Crimea, a place and name from a distant time is once again the cockpit for potential war. Russian troops have occupied that part of Ukraine and a larger conflict threatens to engulf the region. The infamous Crimean War of 1856 became synonymous with military ineptitude. But it was also the first war zone to provide daily newspaper reportage to the public back in Britain and to rely on extensive use of the new technology of photography.
Now two centuries later and in the saturated visual world of the early 21st century we have become increasingly inured to images of war. It seems that our attention is held less and less in direct proportion to the overwhelming torrent of mobile imagery now available to us. We have lost the ability to actually see what we are viewing. The horror of war is now lost in plain sight. Of course news outlets are deemed or consider themselves obliged to protect us from the true reality of war to save us from unnecessary consternation.
It seems, that as in past periods of conflict, it has fallen to artists such as Richard Mosse to re-boot our sensibilities to properly see and hear the realities of war. His current exhibition The Enclave at the RHA Gallery in Dublin is an immersive assault on the senses. It is no less an attempt to shake us physically out of our jaded torpor.
And shine a light on war he most certainly does. A lurid, Barbie-pink one, that tricks us at first. I have seen Mosse’s photographic work before. He utilises a discontinued military film technology designed to detect camouflage that produces a bizarre palette of colours in the resulting photographs. These are majestic, big bold pink views of verdant jungle, populated with macho, Kalashnikov-toting boy soldiers. They look great hung on white walls in London lofts.
But this exhibition takes his techniques and ambitions to a whole other level. The anteroom of the current exhibition displays his signature magenta tinged landscape scenes of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They have a bucolic 18th century quality. Lush and verdant, they are views of Eden on earth. Here and there little Canaletto-like minute figures can be discerned dotted around volcanic lakes fishing. It is an idyll. But this is merely the precursor to the descent into Hades that awaits the viewer in the sensory depriving black box room.
Utilising steadicams, field recordings and a cinematic sensibility it is an all-consuming surround-sound assault depicting the largely ignored horrors of years of war in East Congo. A malevolent Son et Lumière ensues, of loud pounding soundscape and lurid palette depicting an increasingly brutalised people.
With the cleverly positioned multiple screens and staccato projections of film it is impossible as a visitor not to begin to feel like a witness or participant in these acts of genocide. The psychedelic scenography is reminiscent of Douglas Trumbull’s acid-tinged colourised effects used during the Star-Gate sequence of Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey.
The assault on the senses builds slowly. We hear a plaintive child’s song (apparently masking lyrics of a refugees suffering) which contrasts with the thumping sound of artillery. Troops posture and directly threaten the camera and thus the viewer. UN trucks trundle into the hills. Dead bodies line the ditches while a shack acts as a morgue for casualties and coffins mount up. The camera pans over entire valleys of refugees in makeshift huts. Whole populations are set adrift or are victimised. It is eerie, ominous and disturbing. Although lacking a narrative there is a slow unfolding sense of horror. A woman gives birth by caesarean to an apparent stillbirth that is miraculously spanked into spluttering life. The visceral nature of modern war and its consequences is impossible to avoid. You cannot flick the remote, tweet, swipe or switch YouTube channel, as you too are held captive in the chamber.
Special note must be given to the sound design by the music collaborator Ben Frost, as it is crucial to the overall impact. Likewise the cinematography of Trevor Tweeten lends a heightened immediacy and visual impact to the events we are forced to witness. The careful construction presented by the RHA is to be highly commended.
The exhibition, which formed part of Ireland’s presence at the Venice Biennale 2013, will next travel to Limerick City of Culture before being seen in prestigious locations on the international art itinerary throughout 2014.
This is art as a pugilistic attack on our complacency to the horrors of modern war. This is art that must be seen and experienced. The exhibition continues until March 12th.
Photo credits from top:
Richard Mosse, Safe From Harm, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012, Digital C-print, 71 x 89 cm, edition of 5, © Richard Mosse, courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery
Richard Mosse, Platon, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012, Digital c-print, AP, 183 x 229 cm, © Richard Mosse, courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery
Richard Mosse, Suspicious Minds, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012, Digital c-print, 122 x 152 cm, edition of 2, © Richard Mosse, courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery