Goodman Gallery, Cape Town
15.12.2018 – 12.01.2019
Somebody asks: are your photographs any different to those of tourists? The voice speaks to an artwork hung on a nearby wall – The Sound of Silence, a grid of fifteen images that notate the artist’s passage to Robben Island, to Nelson Mandela’s cell, and out the prison, past the courtyard, to the limestone quarry beyond. The scenes are familiar, the photographs unremarkable. They ask: do your photographs not continue to trivialize the Island as attraction, as spectacle?
Alfredo Jaar’s ‘Men Who Cannot Cry’ is an elegant exhibition with few works, coolly conceptual and restrained; an antidote to the summer shows that mark the season. It takes as its central motif the cairn Nelson Mandela and his fellow ex-prisoners made by the roadside when they returned to the prison island five years after their release. To Jaar, the pile of stones is both a spontaneous and ‘extraordinary public monument of reconciliation’ and a metaphor for the precariousness of South Africa’s post-apartheid identity.
A large photograph of the cairn is shown alongside five trianglular neon lights, which echo the monument’s structure, each a unique linear composition. The work shares a title with the exhibition – Men Who Cannot Cry – named for the anecdote about Mandela’s eyes, which were so damaged from years of working in the glaring light of the limestone quarry on Robben Island that he lost the ability to cry. Of the three works exhibited, the most intriguing, the least didactic, is Under the Stones; a single stone in a glass vitrine. Every few minutes the lights illuminating the stone increases in intensity, becoming unbearably bright before fading back to a low glow. The vitrine lends the stone the austere atmosphere of relic, imbues it with significance, raises it from rock to humble monument. Someone tells me the stone was taken from the cairn itself; someone else tells me it wasn’t. The press release says only that it was taken from the Island.
I am largely distrustful of artists who take as their subject the pain of others, however worthy their intent, distrustful of that old brand of liberalism that might better be called essentialising moralism. Jaar is best known for The Rwanda Project 1994-2000, a series of works he produced after visiting that country during the 1994 genocide, and for which he received international acclaim. “I am irresistibly attracted to Africa,” Jaar said in a 2005 interview, The Aesthetics of Witnessing. “There is something about that continent that moves me deeply. I feel I must devote concentrated effort and energy in order to expose what is happening there and to trigger some kind of reaction and solidarity.” En passant, The Rwanda Project has never, as far as I can tell, been exhibited in Rwanda. His other projects, too, take human suffering as their subject, from the 1973 military coup in his native Chile, to American black sites, the homeless of Montreal, the victims of the 2011 Japanese earthquake. And now our own recent past.
I will not contest who is allowed to tell what stories, but I will contest that witnessing the suffering of others is not as morally defensible as Jaar’s practice proposes. A preliminary knowledge is not, I believe, enough to arouse empathy or action. It is sympathy, that famously ineffective emotion, that Jaar’s work most often inspires. “So far as we feel sympathy,” Susan Sontag wrote in her essay Regarding the Pain of Others, “we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.” Sympathy alone has saved no one; it is too passive, too self-consoling.
In contrast to his previous projects, however, Men Who Cannot Cry is curiously affectless. Perhaps because the story it tells is so familiar to its audience that it has lost the power to shock. Or because the artist reveals himself an unreliable narrator. There is something distinctly strange about a foreign visitor (the phrase obscure white messenger keeps coming to mind, to echo Penny Siopis’ 2010 video work of the same name) notating the history of that island at the exhibition’s walkabout, sounding back what we already know, telling us how it was, disregarding the finer points, simplifying the larger. Of the neon triangle drawn with a single line that moves outwards in a geometric spiral, Jaar said: “it represents Mandela, the power of his single idea; one man, one idea, one vision.” Like the single stone, which becomes a metonym for the cairn, Mandela has become a metonym for the artist’s understanding of the Struggle. Even now, when the story of that once-infallible figure is cast in shadow, his hero’s journey contested by narratives of deceit, of selling-out, of promises broken.
‘Men Who Cannot Cry’ is caught between poetry and fact, closer to myth than truth; the depth of its subject undermined by a sentimental lyricism. Still, it is a striking exhibition, spare and visually eloquent. Its imagery is arresting not for its content but for its more formal qualities; the gallery’s poured cement floor reflecting the neon triangles, brilliant white beneath the dark ceiling, and in the corner the light of the vitrine fading in and out like a slow breath.
In the artist’s response to the question asked at the walkabout – are your photographs any different to those of tourists? – Jaar replies obliquely, even reluctantly, that they perhaps aren’t. It was very difficult to resist photographing the site, he says, that landscape of consumption. Like all the countless tourists who visit the Island each year, who too cannot resist; his images among millions of others – Mandela’s tin bowl and plate balanced on a broken armchair, the barbed-wire fencing, the fluorescent passageways.