Richard Mosse at the Portland Art Museum

A slightly abbreviated version of this article appeared in Fraction 73.

In the Issue 72 of Fraction, Portland artist David Ondrick critiqued The Enclave, Irish artist Richard Mosse’s current exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. In his review, Ondrick charges that The Enclave was primarily made for Mosse’s profit and suspects that “it only offers a new way to ‘otherize’ Africa to Westerners.” I believe the exhibit is an important piece that is much more complex than Ondrick suggests.

In his review, Ondrick primarily approaches The Enclave as a documentary work. Though Mosse’s work uses this language, this tactic sets the wrong context for the exhibit. Photojournalism and documentary demand a moral high ground in which the photographer strives for objectivity, presenting an unbiased and unaltered version of a story. Photojournalists must adhere to a strict code of veracity that forbids retouching and requires truthful captions. Documentary photographers have more leeway in how much subjectivity they can incorporate into their work. (Even when applied in good faith, these ideas themselves are fraught.) While The Enclave uses photojournalistic forms and idioms as a launch point, it decisively moves beyond a documentary framework to deal powerfully with the ongoing hidden nature of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the disorienting effects of war for those caught in its midst, and even ideas of photographic truth.

Some more context: The Enclave occupies the third floor of the PAM’s Jubitz Center, with a hallway and gallery of large photographs and a six-channel video installation in a separate, dark room. As you may have read elsewhere, Mosse made his photographs and films using Kodak Aerochrome, a discontinued infrared color film that turns natural greens into bright magenta (ok, pink). Mosse made the photographs first, releasing them to some fanfare a few years ago, and then returned with a crew to made his film for the recent Venice Biennale, representing Ireland.

The Weeping Song, as seen in The Enclave at the Portland Art Museum

The Weeping Song, as seen in The Enclave at the Portland Art Museum

Visitors typically take in the matter-of-fact wall text, browse through the large photographs and conclude that the work is photojournalism with a twist: white photographer visits war-torn region and documents the devastation, all while using a special kind of film that gives the pictures a unique look. Looking just at the photographs, this is understandable and it has been borne out several conversations I’ve had about the work. One friend expressed disappointment that there wasn’t more information about the conflict. Others purely discussed the emotional power that the visuals held for them.

I don’t discount these friends’ readings; they are at the core of what Mosse has created. If The Enclave weren’t able to successfully transcend these clear readings—which would emerge from just about any well-done work of photojournalism—I would tend to agree with Ondrik. As it is, I understand his point about “otherization” and can’t help share some of his unease. That is to say, a lesser project would likely raise those worthy issues, but not go much further, and any sales of such a work would be tantamount to selling voyeuristic pictures of war horrors. But that’s not what this piece is, not by a long shot.

It is the film installation that changes the entire exhibition and is the key to understanding the photographs themselves. After taking in the photo gallery, visitors walk into a black room where they take in a seamless forty-minute loop projected on six double-sided screens suspended throughout the large room, with two screens mounted on the wall and four clustered in the middle. The screens are arranged such that one cannot observe all of them simultaneously. A minimalist soundtrack combines recorded audio with composed sounds, all played loudly into the space. It all adds up to an edgy and disorienting experience, even once one understands how the installation works. This disorientation evokes our understanding of foreign conflicts, which is inherently structured (and limited) by our perspective, and the limited information that we are able to glean from the images. To those who know the place, perhaps these images are recognizable, but throughout the film Mosse goes to great lengths to obscure rather than reveal.

View of the six-channel installation at the Portland Art Museum

View of the six-channel installation at the Portland Art Museum

Mosse uses all that pink, not just as some nifty art sauce, but as a refutation of the work as a depiction of reality. The false color distorts the reality and, rather than minimize this distortion, Mosse highlights it. Even in scenic landscape shots the distortion is pervasive. The landscape is still beautiful, but the coloration touches nearly everything, just as the conflict is inescapable. Aerochrome film wasn’t designed to show the world as it really is, but as an abstracted version to reveal hidden information. Beneath the incredible beauty in the photographs and the film lies a country that has been completely consumed by conflict.

Were this film about creating a “true” story of this place and conflict, it would likely deal much more with the specifics at hand. The film includes no interviews, no truly personal interactions with those who might shed light on the conflict, and no battle scenes. Instead, Mosse shows a group of loosely connected moments, some focused on individuals, others on groups. We have no true, reliable narrative.

I keep coming back to a striking scene with a man striding into the water until he is completely covered. As the long take continues, I continue to watch, transfixed, to see if he will reappear. He never does. I can only assume that in reality the man swam out of the shot after becoming submerged, but I have no real way of knowing. Mosse regularly explores this edge between fact and fiction, real life and play acting. Soldiers strut and pose for the camera, they stage a mock battle for the camera, complete with “dead” soldiers lying around. Just when everything seems to exist in a fake pink dream world, we pass another soldier, this time truly dead, bleeding out, lying in the road.

That scene with the submerged man comes towards the end of the loop. Not long after it, we see gorgeous shots of water from the beginning of the loop. The first time it appears, the water represents a natural beauty that stands in stark contrast to the horrid violence being perpetuated between humans. The second time around, though, it’s clear that water, too, conceals. No longer is it merely a pristine landscape, now it’s a quiet killer, hiding the horrors beneath its surface. By placing those scenes so near each other in the loop, Mosse calls the rest of the film into question: what was real? what else appeared one way only to be radically changed by subsequent information?

Returning to Mosse’s photographs after viewing the film, they begin to resemble the water, in that the first reading might just be a cover for the hidden meaning underneath the surface. This is not necessarily in the way you might think. On one hand, the pink coloration provides a pretty contrast to an ugly subject, making the work unique and saleable in a way that most other photojournalism might not be. On the other hand, the photographs’ traditional photojournalistic structure masks deeper questions about how such evil could exist in such a beautiful place, the visible and invisible impact that war has on a place, or our inability to fully comprehend trauma.

Ultimately, it’s odd to me that Ondrik’s primary takeaway from Mosse’s tour de force—a project that has probably done as much as any recent project to raise awareness about the ongoing bloodshed in the DRC, and that is highly visually, conceptually, and experientially ambitious—is that it’s about Mosse’s economic benefit and his exploitation of Africa’s otherness. Though we are told that the specific subject of Mosse’s work is conflict in DRC, I doubt that this specific conflict is truly the subject of the artwork. Rather, the work deals with bigger ideas: disorientation, the uneasy transformation of reality into a photographic image, and perhaps most fundamentally, of war itself.