Matthew Schum Alfredo Jaar

This interview with Chilean-born, New York-based artist Alfredo Jaar was conducted over several weeks in 2011-2012. For Jaar, making the artwork that guides our conversation began simply as a way to share his unease with current events at that time. In the artist’s words, it was also a “search for light in the darkness.” 

Matthew Schum: Art history seems like one point of entry into the terrain of contemporary visual culture that this work explores. The title of the work and the arrangement of your installation called to mind Francisco Goya and his iconic The Third of May 1808 (1814). If it was intended, please elaborate on this correspondence and how you reached it. 

Alfredo Jaar: The correspondence exists but it was not intended. I became aware that it could be made only when I realized the coincidence with the dates: May first with my work and May third with Goya’s. But the date question is a purely technical one and should not be considered a basis for any kind of comparison. 

MS: Goya’s antiwar images endure in part because they interrogate the remote thinking that define the terms of war and, in fact, make it unthinkable. That is to say, Goya was able to localize the extravagance of brutality. This part is physical. More abstractly, he was able to pinpoint the nightmarish essence of armed conflict that haunts the business of killing in any era. Do you care to reflect on how making such images has changed since the time of Napoleon when Goya responded to the cost of imperialism? 

AJ: Painting has its own language and Goya is one of its masters. I am a great admirer of his Disasters of War. As you know, The Third of May 1808 was painted a few years before Disasters of War. Curiously, one of the prints from that series, titled No se puede mirar has a quite similar composition to The Third of May 1808. It is one of my favorites. It could be considered, in my view, the strongest anti-war print ever created. I have always thought of Goya as being probably the first photojournalist without a camera, and his work has been an inspiration for decades. His last series titled the “Black Paintings” are another landmark I always return to.

This is obviously not the place to review the entire history of art so allow me to jump from Goya to Gerhard Richter’s extraordinary “October 18, 1977.” As they are paintings based on photographs, they offer the perfect bridge to my piece that is purely photographic. In my view, the out-of-focus effect of Richter’s paintings introduces doubt about what exactly happened on that date. He clearly questions the official version of the facts as reported by the German government. In May 1, 2011, I also wanted to introduce doubt through the use of a blank screen and a blank print. We are being asked to believe without seeing but I find it difficult, as this government has not gained my trust. I just wanted to share my unease with the audience.

MS: This is perhaps a stupid but nonetheless necessary question: why is it important that visual artists, in particular, engage with such questions in our time?

AJ: There are no stupid questions. And all questions are necessary. I think it is important we engage with these questions as the spaces of art, the space of culture is perhaps the last remaining space of freedom. It is there that we must question everything, and particularly question the representations we are being offered by governments and corporations as they are clearly constructions, displays, mise-en-scenes deliberately created to give us an image of the world according to their political or financial interests. As artists we create models of thinking the world. And our models must contest the existing dominant models. May 1, 2011 hopes to create a little crack, a fissure in the sanitized image we have been offered.

MS: We have, I think, witnessed a great deal of disingenuous questions since this whole war on terrorism business started—questions no less harmful than the answers. This brings me to your work. It poses a question about public debate in the US, which routinely shuts out the world community as a respondent to proposed military action or ongoing bloodshed. Can you say more about this absence? It may explain why this work was made in the first place.

AJ: I agree with you. To say that journalism has failed us is an understatement. It has been miserably inadequate. So far from what we expect as citizens in a democracy that we might as well have government officials offering press releases once in a while to the citizenry. Most of the media has become a stage for a simulacrum of journalism. It is a very sad spectacle. These are some of the thoughts that were in the back of my mind when that image was released and every media outlet in the country, indeed the world, reproduced it. I was truly shocked at their docility, their willingness to be taught. What are journalists for? 

