Art, journalism and conflict – Louise Williams on Congo pictures

Interview with Louise Williams on Congo, conflict and the pictures of Richard Mosse

More on the pitfalls of art, journalism and conflict – A while ago I posted on Richard Mosse’s impressive work on Congo for the Irish pavilion at the Venice Biennial, called The Enclave. The work is troubling in part because it situates itself so clearly in a war zone and uses that, to the extent that the texts at the show mentioned a new way of looking at photojournalism. My Irish friend and colleague Louise Williams frequently visits Congo for her work as a journalist and a trainer. And she is fed up with the one-dimensional perpetuation of this violent image of Congo and with people using it towards their own ends. Listen to the interview (10 minutes). The artwork is supposed to be animated, fluctuating between pink and green. I posted it separately. 

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Louise Williams on Richard Mosse and Congo by Ferry Biedermann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The Act of Killing

From Congo to Indonesia, doubts about the depiction of conflict

Coincidence? I think not. The main character in The Act of Killing, the documentary movie that is being promoted in the above trailer, is called Anwar Congo, a notorious Indonesian warlord who massacred communists in the 1960’s. I saw this problematic film hot on the heels of viewing the art documentary/installation on militias in Congo at the Irish pavilion at the Venice Biennale. My question then as now was: Is it exploitative, does it glamourise conflict? For me, the jury is still out on The Enclave, Richard Mosse’s Congo project, although a Congo-going friend and colleague outspokenly thinks so. But I have no such doubts about Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. I find it tilting the wrong way, not just because of the deeds of Anwar Congo but because of the filmmaker’s choices. As a journalist, I sympathise with the difficulty involved in bringing horrendous stories to the attention of a larger public. But in this case, I feel that a line has been crossed and that, very much in the spirit of this age, storytelling veers into self-aggrandisement (And yes, I realise the irony of making such an accusation on a blog, the ultimate engine of self-promotion). The numerous times that the killer, Congo, directly addresses the filmmaker by name, Joshua this, Josh that, is in itself revealing. I assume that it could have been easily edited out. After all, Joshua has seven years worth of material. The most problematic part of the movie is the ending when a money shot sequence of Congo retching in regret offers the kind of redemptive finish that would make even a Hollywood exec blush. Joshua tries to play it cool and inoculate himself against charges of pandering by pointing out to Congo that his victims felt a lot worse than he does re-enacting their suffering – this is after all just a film while they knew they were going to die. The regretful retching comes after that, though, and goes on for quite a while. Together with the ambivalence of the rest of the movie, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It feels cheap and empty. If Congo really feels bad, what are the consequences? Does he kill himself? Does he ask his victims for forgiveness? Does he give himself up to be tried for war crimes? And if not, why do we not see him leading his life as if nothing happened? I wonder if this as either a lazy choice by the director or an easy melodramatic device. As it stands, it gives the impression of at least partial redemption for a mass murderer and as such confirms my unease about the rest of the movie. But yes, like The Enclave, it’s beautifully shot.

Frieze video on Richard Mosse’s The Enclave

To get a better idea of what I meant in my previous post, on war art at the Irish pavilion in Venice, here’s a video by Frieze, the art magazine.

Ireland in Congo, in pink! (Or the trouble with war art)

imageAt the Irish pavilion in Venice, named the enclave, the above picture is even a lot more, well, pink. Together with a series of cleverly shot videos, the stills form a psychedelically coloured documentation of fighters roaming the wilds of Congo. Northern Kivu, Goma and environs, etc. It is an intense work by Richard Mosse, shot on discontinued army stock that was meant to aid the detection of camouflage uniforms. Judge for yourself:

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I actually, really, truly, wonder if you can spot the fighters any faster than if it were shot on regular Fuji-film or Kodak or whatever. But that may be due to Mosse’s idiosyncratic colouring. That part was not clear. Let me be clear about one thing: In my opinion this works as art. It’s a beautiful installation and that’s where the problem may reside: Does it use, utilise, instrumentalise, glamourise etc. war in any way? I’d say yes but I do wonder if it matters. Mosse raises my journalistic hackles immediately by having someone declare in the curatorial text (the genre should be banned) that his work proposes a new way of looking at photojournalism. Spare me! Journalism and photojournalism have been reinvented so many times now that it’s sucked drier than… And what does it mean anyway? But setting aside my immediate antipathy, I do recognise that the images are powerful and that is important in itself:
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I have a couple of friends who hold strong opinions on the issues of war photography, art and Congo. I’ll try to get their reaction. Stay tuned…

Mid-East art in Venice dwells on conflicts present and past

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Palestinian cardboard boxes taking over the garden of the Venice art school at the 55th Venice Biennale as part of Bashir Makhoul and Aissa Deebi’s Otherwise Occupied. Palestine is participating with a collateral event and not as a country. Deebi, whose film is showing inside the building said:

“The contemporary moment is a disaster but it’s exciting for creative practice”

Deebi’s work takes a deeper intellectual look at the conflict while Makhoul’s installations works on a more emotional level and is fun too: visitors can add to the jumble occupying the garden with a box of their own design. The work also reflects the idea that even the occupation is temporary, said Makhoul.

Iraq is very much preoccupied with its own recent past and with the effect that it is still having on the present. In May alone more than 1000 people were killed in renewed violence.

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In Saddam is Here, Jamal Penjweny does the once unthinkable and places the image of the now executed dictator in a series of places where he would have been highly unlikely to appear. A reference possibly to the American hunt for Saddam. Or to the idea that Saddam is still very much present in Iraq, at least his violent spirit?

The rest of the pavilion is very much focused on daily life in Iraq and its hardships, a lot of materials re-purposed and ersatz rugs. Plus some very funny but very dark cartoons by Abdul Raheem Yassir.

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To stay in the same neighbourhood, Iran’s cheap mullah’s are not funding a national pavilion but an Iranian curated the show Love me, Love me not, in which several Iranians participated. It’s not hard to see what’s on their mind:

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But in case it is actually hard to see, this is oil streaming down a gold pyramid named ‘Mother of Nation’ by Iranian artist Mahmoud Bakhshi. I swear I saw a nuclear power sign glimmer through from the inside.

And then, purely for fun if you ask me, Farhad Moshiri’s magazine covers printed on mini rugs:

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(Update: I overlooked the rugs with holes in, um, strategic places apparently referencing censorship. My bad.)

Getting back to the focus on the past, Lebanon’s Akram Zaatari deserves a prize for the greatest WTF? factor. Many a Lebanese did a double take upon walking into their country’s pavilion and hearing Hebrew. Relax, it was part of a documentary near the end of the very handsomely produced Letter to a Refusing Pilot. Here’s a screenshot of an explosion in the water, presumably off Sidon:

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The idea harks back to Israel’s 1982 assault on Lebanon during which an Israeli pilot refused to target a school in Zaatari’s home town and dropped his bombs in the sea (another pilot did not have such qualms a bit later on). The pilot is oddly absent from most of the piece but Zaatari is not, he keeps reliving his and his country’s violent past.

Not much conflict or much of anything else really at the Egypt, UAE, and Kuwait pavilions. Syria’s was way too far to bother with (maybe isolated on purpose? containment?)(One more update: A, uhm, progressive British major newspaper source defined the Syrian pavilion as, and I paraphrase, Aaaaaaarggghhhh). And conflict was only conspicuous by its absence at the Bahrain effort. Instead we got a woman in Abaya with fish!

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Finally, Saudi Arabian art was present as a collateral event organised by its Edge of Arabia promoters. There was conflict there, gangs, in its Takki Cinema of Arabia project. I could say something but will gracefully refrain.