Art provocateur Alfredo Jaar: 'I want to change the world. I fail all the time'

He fled Pinochet’s Chile and now makes art that tackles the horrors of our age, from torture to genocide. As he hits Edinburgh with sandwich boards, he explains why he’s never really happy with the results

Two light-box tables, like the ones a photographer would use to look at slides and negatives, are set in a corner of Alfredo Jaar’s airy studio in Manhattan. One is suspended from the ceiling, the other standing on the floor directly below it. Over the course of a minute, the suspended table is lowered to meet its twin. A thin black shadow is cast on to the studio’s walls at the moment of closure. As the table rises, the artist is brightly lit again, just as visitors will be when the piece, Lament of the Images, goes on show in Japan (Tate has an earlier version).

There are no slides on the table, something that often confuses spectators, even those too young to have seen a slide. And that’s the point, says Jaar. The piece illuminates the onlookers in “a failed attempt to try and get people to see each other”, he says. Jaar is big on failure.

Lament of the Images, 2002, Alfredo Jaar.
Lament of the Images, 2002. Photograph: Alfredo Jaar

For 30 years, the Chilean-born, New York-based artist has been confronting failure – our inability to see, our unwillingness to look, our struggle to communicate – fearlessly tackling some of the darkest horrors of our age, from the Rwanda genocide to the US’s “black site” detention centres and torture rooms. He’s never really happy with the results.

“I’m an idealist and a utopian,” he says. “I want to change the world. And so in that sense, I fail all the time because I have failed to change it. I’ve failed to change the reality around me. Even though that was what I was trying to do.”

At the Edinburgh art festival, Jaar is failing again. As part of the festival’s commissions programme, he is organising a public artwork that takes its title, I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On, from the closing words of The Unnamable, a novel by another chronicler of failure, Samuel Beckett.

Edinburgh’s Bridge of Sighs (appropriately enough) is home to a large neon sign quoting Beckett’s text, and his words will be spread through the streets of Edinburgh over the course of the festival by performers wearing sandwich boards: I Can’t Go On on their chests, I’ll Go On on their backs. It’s like the characters who used to walk around advertising The End Is Nigh. In this case it’s The End Is Nigh, But Perhaps Not Quite Yet.

“It’s about our incapacity to change this reality, even though I keep going, I keep trying. Because this is the only thing I know,” Jaar says.

A conversation with him will leave you with a reading list a mile long. He hoovers up the daily news, the only way he says he knows how to work, and salts his chat with quotations from favourite authors, films and magazine pieces. Today he recommends the bleak Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran (“It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late”), the poet Adrienne Rich and the films of Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.

Beckett’s words trigger a conversation about another favourite writer, Italian neo-Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who wrote about “the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will”. Gramsci was the source of another recent Jaar intervention, plastering Rome with posters of another of his quotes: “The old world is dying. The new world is slow to emerge. And in this chiaroscuro, monsters are born.”

Gramsci’s words on posters in Rome, 2018, by Alfredo Jaar.
Gramsci’s words on posters in Rome, 2018, by Alfredo Jaar. Photograph: Luis do Rosario

That chiaroscuro – dark as Caravaggio – is everywhere, Jaar warns. “We live in dark times.” Just look at the climate crisis, he says. “We face extinction. What does it say about us and about the world that the leader trying to change this reality is a little Swedish girl” – Greta Thunberg – “who is 16 years old?”

All is not lost, however. “With my will, I have to be optimistic. If not, I would just kill myself,” he says, miming a gun to his head even as he beams another of his frequent, playful smiles. It’s obvious which has the upper hand in the battle between Jaar’s pessimistic intellect and his optimistic will.

Born in Chile in 1956, Jaar grew up under the bloody rule of General Augusto Pinochet, the US and UK-backed dictator whose soldiers travelled the country murdering and torturing opponents in a “caravan of death”. Jaar escaped in 1982 after finishing a degree in architecture. The experience has informed his work ever since.

