A Landscape of Tragedy

The following excerpt of “A Landscape of Tragedy: New Debates in Alfredo Jaar’s “Politics of Images” is a preview from a feature essay by Kathleen MacQueen in Afterimage: The Journal of Media and Cultural Criticism 42:2 (Fall 2014).

Faces (1982) by Alfredo Jaar; installation view at SCAD Museum of Art; photography by John McKinnon, courtesy of SCAD.

Faces (1982) by Alfredo Jaar; installation view at SCAD Museum of Art; photography by John McKinnon, courtesy of SCAD.

The mark of a wound, very close to death, in any case to blindness.
Scar or trauma, it is a question of everything that is signified in the loss of sight
– and especially of what bears witness to it.
   Jacques Derrida

A little-known work from 1982 by the Chilean artist, Alfredo Jaar, was exhibited for the first time during the artist’s Berlin retrospective in 2012 and again this year to accompany the premier of new work at the SCAD Museum of Art. In Faces, Jaar pairs newspaper clippings with a single face, extracted from the crowd and enlarged, to “rescue it” —he claims—from anonymity and oblivion. This concept of rescue—a kind of reframing of the content within a new context—also applies to what the artist intends as a trilogy of works, each dedicated to a single image. The first was The Sound of Silence (2006) in which the artist rescued Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer-prize-winning photograph from controversy and reclaimed its significance as a “signal of distress.”

As a lamentation, Jaar evokes a minor chord in this work, acutely sensitive to photography’s binding relationship to anguish and death. Minor in its sparse precision of aesthetic means, the rhythm of sequencing, and the tonality of his plea to consider carefully one’s position within a heated debate, The Sound of Silence is one of Jaar’s major accomplishments. Exhibited 25 times in 18 countries—in terms of widespread viewership —it is undoubtedly his most successful work to date. He now continues his trilogy with a second work entitled Shadows (2014), which eulogizes the photojournalist, Koen Wessing (1948-2011), who covered the struggles for democracy in Latin America throughout the 1970s and 80s during the rise of repressive dictatorships. This essay proposes to consider these two works in light of the continuing debate on the representation of suffering.

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