Installation view of Richard Mosse's "The Enclave", at the Portland Art Museum
In the end, all you have is what is in front of you: where an image begins and ends, where a photographer is telling you to look, what to pay attention to. You have the body of the thing, the form. You have color and time. You have the way in which this is all done and what these choices mean. These are the ways in which you begin to decipher a visual language.
Yet, in Richard Mosse's "The Enclave," now extended at the Portland Art Museum through April, we enter into a paradox. What is in front of us is both truth and fiction, beauty and horror. We walk into a room of arresting unnameables, a corridor of exquisite contradiction.
To enter into "The Enclave" is to step into a reified memory: out of time yet exceptionally visceral. The double-sided screens of cinematographer Trevor Tweeten's footage let you look but do not let you escape, and the addition of Ben Frost's minimalist audio compositions create another sensuous dimension of influence. The reception of this work cannot be anything but physical; we are swept up and consumed, against our will, a mimicry of experience to that of Mosse's subjects. Ultimately, it is the formula of the trope of horror: the juxtaposition of the sublime with the absoluteness of impending doom, and for which nothing can be done. The result is a pathos bathed in adrenalin. There is the woman, the child, the perfect beauty. We are about to lose it, like sand falling through our fingers, in the infinite and timeless way of warfare-for-what and Jason. No, no, no, no you say. Don't open that door. Don't walk into the forest alone. Don't close your eyes. Don't let your guard down. Not even for a second. Please. . .Be careful; there is so much danger here. The future of Mosse's subjects seems to hang in the atmosphere of the work like a sniper, buzzing in the soundtrack like a live wire.
Installation Shot, "The Enclave", Richard Mosse, Portland Art Museum
Still from "The Enclave", Richard Mosse, Portland Art Museum
And the seduction of this pathos is due, ultimately, to beauty. Mosse's use of the military film stock, Kodak Aerochrome, may make a conceptual nod to the subversion of its historical use, yet its true function lies in the evocative power of its color. The colors of this work are the nuts and bolts of what creates its surreality and perhaps part of its fiction. The aching beauty of these magenta forests and the hallucinatory nature of this hot, chromatic feast are as essential as its fraught location. It is their marriage that create the bizarre and uneasy sublime within these landscapes. Caspar David Friedrich meets Apocalypse Now with the palette of Dr. Seuss. The temperature is too hot to be easy, and at the same time, too seductive to look away. It is Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa" and Hype Williams' "Belly." This beauty is essential; it is the entryway into this hell and without it, the work could not intoxicate with such force. Beauty here represents our humanity, and within it we see all of the potential of man. It lies waiting within this fertile soil, and yet. . .he cuts off his nose to spite his own face. The God-like in him dissipates, and only animal remains. It is the allegory of Eden and the tragedy of Shakespeare all at once.
Der Einsame Baum(The Solitary Tree), Caspar David Friedrich, oil on canvas, 1822
Actress Taral Hicks as "Kisha" in a still from Hype Williams' 1998 film, "Belly"
Yet this is not a film, nor theater, nor ancient fable. That is a REAL body and a REAL baby and someone's REAL life. We know this going in. We read the morbid lullaby. We have some notion of the endless warring in this part of the world and the complexity of its entanglement. This is footage of real people living in what has become a culture of war. Amidst Mosse's footage, we see young people practicing possibly real scenarios of war, ambush, death. We see the holy men splash believers in a blessed water that will render them bulletproof. This has become not only real life but normal life in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
And here we have Mosse.
5.4 million lives lost in the Congo and to see it, to really see it, we need a man to be as crazy as this man, to turn the trees magenta and give us a bit of theater. We need an artist not bound to anything but himself to go in and charm villains wanted for international war crimes. He needs the freedom of a lawlessness that defies every agency in charge of feeding us our news and information. He needs a body of work he cannot think himself out of. He then needs to receive enough attention for this work so that it travels.
We go to the museum. We open ourselves to these images. We are shaken. We become less ignorant. And while Mosse's premise is not fiction, "The Enclave" is theater. The conundrum within this work is not in the radical nature of its themes nor its methods, but that the lines are blurred between journalism and expression. What exactly does Mosse want to express? And for whom? Why is this psychedelic document featured in this place, the museum? How does it function here? These questions hang in the atmosphere when exiting the show and follow you through the rest of the museum. The various exhibitions and works here span a breadth of time unfathomable to one life, and that time coupled with distance is a spectrum of consciousness that is simply not housed in any other building or institution. The museum becomes a touchstone of human experience. Suddenly, "The Enclave" jumps onto the timeline of art history and settles in.
We use art to tell truths that politics and society do not allow to be voiced. Art still creates a platform for those that have been silenced, even if that sound is not issued from the mouths of the silenced. "The Enclave" is Mosse's elegy in the name of humanity, his fuschiaed flag raised to the rest of the world in order to make poetry from an atrocity that is still virulently raging. The freedom found in art is not only protected but lauded, and this freedom often allows a story to be told in a way that is more powerful than the most accurate and detailed documentation. "The Enclave" is as much nightmare as it is paradise, as much reality as it is facade. We enter as audience and leave as witness.
Still from "The Enclave", Richard Mosse, Portland Art Museum