The pain in the spirit of the eye

We are living the hypermodernity. Or, alternatively, we are living the post-contemporary era. The fluidity of time and space takes us through an automatic vortex, one that the bodies try to follow in an uncritical way, all to no avail.

Gilles Lipovetsky coined the expression The Global Screen, using it to describe the omnipresent trait of televisual technology. The eye is persecuted by an unsolicited technology. A spam made of images, a spam made of texts, hypertexts. The eye used to have a moral, affective discernment. But, amidst this media-centric voracity concatenated by digital devices, hyperspace and cyberspace, the eye has lost that credibility.

The term aesthetics still exists and is often used. However, this does not convey more than a compositional schematization made of gestures, tonalities and sterile messages. A sense of beauty that is purged of moral content. It no longer is the aesthetic of the classic, platonic interpretation of the term – “being beautiful is being good”. The eye and the spirit of the eye are living the era of desensitisation. And if aesthetics used to be associated with an esthesia made of hyperbolic senses and feelings, aesthetics are now closer to an anaesthesia prompted by an apathetic torpor.

In Shadows, Alfredo Jaar hints the inversion of a certain and entrenched mentality, one that no longer gets stunned or moved, as it drifts away from everything that causes any commotion. The alterity of the real world, the presence of the Other and their suffering are unwanted. In other words, he aims to reinstate moral into aesthetics.

The artist relies on the work of the photographer Koen Wessing as a starting point, particularly from a quite unique photograph taken during an uprising against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Garcia, in Nicaragua. In the first stage of the exhibition, we are told a story based on actual facts about a murder of a peasant which took place a few kilometres away from his house. The bleakness of the architectural project injects a mournful atmosphere into the whole set. We see a series of photographs with a giant bullet hole, then an array of people who try to help, the carry home and his prostrate daughters going through that anaemic state of mind right before grief: the incomprehension, the weariness from crying, the body without any strength, tumbled down, folded, their distant glances. However a photograph has been subtracted from this set.

In a video installation, we see both daughters precisely when they glimpse their father’s corpse arriving home, with both running towards him. Jaar worked on this photo to magnify the pathos, the intensity of pain, the stench of drama. Gradually, we see the landscape fading away in white on black. The following moment is truly unexpected. Relying on a technology that replicates sunlight, we see these silhouettes irradiating an unbearable brightness, instilling on the spectator a sensorial synchronism between the pain captured by the lenses and the pain that our eyes feel.

And whenever we close our eyes, doing that automatic blink which biology subjects us to, the silhouette gets burned on the retina and follows us beyond the exhibition itself. We then understand what the author was aiming for: the sublimation of a painful moment which is, at the same time, a historical moment.

This is the second work of a trilogy that Alfredo Jaar has been developing. The first part was entitled The Sound of Silence (2006) and also started with an appropriation of the work of another photographer – Kevin Carter – who inscribed his name in the history books of photojournalism with a photo of a Sudanese child being doubly devoured by hunger (if you will pardon the paradox) and a vulture. Carter patiently waited for the child’s death and the scavenging bird’s feast, took the perfect photo and won the Pulitzer. He left the spot without helping the poor soul, uninterested, rejoicing in his noble journalistic feat. He aestheticized pain and turned the image into a worldwide icon that would push him into suicide, right when he realised that he had chopped his moral off.

This apathy when facing the images is where Jaar edifies his curatorial and artistic discourse, trying to humanise the images and the viewer. And technology, which has a wicked trait, also hints the possibility of redemption and purification.

Shadows can be seen at Carpintarias de São Lázaro up until September 3rd and is a co-production of CSL (Alda Galsterer and Fernando Belo) and REDE art agency, with exhibition design by Alfredo Jaar, Fernando Belo and Verónica de Mello.

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) has a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. Curator of Dialogues (2018-), an editorial project that draws a bridge between artists and museums or scientific and cultural institutions with no connection to contemporary art.

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