Art

Seeing the Invisible in a Humanitarian Crisis

Richard Mosse, "Protection" (North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012), Digital C-print, 152 x 122 cm, edition of 2 (all images courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery)
Richard Mosse, “Protection” (North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012), Digital C-print, 152 x 122 cm, edition of 2 (all images courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery)

BERLIN — In a visually stunning multichannel video installation, “The Enclave” (2013), Richard Mosse (born in Kilkenny, Ireland; lives and works in New York) has created an immersive environment that plunges the viewer into the heart of the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The installation in the Irish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale consists of multiple screens positioned throughout the center of the room; they are transparent scrims, so you can see the projection simultaneously from both sides. You can also lose yourself in the space easily, as your senses are alternately deprived and overloaded. The infared film on which “The Enclave” was shot changes from brown-green to pink-red, so you find yourself following a rebel group dressed in pink camouflage through a pink jungle; running down winding dirt roads through swaths of magenta and fuchsia; and taking in neon blue skies over valleys that look like they’re made of flowers, followed by breathtaking sudden switches to calm gray water crashing in waves on a rocky beach. The aural landscape built around the images is equally mesmerizing, including mortar fire, children laughing and singing, rustling footsteps through the underbrush, and a heartbreaking lullaby.

Richard Mosse, "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams" (North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012), Digital c-print, 152 x 122 cm, edition of 2
Richard Mosse, “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” (North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012), Digital c-print, 152 x 122 cm, edition of 2

Mosse and a close-knit team of three men (making a total of “four huge white dudes,” in Holten’s words) — American cinematographer and artist Trevor Tweeten, Australian composer and producer Ben Frost, and Irish novelist and independent publisher of Broken Dimanche Press John Holten — went to the eastern DRC as documentary filmmakers in order to highlight the virtually invisible humanitarian crisis there. I had the pleasure of meeting Holten in Venice and was able to talk to him here in Berlin at his local tavern in Neukölln.

One wonders, first of all, how two Irishmen, an Australian, and an American ended up bringing to Venice a film shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country currently facing one of the most extreme humanitarian crises in the world. Holten described it as “the most difficult place on earth.”

Mosse joined forced with with Anna O’Sullivan, director of Butler Gallery in Kilkenny (the city where Mosse was born), to propose the exhibition for the Irish Pavilion. The artist had traveled to the Kivus region many times already and in November 2011 brought Tweeden. Based on the work he had completed by the time of the proposal, Mosse was chosen to represent Ireland at the biennale. “The Enclave” will to travel to Dublin and Butler Gallery, and potentially to the US.

Richard Mosse, "Suspicious Minds" (North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012), Digital c-print, 122 x 152 cm, edition of 2
Richard Mosse, “Suspicious Minds” (North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012), Digital c-print, 122 x 152 cm, edition of 2

The infared film used to create “The Enclave” and its predecessors, the large pink photographs for which Mosse is best known (as seen at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, in 2011), was developed by Kodak for military purposes. It was made in order to see the unseen. Mosse uses that film here to visualize a war crisis that’s gone almost completely unreported.

The film, of course, has been since discontinued. Only one lab in the world is capable of processing it, located in Denver, Colorado. Much of the film is expired, and it must be kept cold and dark at all times, a task that proved to be virtually impossible in a country with constant blackouts. Because of the precariousness of the film, the outcome of all of the footage was uncertain. For their much longer trip in October–November 2012, Mosse and Holten transported the film from Berlin to Goma and throughout the jungle in the DRC in two large beer containers (which were, of course, a small miracle to get through airport security). This also made shooting extremely difficult. Even though Mosse has purchased much (if not all) of the infared film still available, there was still a very limited supply while onsite. The team carried all of its camera equipment through the jungle on motor bikes, off-road at times.

Richard Mosse, "Platon" (North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012), Digital c-print, AP, 183 x 229 cm
Richard Mosse, “Platon” (North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012), Digital c-print, AP, 183 x 229 cm

The results are remarkable. Entering refugee camps in a war zone is difficult enough, but visionary cinematography led the team to use the steady cam they had brought with them to literally run into the camp. The sequence begins on a hill overlooking the valley filled with tents and descends quickly from there. The pace is built not with artful cuts and collage, but with long, uncut shots of rapid movement and an overload of information. Flocks of young children run in front of the camera and look back; families stand in large groups and look directly into the lens; hundreds of tents fly by in various states of disrepair and with inventive decoration. Suddenly, the camera slows and zooms in on a large group of people. In the center, a man sits holding a very young girl in his arms, wrapped in a blanket. He and the group of people around him slowly look up at the camera. I asked Holten about this particular shot, and he confirmed that it was totally spontaneous. They had no choice but to take risks with the footage, as there was the possibility they could have come back with nothing.

“How did you guys even get to these camps?” I asked Holten over several Jevers while we sat outside. He explained that they presented themselves as documentary filmmakers in the DRC (apparently not that unusual for Goma). Mosse worked with local drivers and fixers, typically former rebels or members of the military who help the team by interpreting, explaining the project to rebel groups and refugees, sorting out accommodations, food, transportation, etc.

Richard Mosse, "Of Lillies and Remain" (North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012), Digital c-print, 183 x 229 cm edition of 2
Richard Mosse, “Of Lillies and Remain” (North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012), Digital c-print, 183 x 229 cm edition of 2

In another sequence, the team crosses the front lines into a conflict area and comes across mortalities. As the camera slowly pans across the street, a cargo van passes, carrying arms into the region. The camera moves into the ditch beside the road, where a young man lies dead in the grass. Further down the road, another man is sprawled dead on the pavement.

Suddenly the installation goes completely black, and the soundscape comes to utter silence. The M23 rebel group invaded Goma, where the team was stationed. Humanitarian groups and the UN evacuated to Rwanda within two hours on that Saturday. The team separated, and Mosse and a companion went back across the front. On Monday, they were trapped when the M23 took Goma. They were caught in mortar fire. In the installation, the black, silent room suddenly erupts in mortar fire — actual binaural audio recorded onsite. The mortar explosions seem to be positioned in specific places, making the danger of the experience horrifyingly real. Finally, Mosse and his companion were evacuated to Rwanda as refugees.

“Mosse’s working methods have been a fantastic inspiration for me,” Holten said, describing the initial studio visit they had at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin when he signed onto the project. The incredible ambition and stamina the team needed to execute the project is present in every shot of the video installation.

Richard Mosse, "The Enclave" (2013), 16mm stills, Six screen film installation
Richard Mosse, “The Enclave” (2013), 16mm stills, Six screen film installation

I was moved to tears by the image of a lone man standing before a large body of water (actually an active volcano flooded with rain water), with a machine gun strapped across his back. Slowly, unfalteringly, he proceeds into the water. He continues until he is up to his knees, and then his hips. The gun is submerged in the water. Then his shoulders go under and only his head is floating in the sunset reflection — until that, too, disappears. The camera remains stationary, leaving only the fantastically beautiful landscape at twilight. “The Enclave” juxtaposes of the horrors of war and the lush landscape of the Congo, leaving the viewer torn between revulsion at the unrepentant violence and mesmerization by the incredible beauty.

Richard Mosse’s “The Enclave” is on view at the Irish National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale through November 24.

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