Beauty and horror make a devilish deal: Richard Mosse’s ‘The enclave’ (Irish Pavilion, Venice Biennale)

'Platon' (Richard Mosse, 2012; courtesy the artist & Jack Shainman Gallery)

‘I’ve tried to carve horror into beauty’. Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere about her work at the Belgian pavilion. I couldn’t help thinking about that quote as I was watching Richard Mosse‘s impressive The enclave, at the Pavilion of Ireland. I will not be reviewing all the Venice Biennale pavilions, but this one I just have to write about. Because of the fact that I’m always intrigued when contemporary artists dare to bring that almost old-fashioned concept of beauty to the fore, because of those strange similarities between the Belgian and the Irish pavilion (although the work is completely different). And this being a Belgian blog I’ve got an extra reason: The enclave is about Congo, that former Belgian colony.

'The enclave' (Richard Mosse, 2013; Pavilion of Ireland; installation view)

It’s the pink that pulls you in. A strange, uncanny, warm and Alice In Wonderland-like magenta. As you walk into the Pavilion of Ireland, you see a couple of huge photographs, of wonderful, eerie, pink landscapes. Curious, you walk into the next room, stumbling into the dark, to find yourself standing amidst six film screens. You’re surrounded by that same pink. Everywhere. Once again, it lures you. But then you see guns, people crying, dead bodies, refugee camps. The horror. But you keep on looking, almost sedated by the pink. What you see is utterly real, but at the same time utterly surreal. If you would have watched the same images on the evening news, you would already have switched your tv off. Is it because there’s no voice over, but just noises (field recordings) and a minimal score?

'Suspicious minds' (Richard Mosse, 2012; courtesy the artist & Jack Shainman Gallery)

The enclave was shot in 2012, by Richard Mosse and his collaborators, cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, and composer Ben Frost. They travelled in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, ‘infiltrating armed rebel groups in a war zone plagued by frequent ambushes, massacres and systematic sexual violence’. The uncanny colours of the film are a result of the fact that Mosse used ‘a discontinued military surveillance film (Kodak Aerochrome, designed by the US in the 1940’s) that registers an invisible spectrum of infrared light, originally designed for camouflage detection’. ‘The idea was to use this medium to see into the unseen’, Mosse tells CNN. ‘And that works really on a very simple level through the color palette. The pink is so surprising and shocking and unnatural that it really makes people stop.’

'The enclave' (film still; Richard Mosse, 2013; courtesy the artist)

The film is Mosse’s attempt to ‘radically rethink war photography’. With The enclave he wants 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’. Watching The enclave is a troubling experience, as beauty and horror seem to have made a devilish deal. No wonder you’ll see The enclave popping up in almost every list of must-see’s of the Venice Biennale.

'The enclave' (Richard Mosse, 2013; Pavilion of Ireland; installation view)

PS: This is what Mosse has to say on beauty, in an video interview with Frieze.

‘Beauty is one of the mainlines to make people feel something. It’s the sharpest tool in the box. If you’re trying to make people feel something, if you’re able to make it beautiful, then they’ll sit up and listen. And often if you make something that’s derived from human suffering or war, if you represent that with beauty that creates an ethical problem in the viewer’s mind. Then they can be confused and angry and disoriented, and this is great, because you’ve got them to actually think about the act of perception, and how this imagery is produced and consumed.’

You’ll find more about Richard Mosse, on his site, here. For an interview with Mosse, click here (AnOther magazine). For a 7 min video with interview & Enclave-fragments, click here (Frieze). And here‘s the site of the pavilion of Ireland.

Postscript (July 14, 2014): ‘The Enclave’ is now on view at FotoMuseum (Antwerp, Belgium), through November 11, 2014. More info here. In the meanwhile ‘The Enclave’ was awarded the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, on May 12, 2014. More on that here.

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