By John Haber
After fifteen years, millions of internally displaced people, and well over five million dead, the earth itself should have turned to blood, or so it may seem in The Enclave, an aching, unnervingly beautiful video work by Richard Mosse whose subject is war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A series of still photographs transports the viewer to another realm on the way into Mosse’s current exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. A waterfall plunges through a supernatural landscape, between deep-blue mountains and the acid red of some unknown vegetation covering almost everything but the sky.
Mosse has said that he was moved by a natural setting seemingly untouched by violence. As he commented about a previous project, he is also out “to question the ways in which war photography is constructed.”
Merely to look past the beauty, to people and their acts, is to see beneath the surface of these works. Mosse and his cinematographer, Trevor Tweeten, apply a technology itself used to see beneath the surface — an outdated infrared film developed by the military to pierce through camouflage and distractions of a landscape seen from the air. Converted to high-definition video, it gives plants a lavender-red and the soil of roadbeds a turquoise blue, while leaving human flesh and deadly weapons alarmingly familiar. Clothing takes on heightened colors, like everyday habits refusing to die.
Mosse never identifies the people in his work, suggesting an objectivity apart from politics while leaving his viewers that much more at sea. One feels in need of a safe enclave just walking into the darkened room and into the middle of the action. The video’s forty minutes unfold on six screens to a pulsing soundtrack by Ben Frost based on African recordings. Mosse relies on long tracking shots, using Steadicam, to follow soldiers on patrol through the dense brush of the eastern Congo, as if walking with them. The viewer may be penetrating the action, but the action also penetrates the viewer.
At least since Stanley Kubrick, horror films have used tracking shots and narrow passages to build tension — except that here nothing lies at the end of the tunnel. The video starts with the landscape, but with roiling waters as if oceans had touched this land-locked nation. It turns to a community theater somewhere between a Sunday sermon and a dangerous circus, with men leaping through fire. This is Africa without the certainty of ritual. Then come the patrols, automatic weapons and grenade launchers at the ready, and a refugee camp stretching as far as the eye can see. The children at play, a live birth, and a funeral all insist that life wants ever so much to go on.
It does not go on untouched. A soldier props up a body like a ghoulish puppet, no doubt as a warning, as others crowd around a dead body to take pictures with cell phones. And then the rebels move in, and things do not get better.
Born in Ireland and based in the United States, Mosse shares the point of view of an outsider — or the viewer. The piece is an attempt, as Mosse explains on CNN.com, 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.”
Mosse said in an interview with The British Journal of Photography about his first use of infrared technology in his 2011 exhibition Infra, “I wanted to export this technology to a harder situation, to up-end the generic conventions of calcified mass-media narratives and challenge the way we’re allowed to represent this forgotten conflict…. I wanted to confront this military reconnaissance technology, to use it reflexively.”
The Second Congo War began in 1998 and led to a partial peace treaty in 2002, with a transitional government taking power in July 2003. The footage in The Enclave dates to 2012 and 2013, when Mosse made the video’s debut as the Irish representative to the Venice Biennale. Armed conflicts and atrocities have continued unabated, in part fueled by mineral resources sold to global markets, over which several factions fight to control. The conflict has given rise to one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. [Ed.]
Richard Mosse’s The Enclave was on view at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York from February 22 through March 22, 2014. See more of the show and an interview with the artist in this video walk-through: