The Enclave. Richard Mosse at the Ireland Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale.

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The Ireland Pavilion wasn’t easy to find, although the first sign that pointed into the calle was promising the presence of more signage. After going up and down various ways, I was able to finally find the location and upon entering the first room, felt like a bath of light. White walls, huge windows on one side that let the light in, while on the opposite wall were very large photographs. I wasn’t though prepared for what lied beyond the first room…

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Titled The Enclave, the multimedia installation in the main exhibition space is directed by Irish artist Richard Mosse (b. 1908, Kilkenny) with the collaboration of cinematographer Trevor Tweeten (b. 1983, Delaware, USA) and composer Ben Frost (b. 1980, Melbourne).

The Commissioner and Curator is Anna O’Sullivan, Director of the Butler Gallery, Kilkenny, Ireland. Ireland at Venice is an initiative of Culture Ireland and the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon. The Pavilion has received co-sponsorship from Eastern Congo Initiative and European Cities of Advanced Sound.

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I was drawn to Richard Mosse’s work some time ago, having seen his digital prints in designboom, some beautiful landscapes that he showed at The Armory Show, New York, in March this year. What I wasn’t prepared for was a full blown, multichannel video and sound installation, with five huge screens in a large dark room. The effect was extraordinary.

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Upon entering the space, I was almost drawn to leave, as I was drowned in a very loud, continuous buzzing noise in complete darkness. All screens were black, only the sound was audible and it was quite disconcerting and aggressive. Then slowly, one by one the screens came on, images containing a lot of red and fuchsia, with touches of yellows and other colours, all drowned in the dominant red hues of the infrared film. The sounds started to mix up, music, voices, chanting, singing, and then bombs and guns, screams and loud voices shouting at each other. All in Congolese of course. It sounded dramatic and tragic at times, while at others there was a silent calm, a natural tranquillity, sounds of water, wind and trees in the breeze.

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Richard Mosse has been working with infrared film for a long time. In 2012 the artist and his two collaborators travelled to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and infiltrated armed rebel groups in a war zone that saw frequent ambushes, massacres and systematic episodes of sexual violence.

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According to the International Rescue Committee, at least 5.4 million people have died of war-related causes in eastern Congo since 1998, as a consequence of, as the press release puts it, “a long-standing power vacuum in eastern Congo that resulted in a horrifying cycle of violence, a Hobbesian ‘state of war’, so brutal and complex that it resists communication, and goes unseen in the global consciousness.” In the midst of a forgotten African tragedy, the artist attempts to rethink war photography and find adequate strategies to document conflicts and the consequential suffering.

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Originally designed for camouflage detection, the usage of infrared film by the military was discontinued. Mosse employes the film both to photograph and capture on moving image the landscapes, the rebel armies, the refugees and victims of war, by registering an invisible spectrum of infrared light, giving the whole landscape a surreal aspect. Almost as if documenting a futuristic war on the red planet Mars, the film brings to the fore the crude reality of the conflict in Congo. The psychedelic palette results disorienting, strong and blinding, while at the same time beautiful and oniric. Ben Frost’s audio composition, completely gathered on the field in Eastern DRC, provides the background for the unflinching moving images.

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Mosse explores aesthetics in a situation of profound human suffering. How is it possible to see beauty in such surroundings, plagued by blood and violence? Nonetheless, the result is quite poetic. The sound hightens the tension and the drama, as gunshots and bombings, shouts and screams are fully audible at a deafening volume.

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As the press release  states,

The Enclave immerses the viewer in a challenging and sinister world, posing aesthetic questions in a situation of profound human suffering. At the heart of the project, as Mosse states, is an attempt to bring “two counter-worlds into collision: art’s potential to represent narratives so painful that they exist beyond language, and photography’s capacity to document specific tragedies and communicate them to the world.”

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Curator Anna O’Sullivan explains the artist’s work thus:

Working on a tangential path from humanitarian and UN infrastructures, Richard Mosse creates a discomfiting and sinister world, making this ineffable nightmare visible. This reality does not allow for indifference; instead it provides a compelling new way of seeing, an attempt to reconcile ethical agency with aesthetics. It demonstrates the power of contemporary art to manifest an intangible and forgotten conflict in a deliberately nondidactic and nonpartisan way. Like Joseph Conrad’s uncompromising novella Heart of Darkness, The Enclave delivers a pure and unapologetic approach to understanding the Congo through the eyes of an artist, transcending facts and statistics to penetrate our sensibilities on every level. (from the curatorial statement)

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The Enclave is certainly not for the fainthearted, nor for those who are easily impressed by violence and strong realism. It is a non-narrative documentary film done during a war, after all, intense, to say the least, magnetic, sad, dense. Then there are some long visuals of landscapes, quiet, tranquil rolling hills drowned in red, pink and topped by a clear blue sky, visions from a lake, its waters lapping up and down in the moonlight, with corresponding sounds of calm natural surroundings. This is only a short break though, with a short moment of total darkness, followed by more war, more violence, more screaming coming up again from different screens, more images of soldiers with machine guns, shouting, children and people who lost their families, fragile in the crowd.

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More about the artist

Richard Mosse (b. 1980, Kilkenny, Ireland) holds an MFA in Photography from Yale University and a postgraduate diploma in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College, London. He also holds a BA in English Literature from King’s College London and an MA in Cultural Studies from the London Consortium (ICA, AA, Tate, Birkbeck).

His practice resides at the intersection between documentary photography and contemporary art. Drawing from the Romantics, Surrealism, psychedelia, punk, and modern military reconnaissance technologies, he seeks to challenge and transgress traditional conventions of war photography through unmitigated aesthetic strategies in situations of tragedy and conflict.

His work has been widely exhibited at international institutions, including the Akademie der Künste, Berlin; Barbican Art Gallery, London; Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City; Kunsthaus MunichMuseum of Contemporary Art Chicago; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Mosse is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

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All Photographs (unless otherwise stated): ‘The Enclave’, installation views, Ireland Pavilion, Fondaco Marcello, San Marco 3415 (Calle dei Garzoni), 55th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Photos: C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia.

Featured image (top of page): Of Lillies and Remain, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012, digital C-print, 183 x 229 cm, edition of 2. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Skull of a victim of the massacre carried out by the FDLR in Busurungi in 2009. The skull was secretly taken to Chambucha at the request of surviving relatives, so that it could be documented without reprisal on the villagers of Busurungi by FDLR. The skull was placed by the photographer in wet grass near a riverbank and dressed with cut flowers, a memento mori.

 

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