions of the photographers.
So while Carter risked life and arrest to document atrocities, and propagandists documented the victory of the Vietnamese people over the American soldiers, it is the spectacle, rather than the content, of an image that reigns and remains. In a sense, it is the circulation of the images that won; not the Viet Cong, not humanity, but spectacle itself.