Contrary to what some people think, artists do not represent reality because reality simply cannot be represented. We create new realities. We make visible the invisible. And when we can’t do that, like in this specific case, we stage the invisible. May 1, 2011 is a futile attempt to make visible the invisible; it is a search for light in the darkness. It is a lament of the image. Michelangelo Antonioni said, “We know that under the revealed image there is another one which is more faithful to reality, and under this one there is yet another, and again another under this last one, down to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that nobody will ever see. Or perhaps, not until the decomposition of every image, of every reality.” May 1, 2011 attempts to stage that mysterious reality that nobody will ever see.

MS: This Antonioni quote seems to describe a desire to see reality in its truth, a desire that evolves and mutates in different ways with each media generation. By one report, the image we are discussing generated over a million and half viewings on the White House flickr page in the first 24 hours, not counting the reproductions by media outlets. There is more than ever a morbid curiosity driving the need to be closer to history in the making—to be as close to the event as possible. May 1, 2011, though, suggests that a great distance separates the public from such an event as the one pictured, I believe.

AJ: The Internet gives us the illusion of being simultaneously connected to everything and everyone, in a seamless continuum. But this is not real. We are just willing participants in a play staged by controlling agencies, that is, governments and corporations. Pete Souza, the White House photographer, took exactly one hundred photographs on May 1, 2011. The image that was released is just one, the tip of the iceberg if you will. It is an important image, not only for what is seen but mostly for what is not seen. 

It is true that on the web some independent voices can be heard, sometimes. But these independent voices are increasingly under control. Homeland Security just released a list of hundreds of sites under surveillance. And let’s not forget that more than 50% of the world population still has no access to a telephone. My vision might sound pessimistic but it is perhaps a reflection of all the hopes I had when the Internet was born—idealistic, utopian hopes that were crushed by reality. In this environment, the so-called media super highway in which we live, we are mostly kept at a controlled distance from reality by those building it. Only when it is a truly popular movement like we have been seeing in the so-called Arab Spring, information flows relatively freely and we can find ourselves in the middle of certain events and that can be exhilarating.

MS: Do you see this distance, between political image and living event, being opened today, as we would sometimes like to believe it was in the 1960s for example? Contemporary art is one outlet for connecting civic life to an event, narrowing this cool media-generated gap dividing history and occurrence, like the White House photo does so expertly. Your mention of Antonioni brings to mind a desire to connect the heat of the political moment to the visual media at the artist’s disposal.

AJ: I have always considered myself a frustrated journalist. In every work I have the desire to inform my audience. Not only to inform, of course, but also to touch, to move, to illuminate. For this to happen the work must strike a perfect balance between poetry and information. That balance is very difficult to achieve. Most of the times I fail. The work ends up being either too beautiful or too didactic. But when it works, the results can be sublime, I think. I have never been able to create a single work of art that was not connected to reality, to a specific event. I do not know how to create art out of my imagination only. I just do not know how to do it. It is perhaps thanks to my architecture studies (I never studied art), or the fact that I grew up in Chile where it was impossible to ignore our surroundings, a brutal dictatorship that lasted 17 years. To be an artist in that context meant to try to create spaces of resistance, spaces of hope. In New York where I have lived for the last thirty years, it seems that only when faced with extreme circumstances do artists react with their works. The AIDS crisis was such an event. But it was an exception. This is probably connected to art education. In Latin America artists are taught to think first, while here it is mostly about making objects, and leaving reality outside of the studio. What a strange concept! In the sixties and seventies, some artists from around the world made an effort to bring the world into the world of art, and MoMA did a show called “INFORMATION” in 1970 that included some of these artists; it was a reaction in part to the Vietnam War. Artists wanted their voices heard. Things are quite different today. 

MS: You mention “INFORMATION”–an exhibition that has taken on increased significance in the last decade as a real break with the status quo (in the art world and outside of it) that existed at the time. I am curious to know how you view the placement of political content in the white cube—things that comment on the current state of the media, like May 1, 2011. Artists in that seminal 1970 exhibition were put in the position of correspondents reporting on how information was changing on the cusp of the 1970s and after the upheaval of the 1960s. Today feels like another cusp.

