Jaar emphasizes power of artwork
By Jane Cavalier, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, April 21, 2011
The image of hundreds of brightly-lit silhouettes of dead and living Chileans remains with viewers long after they emerge from artist Alfredo Jaar’s underground installation in Santiago, Chile. Jaar’s exhibit, as well as other artistic interpretations, engage people in an interactive narrative of historical crises, he said during a lecture at Loew Auditorium Wednesday evening. Jaar, who is from Santiago, reflected on his various public works — which he referred to as “interventions” in response to the problems of specific international communities — throughout his presentation.
The title of the lecture, “It Is Difficult,” was inspired by a poem by William Carlos Williams’ titled, “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower,” in which Williams describes the role of art in exposing injustice and inequity and inspiring public action, Jaar said. Jaar began his lecture by describing his 2010 installation for the Museum of History and Human Rights in Santiago titled “The Geometry of Conscience.” While the museum includes a collection of artifacts from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet — who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990 — Jaar’s “intervention” is an interactive retelling of Chile’s past and future, Jaar said.
After descending 33 steps below ground, viewers of Jaar’s exhibit pass through a series of three cubic spaces, the last of which is a completely dark room. As viewers’ eyes adjust to the darkness, lit silhouettes emerge on the wall, increasing from 10 percent to 100 percent intensity over the course of 90 seconds, Jaar said. The silhouettes are laser-cut images of both victims and survivors of the violent dictatorship while the side walls are mirrors extending the hundreds of silhouettes into infinite space, Jaar explained.
While mausoleums and other monuments seek to “get rid of the dead,” Jaar’s work seeks to establish “a collective narrative” and illuminate visitors with “the light of the living and dead,” he said.
Jaar’s artistic process begins with a period of research, during which he enters a place and seeks to capture its “essence.” Throughout this early stage, he carries a camera with him at all times, and attempts to interpret the “essence” of a place in terms of a relevant social issue, such as Finland’s severe immigration policy or the homeless in Montreal, he said.
Because Jaar considers himself an “architect creating art,” his next step is to construct a work that draws on film, photography and infrastructure in a compelling use of space, he said.
Jaar referred to “The Cloud” — the artistic rendition he created in 2000 as a response to the United States-Mexican border crisis — as an example of his collaborative approach. Since approximately 3,000 people died between 1990 and 2000 while attempting to cross the border, Jaar released 3,000 helium-filled balloons over the border to represent each of the dead individuals.
“The Cloud” also included a live performance of a Mexican quartet during which the musicians were separated from each other by the border fence. As a violin played from one side and a cello from the other, the instruments were able to respond to each other freely through the wires in a way that American-Mexican dialogue has not, he explained.
Through this creation, Jaar sought to give relatives the opportunity to celebrate the lives of the deceased, he said.
Jaar’s artwork frequently encourages viewers to engage in conversation about social issues, he said. In his lecture, Jaar encouraged viewers to consider the compelling human qualities of art and to use the artwork to enter in dialogues on social justice.
Jaar’s art is a compelling testament to the “damage of witnessing, rather than acting,” Katherine Hart, Hood Museum of Art associate director and curator of academic programming, said in her introduction to Jaar’s lecture.
Jaar’s work has been featured at Dartmouth before, as the Hood Museum added “The Eyes of Gutete Emerita” — a piece from Jaar’s 10-year Rwanda project — to its permanent collection in 2006.
The lecture, which was cosponsored by the Dartmouth Center Forum, the Hood Museum and the art history department, was part of DCF’s “Speak Out! Listen Up!” series.