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.
“The Sound of Silence,” Alfredo Jaar’s film installation at Galerie Lelong in Chelsea, accomplishes all of the above. It leaves you moved yet irked, feeling raw yet manipulated. You may wonder whether Mr. Jaar is an artist or just some finely tuned hybrid of set designer, art director, editorial writer and graphic designer.
The piece dates from 1995 and has been shown in the United States twice before. As is often the case with the work of the Chilean-born Mr. Jaar, it presents journalism’s basic components — images, information and narrative — placing them in slick, imposing Minimalist contexts.
This installation centers on an unforgettable photograph taken in Sudan during a famine in 1993 by the South African photojournalist Kevin Carter. The image shows a small, starving girl, crouched over in the bush, her forehead almost touching the ground. She might be praying. Behind her stands a vulture, watching and waiting.
The image set off a furor when it appeared on Page 3 of The New York Times on March 26, 1993, and then in other publications worldwide. Most of it was directed at Mr. Carter. Hundreds of readers called or wrote editors wanting to know what had happened to the little girl and asking why the photographer had not helped her instead of taking her picture. Mr. Jaar’s combinations of words and images usually tackle big subjects: the Rwandan massacres, the oppressed gold-mine workers of the Amazon. But this piece isolates a single image to examine the reverberations of news photographs and the ways they exploit their subjects, implicate their makers and often inform yet buffer the public.
While such images may capture instants of time, the most powerful also have significant preludes and aftermaths. Each is a nanosecond in an arc leading up to and then away from its own creation, a tipping point between cause and effect.
Mr. Jaar’s piece recounts this arc in a stripped-down way that is both sensationalizing and understated. Spoiler alert: it is hard to describe the piece without giving away some of the jolts and surprises that are essential (maybe a little too essential) to its effect.
“The Sound of Silence” begins by aggressively blanching our vision: to enter the piece you must first confront a triple bank of blazing white fluorescent lights, like those that frequently illuminate light-box images in Mr. Jaar’s work. The lights cover one side of a room-size box otherwise sheathed in aluminum. At the opposite end of this shiny structure something quite different awaits: a dark opening. The box is a small theater.
The austerity continues inside. The eight-minute film (more like a slide show, really), consisting of text about Mr. Carter and this photograph, unfolds in silence. On a black screen, short phrases fade in and out, in small white lower-case letters reminiscent of those from an old typewriter. The terse narrative sketches Mr. Carter’s background, which included a natural hatred of apartheid that made him go AWOL from his mandatory South African military service.
It recounts the taking of the photograph, the details of which exemplify the inherent, maybe necessary, opportunism of photojournalism. Mr. Carter was about to photograph the little girl, who was slowing making her way to a feeding center; noticing the vulture, he waited another 20 minutes, hoping the creature would spread its wings, which it did not.
Finally, he took the picture and shooed the bird away. The little girl continued her journey; then, in Mr. Jaar’s words, he “sat under a tree and lit a cigarette/talked to god/and cried.”
The text proceeds to recount the aftermath of publication: the ensuing hue and cry; how the image received the Pulitzer Prize for photography in April 1994; and how, in July of that year, Mr. Carter killed himself at 33. During his brief professional career he had been one of four South African photojournalists who became known as the Bang Bang Club: they endured arrests and physical danger to document the murderous cruelties of the anti-apartheid struggle. In a suicide note he said that he had seen too much death and suffering.
Suddenly, the photograph at the center of the tale is seen for an instant on the screen, followed by a single flash discharged by four strobe lights that echo the introductory glare of the fluorescents. Two rather theatrical things have happened: Mr. Jaar has refused to exploit the image by not allowing us to dwell on it and re-enact our disengaged horror. We have experienced the camera’s flash, as in the taking of a photograph — whose subject is us.
The words continue: Mr. Carter was survived by his young daughter, who owns the rights to the image, which are managed by the Corbis photo agency, owned by Bill Gates.
Thus we are led to the idea that Mr. Carter, who abandoned the starving girl, was pushed, by the weight of his experiences, to abandon his own child. But reality is not quite so simple. The text itself points out that Mr. Carter had attempted suicide once before. Yet it omits another part of the story: Mr. Carter’s obituary in The New York Times noted that a few days after his Pulitzer was announced, Mr. Carter was “nearby” when Ken Oosterbroek, another member of the Bang Bang Club, “was shot dead photographing a gun battle in Tokoza township.”
So the photographer’s history becomes the artist’s to frame in his own way. In the end Mr. Jaar does exploit a sensational story, and in shaping it, he manipulates us. Except for its savvy presentation, the piece is like shooting fish in a barrel.
Yet it works. When I first encountered “The Sound of Silence,” I thought its point was largely conceptual; seen once, it would never have to be seen again. But it sustained repeated visits. The words may be nothing but the facts, but they fade in and out rhythmically, at an elegiac pace. Mr. Carter’s first name is repeated, like a lament — either alone or “Kevin. Kevin Carter” — creating a sense of foreboding from the onset.
After a while the words, which you have only read, not heard, start reverberating in your head.
One implication is that silence is impossible; thought is its own kind of noise. Another is that the real silence is passivity, humanity’s acquiescence to inhumanity. And a third is that the silence is the little girl, the absence at the center of the tale. She is gone forever, yet to focus on her and her image is to miss Mr. Jaar’s point, and Mr. Carter’s too.
“Alfredo Jaar: The Sound of Silence” remains on view through May 2 at Galerie Lelong, 528 West 26th Street, Chelsea; (212) 315-0470 or galerielelong.com.
The New York Times | 15.04.09 |