This essay is dedicated to the works of Irish artist and photographer Richard Mosse. More specifically the essay is concerned with Mosse’s seminal project The Enclave, a series of large-scale photographs and a video installation, shot in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. With this work Mosse has enjoyed phenomenal success on the international art circuit, representing Ireland at the Venice Biennale 2013 and receiving the Deutsche Börse Prize this year. Recent exhibitions at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin and the Foam Photography Museum in Amsterdam are further indications of the global reach of this body of work.
Mosse first came to international attention with his project Infra (produced from 2010 to 2011 and subsequently published as a book) in which he uses an obsolete military surveillance technology, a type of infrared colour film called Kodak Aerochrome, to represent the ongoing tensions in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Through the use of infrared film, the vegetation and natural landscape depicted by Mosse assume a surreal and mesmerizing pink colour. Kodak produced the film with the specific purpose for aerial photographic applications which would allow users to detect ‘infrared discriminations’ such as when soldiers wear camouflage. Mosse on the other hand uses the film on ground level, representing people not as militaristic abstractions but as individuals directly affected by the conflict: as soldiers, as victims, as orphans or as refugees.
In this work Mosse establishes a strong link between the methodology with which he produces his photographs and the subjects depicted in them. Put differently, the trauma and brutality of war are cunningly referenced by using a technology first and foremost produced for the military industrial complex. The contrast produced in Mosse’s work is highly unsettling: on one hand his subjects are depicted ‘objectively’ like in the traditional media, yet on the other, his representations are highly subjective, surreal and even fantastical. In particular, the beauty of the pink colour permeating through the natural landscape stands in complete contrast to the ugliness of war.
For his project The Enclave Mosse returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and sound designer Ben Frost to produce a video installation commissioned for the Irish pavilion at the Venice Bienale. Shot with a 16 mm Arriflex, here too Mosse uses an infrared film to create an utterly surreal depiction of Congolese rebels scouring across a landscape that has been scarred by conflict for decades. Building on his work for Infra, the use of the surreal colour purposefully puts into question the notion of objectivity commonly associated with documentary photography and filmmaking. In addition to that, much of the visual impact of The Enclave is related to how it was shot. Here, Mosse and his team further accentuate the surrealness of the subject matter by shooting footage with a steady cam device that allows for extremely smooth as well as long camera takes. The smoothness of the footage (some of which seems to have been shot in slow motion) is underpinned by a shiver-inducing soundtrack accompanying the 39-minute video installation. Mosse and his team created a visual tour de force that resembles a psychedelic nightmare.
Another important aspect of The Enclave is related to how the work is presented in the gallery. I first had the opportunity to see the exhibition at the RHA in Dublin where visitors to the gallery first entered a room with Mosse’s extremely detailed large-scale photographs presented like contextualizing establishing shots, or a type of visual preamble. Following on from the photographs, the video installation was presented in a pitch-black space where a series of projectors intermittently show footage on eight double-sided screens. The asymmetrical positioning of the screens had the noticeable affect of disorienting the viewer, creating an eerie discomfort while watching the footage. This was particularly apparent at a time when the space was crowded and visitors tried and consistently failed to find a suitable vantage point to view the video installation. The point about presenting this work in this fragmented way is clear: there is no single vantage point, not one singular perspective from which a highly complex conflict can ever be understood. Like in any conflict, there are contradictions and paradoxes that simply cannot be reduced into neatly packaged pieces of information. Instead, the information is presented in a kaleidoscopic form and it is left to the viewer to make his own conclusions.
One scene that stands out involves the steady cam dipping from the top of a hill into a refuge camp located in a valley. Shot with a single take, the scene presents an overarching view of the camp that initially looks like a little village. Yet as the camera ventures into the camp itself, the rawness of the footage alludes to a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale. Crucially, the people in the footage look into the camera, they engage with it, and by extension, they implicate the viewer in the representation of their condition. This gaze back into the camera signifies that the West is deeply implicit in ‘localized’ conflicts such as in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The fighting taking place is not merely a clash between rebels and government soldiers, but it is a reflection of what happens when colonial powers drew arbitrary borders across swathes of Africa, paying no intention to ethnic, cultural, religious or tribal differences amongst the people living in the land. The chaos that continues to unfold in this part of the world is not there by accident but by design.
In this chaotic, complex and fragmented world, Mosse also produces images that speak clearly about the endurance of mankind. As the screens switch from depicting different pieces of footage, it quickly becomes clear that these projections are perfectly timed with each other: one screen depicts the death of a rebel lying on the floor while another shows a newborn baby that is successfully resuscitated right after birth. Similar to the work of video artist Bill Viola, this is a shocking but also highly thought-provoking juxtaposition that escapes simple generalizations or assumptions about the conflict. Like Viola’s work, Mosse’s project The Enclave is best explored in site-specific video installations such as in his recent London exhibition in the basement of a car park on Brewer Street in Soho. Here too the visitors to the space were purposefully left disorientated amongst the large screens, whereas the lingering smell of exhaust fumes and oil from the car park added another discomforting element to this body of work.
Given the relevance of the cinematography and the sound in The Enclave, it is important to stress the collaborative nature of this project. Cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and sound designer Ben Frost, amongst many others, have found a working method that resulted in an extremely harmonious (if also disturbing) body of work. Another aspect which deserves mention is the personal risk that these artists undertook while filming and recording on location. Images can, and often do, create a barrier between the experience of producing them and the experience of consuming them. But perhaps this is exactly the point about this work: no amount of images and no amount of reporting can ever, fully, translate the misery experienced by another. The production methodology of Mosse’s project must not be confused with the aestheticization of war: rather, it forces the viewer to recognize that there are no clear solutions and there are no clear binaries between good and bad or truth and lies.
Originally published on photomonitor.co.uk