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In a public lecture discussing the conclusion of his work on the Rwanda Series currently displayed at the UConn Contemporary Art Gallery, Alfredo Jaar (Chilean born “architect that makes art”) stated that his two main objectives when making art are exploring: 1) public desensitization to images and 2) the limitation of art when trying to express/manifest genocide (trauma) and its effects. Discussing his involvement in three arenas” 1) the “privileged” museum/gallery space (art world) 2) public interventions including the community, and 3) teaching and learning from the new generations, I noticed a common theme – the spectacle used for accountability.

Jaar uses the spectacle to create a sense of shame and shock in order to make its viewers accountable for their (in)actions. His works – which will be discussed later – provide possible and temporary solutions/answers to societal problems. His pieces are active, creating experiences that require the viewer to engage in a tremendous amount of self reflection. In this way, Jaar uses the spectacle in an unconventional way that makes people aware of their humanity.

In regard to art/art history, “the spectacle” refers to the ideological concepts of Guy Debord and the Situationists International. In Debord’s 1967 publication of The Society of the Spectacle, he states:

#5: “The Spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual deception produced by mass-media technologies. It is a world-view that has actually been materialized, a view of the world that has become objective.”

Here, Debord explains that the spectacle is not merely a creation of the media, but that it is actually the manifestation of the dominant world view of the society in which it is created.

#18: “When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become dynamic beings – dynamic figments that provide the direct motivation for a hypnotic behavior. Since the spectacle’s job is to use various specialized mediations in order to show us a world that can no longer be directly grasped, it naturally elevates the sense of sight to the special pre-eminence once occupied by touch: the most abstract and easily deceived sense is the most readily adaptable to the generalized abstraction of present day society. But the spectacle is not merely a matter of images plus sounds. It is whatever escapes people’s activity, whatever eludes their practical reconsideration and correction. Wherever representation becomes independent, the spectacle regenerates itself.”

In this statement, Debord emphasizes the way in which the bombardment of images (the spectacle) of mass media has created a separation between reality and how people experience reality. All human experience is now mediated by images – representations of “a world that can no longer be directly grasped” in other words, directly experienced.

Debord’s ideas in The Society of the Spectacle mixing Marxist and Situationist ideologies, is relevant to and manifested in Jaar’s work. Jaar’s interest in “the public desensitization to images” is an interest in a societal phenomenon many years in the making. Due to the fact that images are simply mediations of reality – not reality – they are easy to dismiss, regardless of subject matter.

The invention of photography started this desensitization. When the first photos of exotic animals, people, and places were disseminated they shocked and entertained. The first ever motion picture caused people to scream and shout in the theatre due to the shocking “realism” of the crudely constructed scenes. With rapid industrialization, technology advanced at an alarming rate, and within a century these novel, impressive advancements became commonplace, banal, boring. Today we can sit in a 3-D IMAX motive theatre watching the latest blockbuster action movie without even blinking an eye. No shock, no awe. If anything, we are underwhelmed, under enthused.

This is the very reason why we (the Western viewer) can see photographs, watch videos of heinous scenes – genocide, war, famine – happening a world away and say “oh, that’s so sad,” think about it for a few minutes, push it out of our minds, and move on with our lives. Despite “seeing it with our own eyes” these images are not real too us – they’re merely another mediation of reality – of a world we cannot, will not, do not want to experience, which is, therefore, not real.

Jaar’s work is so effective because indifference is not an option. His works are connected to real people and real situations that are too important and too personal to ignore. If for only a moment, his works overcome the public’s general desensitization through their poignant yet shocking messages. His Rwanda project from 1994 to 2000, makes people acknowledge the devastating genocide that the Western world tried to ignore. In his final installment of this series, a 26 minute video now on view in UConn’s Contemporary Art Gallery, Jaar points the finger and finally calls the world out for its collective delinquency.

In early 1994, Dallaire (a Canadian UN Ambassador in Rwanda) discovered from an informant that they were planning to exterminate the Tutsi. Despite Dallaire’s best efforts, after the deaths of 10 Belgian soldiers, Western governments began pulling their troops from Rwanda, stating that it was merely a “tribal conflict” and that they did not want to lose and more of their soldiers. Once Western troops were evacuated, over 800,000 Tutsis were murdered in three short, terrifying months. This genocide could’ve been stopped, but instead of sending more troops, troops were evacuated. Africa didn’t matter – it was nothing more than what the Eurocentric media depicted it as: poor, unhealthy, insignificant.

Regardless of the amount of images and videos depicting the situation in Rwanda or direct pleas from Rwandan Tutsis, it was all too easy for the world to turn its back and ignore the devastating genocide taking place in this “far away,” out of sight out of mind, place. To this day, the guilty parties that removed troops and ignored the cries for help will not admit to their mistakes and injustices. Jaar’s work makes the viewer, simply as a human being, feel like a responsible party – which is essential to ensuring that this type of delinquency does not happen again.

Jaar’s work is not “art for art’s sake.” It is an art of purpose. It’s thoughtful, calculated, and it purposely puts the viewer in an uncomfortable position, where he/she has to come to terms with his/her accountability as a human. His works have important social purposes which focus on the societal phenomenon of public desensitization to images and he uses “the spectacle” as a way of making images powerful again by forcing the viewer to have a reaction that is difficult to forget.