Alfredo Jaar’s ‘Men Who Cannot Cry’ muses about Robben Island and the political prisoners kept there, including of course, Nelson Mandela. The keystone of the exhibition is the isivivane, a cairn, near the limestone quarry. The show riffs off both the conceptual and physical form of this pile stones. Chad Rossouw spoke to Jaar about metonyms, memory and optimism
Chad Rossouw: The title ‘Men Who Cannot Cry’ has a certain poetry to it, but there is also an implication that things like the isivivane, are a substitute for those tears they couldn’t shed. In the show though, you yourself have produced a substitution, a neon version of the cairn, in neon. Can you comment on the idea of substituting from one area into another?
Alfredo Jaar: I read as much as I could find about the meaning of this monument, and its a symbol of a safe place. I was moved by this because it is a very simple monument. Mandela went back to the site five years after his liberation. Suddenly, without warning he took a rock and he placed it on the ground. And that was a signal that was understood, and all the other former prisoners did the same thing. This is how this cairn was built. When I visited it, much later, years later, I was surprised that it was still perfectly fine: it’s very near the road, buses with tourists come here everyday. Nothing has happened to it. I was shocked at the fragility but also survival capacity of this symbol. They had converted this prison, which held all these memories, into safe place.
But now we are in a 2018 and I thought, ‘How do I read this now? How does the world read this now? How do South Africans read this now?’ I started toying with the idea of these sculptural elements that would offer different possible readings, interpretations and speculations about the meaning of this.
The first one is a single line, that starts from the centre and then slowly grows into this very large shape. It’s a triangle based on the shape of the cairn. What’s important here is that it starts from one point and it’s the same line that grows and grows and grows. I thought I would start with his one, because it is the same thing that happened with the cairn, that Mandela, a man, an idea, a symbol of resistance, suddenly began this monument that still exists. It was born from a simple gesture and it has grown into something else much bigger than him. It has the potential to keep growing
The second one is a series of lines. They start at the base and they keep going up. They are all horizontal, they never touch. So it’s a history, it’s about the history of this movement. So many different stories, so many different lives, so many different complexities. This is a more horizontal and accumulative vision of this story. We keep adding.
In the third, I wanted to repeat the basic form of the cairn, but repeat it many times. It’s a model for all the things that have been happening in South African society. It’s a model that can be repeated. So the question is, have we repeated it? And have we understood the capacity of that model to teach us something. This is the simplest one, in that it is really about repetition of the model.
The last two are the more critical possibilities of reading about the monument. Here we have not horizontal lines, but vertical lines of different heights, so we have the have-nots and the have-mores, creating these parallel lines that will never touch each other. The last is perhaps the one that is most critical, in the sense that there are different worlds that are completely apart, that never touch each. One inside the other, but they don’t talk to each other. They mirror each other, but each one is its own reality. This one is perhaps the closest to what I see as the reality of South Africa.
Then again, these are just signs, that could be read in different ways, little clues. I could give you more, different readings, but that’s not what is important. What’s important is that I would like to offer a start of a conversation and let people make their own projections
Could you speak as to why you chose the media of neon, and on top of that quite stark geometry as your basis for this translation?
As you know, neon comes from the world of advertising, the world of publicity and by extension, the world of consumption. So I wanted to rescue these elements from the world of consumption, to mean something. We are drowned in consumption and I think it is important to get out of that world and start talking about ideas. I was thinking it would be interesting to create a world of ideas from objects of consumption, based on an object that is not about consumption, but is about life.
Robben Island itself though has been changed into place of consumption, a place of tourism, with millions of people ferried across there. You found some meaning there, but how did you deal with the dichotomy that the meaning itself is being consumed and sold as a packaged idea of history?
This is the reality we have to deal with. Most spaces of memory have become tourist spaces of consumption. This is what contemporary society is about. And for us, even those of us who believe in and work with most radical ideas, we also understand that there is no outside the system. There is simply no outside. So we have to become aware of that reality and deal with it and do whatever we can do within that system to be able to raise our voices and to be heard.
A lot of your work deals with this idea of memory, and part of it is public memory and commemoration. Why do you feel that this is the site where you want to take your stand, where you want your voice to be heard? Why is memory the thing that sticks with you?
It’s because I’m an architect. I never studied art, I studied architecture and for an architect context is everything. In my all my exhibitions, I deal with the context. I respond to the context. I am incapable of creating a work solely based on my imagination. And for me the context is memory. Memory is the air we breathe. I am condemned to work with memory. This is what I do as an architect. I don’t know how to do otherwise. It is very difficult for me to work with the future. I always work with the past and the present. Take for instance this artwork: It’s a stone. I picked it up from the island…
Not from the cairn?
