Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar has spent his career reporting on global human rights abuses in a language which is synonymous to that used by the media. Through photojournalism, text and technology, he critiques the press and our image-saturated existence from within. Jaar’s activist attitude is augmented by his architectural comprehension of space, something which is visible in the new sculptural commission ‘The Garden of Good and Evil’. This manmade paradise – a 101-strong coniferous arboretum – and its poetically pruned title are an enlivening sight.
At first glance, the regimented rows of flora appear to be part of Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s vast greenery, but the viewer is soon troubled by the austerity that plagues the boxed-in vegetation which would otherwise roam free with irregularity. We browse up-and-down the aisles as we would in a gardening centre, until our idleness is interrupted by nine steel cells, each measuring one-square metre in width. The stark metal halts any evergreen romanticism: our thoughts are consumed by confinement as the height of each cell alternates from sitting and squatting to crouching and standing. These rudimentary objects reference the recently exposed CIA detention centres, which use the cover of the land to enact human injustices.
Within YSP’s Long Gallery, the viewer is drawn into a conversation on the value of photographs in a visually-saturated world. Jaar’s practice often focuses on a belief that ‘we have lost the ability to see and be moved by the image.’ Here, the artist and gallery compile a minimalist exhibition which taps into our sensory-selves: we are invited to put down our camera phones and grant our full attention to the hardship placed before us. The takeaway poster ‘You don’t take a photograph, you make it’ (2013) appropriates words from Ansel Adams to challenge our mindless snapping and provide us with a physical, declarative souvenir.
To Jaar, text is a tool for revealing the quality of images. ‘The Sound of Silence’ (2006) replaces the traditional cinema narrative with white-on-black text which tells the story of South African photojournalist Kevin Carter. Towards the end of the silent script, a sharp click and flash reveal Carter’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize photograph. Our focus is seized by the intensifying sight of a starving Sudanese girl and her vulture voyeur. We stare gauntly into the savage scene: its isolation from other images leading us to deliberate the ethics of both photojournalist and spectator.
‘Shadows’ (2014) also exposes the value of minimal imagery. Jaar plays with the brightness of a projected photograph taken by Koen Wessing during the 1970s military dictatorship in Nicaragua. He uses the scene of two grief-stricken daughters to fabricate an optical imprint that remains with us long after the image disappears. Likewise, ‘A Hundred Times Nguyen’ (1994) leaves a mark on the viewer’s memory due to its minimalist nature. Enveloped within Pillar Point refugee Nguyen Thi Thuy’s gaze are the stories of generations of Vietnamese migrants. The scale of their flight to Hong Kong, and our own inability to comprehend the individual lives affected by it, are distilled into a cyclical display of four portraits arranged in respective sequences.
Collectively, these works target the audience’s sensory and emotive connection with visual signifiers that have sadly become the ‘removed-norm’, as in, we see this imagery on a daily basis but rarely accept the facts. ‘The Garden of Good and Evil’ and ‘A Hundred Times Nguyen’ express the scale of their respective scenarios, while ‘The Sound of Silence’ and ‘Shadows’ expunge every ounce of distress buried within the image’s surface. The neon work ‘Be Afraid of the Enormity of the Possible’ (2015) – a phrase from E.M. Cloran’s ‘On the Heights of Despair’ (1934) – is akin to the show’s boldness in pushing past the media barrage. It is an appeal to think critically about these cyclical atrocities: there are many and they are very real. Though sparse, this ‘less-is-more’ exhibition is undeniably meditative rather than empty.
Alfredo Jaar: The Garden of Good and Evil, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 14 October 2017–8 April 2018.
Selina Oakes is writer based in Stoke-on-Trent and York.