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Alfredo Jaar makes poetic installations that counter our culture’s indifference to pictures of far-off tragedies with creative blindness—limiting our vision in order to highlight power’s stranglehold upon the image. In a previous show, this Chilean-born artist entombed photographs of the 1994 Rwanda massacres in black boxes, rendering them invisible except for written descriptions. Later, he piled a light table with 1 million slides (the number of Tutsi dead in that conflict) showing the eyes of a single survivor.
In this new work, you enter a dark room illuminated only by the glowing letters of three text panels, telling obliquely related stories. Nelson Mandela’s 28-year incarceration on Robben Island (where forced labor quarrying lime nearly cost him his sight), Bill Gates’s purchase and burial of 17 million archival photographs in a remote Pennsylvania mine, and the U.S. government’s acquisition of exclusive rights to satellite images of Afghanistan before last year’s bombing function as allegories for the disappearance of alternative realities. Viewers, having finished reading, are drawn like moths to the light emanating from a second room, where a blank movie screen’s surprising projected whiteness (the harsh light of truth or the obliteration of historical memory?) is blinding.
A separate piece—an enormous, upside-down light table sandwiched to another and rising at intervals as slowly as the dawn’s early light—seemed less successful, though when I visited, a large group stood mesmerized by its quasi-biblical invocation of darkness and illumination.
The chilliness (and sheer “rightness”) of Jaar’s work can sometimes be off-putting—one longs for a bit of messy, personal revelation. Here the cold presentation, both aloof and confrontational, seems a perfect fit. But to what further lengths can this denial of the image—at once monkish and sublime—take him?