No! Of course not! And I’ve kept it with me since then. I felt that I wanted to have an object from that space. And I thought, ‘What is this object? What does it mean, this little rock?’ For most people its meaningless, it’s just a rock. But for me that rock was witness. It was witness to 27 years of forced labour. It contains all the history of that island and all the history of South Africa. I thought, what if I displayed that rock as a symbol of our common history. Display it and also send it through a possible transformation. When the light goes on, it increases in brightness until we lose the object and we just have its shadow. How long do we as society, and I’m talking about South Africa, will we live under the shadow of our fate, of our history. When will we go beyond?
What struck me about this work, was the brightness mimicked the brightness in the lime quarry. There is a nice symmetry.
Of course, that is the starting point, but it is more philosophical than that
There is a thread in your work where you take a single object (another work from another show that comes to mind here is The Eyes of Gutete Emerita), the eyes, the rock, the cairn, and have that stand as a metonym, a part that stands for a bigger whole. So you have a small thing that is taking on the weight of these bigger and bigger things. Why do you use these metonyms? What is the motivation there?
As an artist, I never forget that, for me, art is communication and communication is not to throw a message. Communication requires an answer. If there is no answer there is no communication. For me, this what explains the gap, between contemporary art and the rest of society. There is a huge gap of misunderstanding. Most artists do not make an effort to communicate. So for me, communication is key. Every project of mine is structured as an object of communication, where I’m hoping for answers from my audience. The process you describe of using this single element, is because I believe in the power of a single idea and I need to simplify. So you have to reduce the tragedy of one million dead into one story, one person, one name, one story. When we speak about a million deaths its an abstract number that is meaningless, and I cannot communicate anything more than that. But when I reduce that tragedy into one person, then empathy is possible. Here it is the same. I’ve used these very simple symbols and try to extract meaning from them, hopefully to engage in a conversation from a very clear starting point. That is why I use these kinds of strategies.
Underlying that though is a sense of a faith that art itself can act as form of resistance or activism. That communication is key, is paramount. How do you maintain that sense of faith? You say that artists are failing to communicate, so how do you maintain that sense of the urgency and importance of that communication?
First, there is nothing else I know how to do. I have no choice. I have to keep the faith.
The other reason is I’m rather pessimistic as a person in general, but I follow Gramsci’s dictum, which I appropriated for myself. Gramsci said that he was intellectually pessimistic, but that he was an optimist with his will. This is how I find myself all the time. Intellectually I’m pessimistic for what is happening in the world, in society in general. But my will is optimistic, and I keep going. My will keeps me going.
Your work revolves around human rights, and it seems though that we are living through a moment where we are seeing further slippage and further abuse of those rights. How do you decide where to spend your energy? And how do you not sink into a pessimism of will as well?
Undoubtedly, we live in very dark times. When I realised my Rwanda project in the 90s, I thought this was the low of the low. And we keep going down and down and down. Now fascism is rising in so many countries around the world. Real fascism. And have no answer to this question. I think that we are living in an unprecedented reality and I feel that as artists and intellectuals we have to create new models to confront these realities. These models have not been created yet. This is where we are now. I believe, also like Gramsci, that culture can effect change. More than ever the spaces of culture are the last remaining spaces of freedom. I don’t think there is any other space in society today where we have the freedom that we have now. We are still – I don’t know how long it will last – but we are still free. Many of the things I do in my work, I could never do them in any other place, but only in the spaces of art and culture. These spaces are precious and we have to take care of them. We have to protect them. In these dark times, the last remaining spaces of light.
What is drawing you to work here in South Africa? You are putting on solo shows that are dealing with this specific context? What is significant for you about this location?
Many reasons. Because my work responds to the context and realities of the world, I have done a lot of works about Africa. I was approached by Liza [Essers], the owner of the gallery to join her. I was thrilled, because I thought it was important to me to bring my work here, to this continent. So she offered me a platform.
Also, I feel as an artist from Latin America there are many connections with African artists. We are dismissed in general by the Western art world, they see us as the poor cousin. I feel a lot of parallels between us. Slowly, we have been trying to impose ourselves in the world scene. It has been very difficult, it has been a long journey. We are still not there. I think its the same for African artists. I feel all these connections of processes and difficulties and resistances. But it was very important to me to actually to show my work here on the continent.