at the Museum of Contemporary Art

I could comment on the formal virtues of the carefully crafted pieces in Alfredo Jaar’s current installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art, “Geography War.” The aesthetic qualities of his light boxes deserve some praise. But to focus on that would be to miss all the points the artist hopes to make with his work about the horrors of toxic-waste dumping in Africa. Jaar says his work is political. In fact, he says that everything is political, and that art and all other forms of image making are intensely political. It would be unfair to him then to ignore his politics. Unfortunately, his installation fails as a political message, and therefore, within his own framework, as art.

Many critics feel it’s unfair to criticize the content of artists’ work. They say art is in the eye of the beholder; the viewer completes a piece; by nature creative enterprise is ambiguous. Content criticism, they say, cheapens art by making it too specific, denies others their own reactions. You wouldn’t want cardiologists demanding that Rubens’s paintings be pulled down because his obese pink models make diets high in saturated fat appealing, or antiporn activists slashing Botticellis because of their erotic content. It’s a good argument. But what about artists like Jaar who say that content is all their work is about? That nothing else matters? That the stakes are so high that their failure to communicate their message puts other humans in mortal danger? Should one still stay mum about their message and comment only on the quality of their craft or their line and gesture?

Paul Van Blum of the University of California wrote recently that “much art criticism reacts to the contentless nature of art, so the criticism is very formalistic with content considerations insignificant. Mentioning content is heretical . . . and it lacks academic credibility.” Van Blum overstates the point a bit. Feminists, multiculturalists, and Marxists have spoken forcefully against continuing to view subject matter as an issue separate from quality. Nevertheless, most critics refuse to judge art based on what it argues.

I must confess that it is not clear to me what “politics” would mean if everything is political. Is it something like gravity, a force that inexorably rules the universe, or is it more like a gas, a kind of hazy omnipresent stuff that fills the gaps between everything else? I asked Jaar if he meant something like power relationships, justice, or resource distribution. He said that wasn’t it, that those were social concerns. Politics, he said, was more. It had to do with all the ways people act in and observe the world. Thankfully, the focus of Jaar’s current work is a bit more restricted.

The installation first addresses the crime against humanity committed by industrialized countries dumping their toxic wastes in Nigeria. In 1989 Jaar went to the coastal town of Koko, where local landowners had arranged with Italian shippers to accept and dispose of hundreds of steel drums full of hazardous chemical waste. He found that local villagers emptied the steel drums and used them for food containers, which resulted in widespread illness and death. Jaar toured a garbage dump in Koko where some of the waste was buried and took photographs of children rummaging in the trash. These photographs are mounted on black light boxes that illuminate the images from behind.

The artist says he took more than 1,000 pictures in Koko, but the photography in the show is unexceptional. The enlargements are grainy to the point of distortion, and the composition rarely rises above that of a tourist’s snapshot. Measured against memorable political images–such as the horrific photographs of the Minamata mercury poisoning by W. Eugene Smith or the war photographs of Robert Capa–Jaar’s seem anemic. They have no reference point, nothing in them to illustrate the disaster he aimed at. What we see instead are old men in cheap polyester shirts and sunglasses and gangs of smiling street waifs. One thing art does well is communicate the experience of one sense through a medium directed at another. Good narrative can make us see, and good images can make us smell. But rather than heighten our feelings for life in the dumps, Jaar offers poor quality photographs that distance us from it. He provides no clues to the overpowering sensory feelings he must have had wandering through the stench of rotting debris and the toxic steam kicked up by the tropical sun.

On the ground floor of the museum Jaar has suspended five light boxes over three long rows of water-filled 55-gallon black steel drums. The lighted images are reflected in the still water, rippling in small waves when passersby brush against the drums. To see the reflections, one must bend and stretch over the barrels. Jaar hopes the physical engagement achieves one of his goals for the show: shaking viewers’ complacency with images. He believes photographs and news reports on world disasters proliferate so widely and pass by so quickly that we can no longer process them. When a catastrophe strikes it is encapsulated in the news with hundreds of other stories and the gravity of all the news is lost. Jaar has a reasonable complaint, but his work does not articulate it. Rather than creating empathy for his suffering subjects, his installation seduces with the calm quiet of the black drums and the tranquillity of the floating images. One does not see horror in the barrels, one sees light. The artist has made his complaint too theoretical, made the wrong too obscure.

Strong political art should not need explanation. It arouses our sympathies by attacking our senses; it provides a mass of information so quickly that we learn it in our hearts even before we know it in our heads. Picasso’s Guernica, though complex and intelligent, doesn’t appeal to an intellectualized outrage. It attacks with violent images and real outrage a fascist atrocity. Who does Jaar hope to reach with his arcana? Other intellectuals who will just sit around and brood along with him? Heidegger wrote about the moment in life when information has built in one’s mind until it forces a new realization of the truth, after which there is no turning back, no excuse for irresolute behavior. Jaar’s piece is too clever and ultimately trivial to force the truth.

On the second floor is the piece from which the exhibition draws its name, “Geography War.” Six large light boxes stand side by side in an arc the length of the gallery, in each a silhouetted map depicting a portion of the globe traversed by the ships that bore toxic wastes to Koko. Affixed to the back of the light boxes, facing the wall, are more of Jaar’s photographs of the village. These are hard to see on the boxes, but the images reflect onto small mirrors that line the wall. Looking at the photographs in the mirrors is like seeing the town through a train window. By forcing the viewer to strain to see the images, Jaar again tries to physically engage the viewer. But having to crane one’s neck to see something is a weak parallel for political involvement. Jaar may assume that the museum setting gives him a captive audience, yet the design of the piece again distances the viewer. Museum goers are trained not to poke around artwork, and at the MCA guards ensure that.

Moreover, without an explanation of their political significance the maps are too obscure to pack a punch. Jaar has chosen Peters projections, developed by German cartographer Arno Peters in 1974 to project the relative sizes of the globe’s land masses. In these maps the Southern Hemisphere, proportionately much more third-world than the Northern, appears twice as large as the Northern, a representation of land area not found in older projections.

Jaar hopes that presenting the revised maps will realign perceptions of geopolitics; by implication Mercator projections, the world maps one finds on schoolroom walls, reflect the imperial designs of Europe and North America. But as a political argument, the Peters map seems to miss the point that imperialism, in the cases of the English, Dutch, and Japanese, for instance, has historically appealed to countries that felt cramped. I liked the maps quite a lot as maps. But the installation offers little more than the maps–its politics beg for an explanation.

The catalog that accompanies the exhibition has a detailed account of the history of toxic-waste disposal drawn from reporting done by Bill Moyers, and the story it tells is strikingly tragic and certainly worthy of attention. This matter-of-fact but powerful narrative is far more persuasive than Jaar’s work; the text comes far closer to the kind of truth that motivates than Jaar’s pictures, constructions, or mirrors. Ironically, Jaar doesn’t trust journalism. But if he wants his art to surpass the motivational qualities of good reporting, he will need to reach beyond cerebration toward something that offers more than information. He will need to show how he feels.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ann Hutchinson.