AJ: I do not think so. The artists selected for that exhibition were artists responding to the real world, they were trying to bring reality into a world of fiction. At the time they were grouped under the loose category of conceptual art. These artists, most of them, were trying to question both the nature of art and its institutions. They questioned the value of the visual as opposed to the idea behind the work, and here they privileged the idea. They argued, in part, for the dematerialization of art, a concept illuminated by Lucy Lippard in her seminal book soon after, Six years: the Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. “INFORMATION” is also where Hans Haacke presented his MoMA Poll, 1970, for example. A key work, not only as very early institutional critique (focusing on Nelson Rockefeller, a major donor and board member at MoMA) but also as a work that deliberately inserts itself in the actual debate around the failed Indochina Policy of the Nixon administration in Laos and Cambodia, a work that made visible the critical opinion of hundreds of visitors to the exhibition.

May 1, 2011 inserts itself in the world of art, in the world of culture, both of which are networks of ideological circuitry. It does so because in my view, the world of culture, that includes the so-called art world, is perhaps the last remaining space of freedom, a precious space where we still can dream a better world through our intellectual speculations. As artists we create models of thinking the world. 

MS: What you say about art and space seems absolutely right. Lastly, how do we think through this alternate world? How did this photo of Obama’s cabinet in their war room go from that to being an installation by Alfredo Jaar? Can you describe the material process or evolution of May 1, 2011, starting, perhaps, with where you first saw the image if you recall?

AJ: I usually start my day reviewing the press. I access two to three dozen international sites where I try to get a sense of the day’s news. I enjoy this daily routine, it is an exercise in reading what is being said, what is not being said, what is suggested in between the lines, what is obviously missing, what is obviously misleading. That day, the Bin Laden death was the main story and the Pete Souza photograph was the single image illustrating it. Most of the world media carried that image, including the so-called “alternative media.”

It was impossible not to see the Souza photograph that day. And of course I saw it in many places, in different contexts, in different languages. I visited the White House site that had originated it. I visited the Flickr site where the White House had been staging a public campaign for a few months releasing images from the Oval Office periodically. There, the Souza image had 2,557,076 Views.

A few weeks later, it was discovered that the Oval Office meeting where Souza took his photographs had taken place almost 24 hours after the raid that supposedly killed Bin Laden and that there were many time gaps between the nine images that had been officially released by the White House. A July request through the Freedom of Information Act was denied in early August. That’s when I remembered the Antonioni quote about “the mysterious reality that nobody will ever see until the decomposition of every image, of every reality.” And May 1, 2011 was born.

Feature image details:
Alfredo Jaar, May 1, 2011
Two LCD monitors and two framed prints.
Original White House photograph by Pete Souza.
Overall dimensions variable.
Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York, kamel mennour, Paris.
Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin and the artist, New York.

May 1, 2011 exhibition history:

“Tonight no poetry will serve,” KIASMA, Helsinki
“Re-framing History,” Galerie Lelong, New York
“In the Aftermath of Trauma,” Kemper Museum, St Louis

“Alfredo Jaar: La politique des images,” Les Rencontres d’Arles, Arles
“FotoBienalMASP,” Museo de Arte de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo

“Making History,” Frankfurter Kunstverein, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst, MMK Zollamt,
“Intense Proximity,” La Triennale de Paris, Palais de Tokyo, Paris

“May 1, 2011,” SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah
“Seeing is Believing, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin

Matthew Schum is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is currently completing a dissertation on contemporary art and urban exhibitions in Istanbul between 2005-2009. Recent curatorial projects include work with artists Isabelle Cornaro, Patricia Fernandez, Orit Raff, Mark Boulos, Eamon Ore-Giron, and David Hartt at the nonprofit art space LAXART in Hollywood.