World-renowned peripatetic installation and performance artist and filmmaker Alfredo Jaar was born in Chile in the 1950s, but settled in New York in his 20s (as so many successful artists from around the globe seem to do). He studied architecture at his father’s insistence – I suppose it monetizes drawing quite effectively – and in the video above he notes that he has never regretted his architecture training, using it as a tool in his art work, which seeks a balance between “the dire, and poetry”. (The video was created by The Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the UK, which held an exhibition of his work in 2017, and now features one of his works as part of its permanent display.)

Jaar often focuses on political outrages, humanitarian trauma, inequality and injustice around the world, and is perhaps most famous for his six-year Rwanda Project. That project sought to bring home the horror of those impersonal atrocities broadcast on the news channels in the mid-1990s, and at the same time to create “a memorial for the people of Rwanda”. His task was to “represent the unrepresentable”: a genocide in which about a million people were killed within 100 days.

He travelled to the war-torn country, but some of his testimony he considered to be so disturbing that for his work Real Pictures 1995 he permanently sealed the images in black boxes: they challenge the viewer to consider what is more devastating, the image, or the imagined image, in a sort of dreadful manipulation of the Schrödingers cat conundrum. In many ways Jaar’s Rwandan works, including “Lament of the Images”, a blinding light made up, as he notes, of “the totality of all colours”, is about the necessary “absence of images” (my italics).

Jaar’s Rwandan work was due to be displayed in 2020 at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art in South Africa in its first exhibition in Africa, but the coronavirus epidemic caused that to be postponed.

In contrast, Jaar’s earlier, very famous 1987 work A Logo for America, a 38-second animation, interrogates the USA’s place in the world and challenges US hegemony over the use of the term “America”. In the style of a (now necessarily rather retro) electronic billboard ad, a phrase flashes up in large capital letters: “This is not America”, followed by a map of the USA. Next, come the words “This is not America’s flag” superimposed on a graphic showing the familiar stars and stripes flag, then comes the word “America” alone, the “R” of which is transformed into a rotating graphic representation of a map of the Americas as a region. I remember from when I read American Dirt that the other countries in the Americas would never dream of referring to the USA as America: it is always the United States. As Jaar said of his work “It is a reflection of a geopolitical reality of the dominance of the United States. It goes beyond semantics; language is not innocent” – as any good discourse analysis student knows (yes I was one).

More recently, in 2020, Jaar created a video work in response to the COVID-19 crisis in New York. Between the Heavens and Me adapts BBC news footage of the mass burial of unclaimed coronavirus victims on Hart Island (which many New Yorkers had never heard of until COVID-19 began to run riot) by unpaid prisoners – in a form of slave labour.

These dead would have been unable to afford a funeral or been without next of kin. The nameless internments took place without ceremony, or anything to mark a life lived.

At mid-2020 the work had not yet been made public, but it had been widely documented. In it, the original news footage has been slowed right down, and the commentary replaced by mournful music played on a Tunisian lute. Jaar is quoted by The Economist as saying “My brain could not comprehend what my eyes were seeing … the poorest people in New York … the anonymous, the invisible, the no-name people being buried by prison inmates, many of whom are poor and black like them.”

Jaar has followed the news avidly throughout his life – in the mid-1990s he is reported to have subscribed to 79 different newspapers and magazines (even more than me!). The article in The Economist quotes Clara Kim, senior curator at Tate Modern in London, who notes that the enduring power of Jaar’s art work is the way that he inhabits two roles simultaneously: not only that of an artist, but also that of a witness to events of global and enduring historical significance.

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