“I know fascism when I see it,” Jaar says. When he escaped, “not even in my wildest dreams” did he expect to see the world facing what it is facing now. “We have fascism growing everywhere. In this country, in your country, in half of Europe, in Latin America.”

A Logo for America, 1987/2014, in Times Square, New York.
A Logo for America, 1987/2014, in Times Square, New York. Photograph: Alfredo Jaar

Jaar has been tackling nationalism since at least 1987 when he erected a lightbulb-studded screen in Times Square, A Logo for America, reading: “This is not America.” It was saying the US was part of a continent, not the continent itself, at a time – then as now – of great conflict between the US and its neighbours. It was “a huge controversy. People were saying, ‘This is illegal, how could they let him do it?’” He has restaged the work several times since and its meaning has shifted as the politics have changed. Today, it seems to have been adopted as a comment on Trump, he says. “The semantics of what is America have changed completely and I accept that, gladly.”

Nonetheless, he says, the situation today is very different from the 1980s or Pinochet’s Chile. Back then “we lived under censorship. The entire media system was controlled by the military.” The free press may be under attack now, but, at least in the west, it is not yet at the level endured under Pinochet. “When you live with a sense of censorship, you don’t know [things]. And this lack of knowledge makes you fearful. You don’t know what will happen to you, what you can and can’t do, how you can express yourself. And if there is something worse than censorship, it is self-censorship. Fear makes you censor yourself.”

Today’s problems are different but seem just as dangerous. Thanks to the proliferation of social media and the rise of “fake news”, people are drowning in information and increasingly unable to disentangle truth from lies. “It’s insane,” Jaar says. “When the internet was created, we thought we had found this extraordinary tool that would change our lives. It was going to create the free flow of information, of ideas, with the rest of the world and so on. And now we have discovered the ugly end of these technologies.”

He points to the way technology has been used to influence elections, both in the US and the UK, the constant distractions it creates, the undermining of truth. This, he believes, is where art has a role. Art can teach people to see, it can offer a way to get “back to the essential”.

In a 2006 piece, The Sound of Silence, Jaar built a mini-theatre dedicated to one image, the Pulitzer-prize winning photographer Kevin Carter’s devastating picture of a starving Sudanese child crouched in a stony field and stalked by a vulture.

Alfredo Jaar’s statement on education in Sweden, The Skoghall Konsthall, 2000.
Alfredo Jaar’s statement on education in Sweden, The Skoghall Konsthall, 2000. Photograph: Courtesy the artist

The idea was to ask viewers to dedicate some time – eight minutes – to the picture and its story. A green light bids you to enter to watch a film that examines the history and politics of the image. Given the average time someone spends in front of a piece in a museum or gallery is 15 to 30 seconds, it’s a big ask, but it’s one Jaar believes is essential. “We see, but we don’t understand, because there is a lack of context. We have not created the models to resolve these problems.”

Around the world, people are taught to read, “but who teaches us the influence that images, the media landscape, have? How it changes our vision of the world,” Jaar says. “I really believe that images are not innocent. Every image contains a conception of the world.” And too often those conceptions go unchallenged.

The art world – not the art market, Jaar is keen to point out, which is fixated on money – is perhaps the only place where those conceptions are being challenged today, he believes. A place made up of millions of young people “who against the wishes of their families and the pressures of society have decided to become artists and are trying to make sense of the world”.

He’s hopeful about the new generations now coming up, new artists, new thinkers, new leaders such as Thunberg. It’s one of the reasons he dedicates a third of his time to teaching. “I learn from them enormously,” he says. Perhaps someone who sees his Edinburgh piece this week will be inspired to make their own work. Perhaps they will offer us a new vision that can help us navigate the darkness. Intellectually, Jaar may be pessimistic about whether others can really succeed where he keeps “failing”. But his will is filled with optimism.


Dominic Rushe

The GuardianTramp

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