Richard Mosse: "The Enclave" at Jack Shainman Gallery

For three years Richard Mosse has been photographing the Congo using infrared film, a rare photographic medium which renders anything green a vibrant bubble-gum pink. The film has the capability to register light which is not perceivable to the human eye, making the invisible visible. This function of the medium is of particular interest to Mosse, who not only photographed local vegetation, but also the Congo’s inhabitants who are in the midst of a bloody and brutal war that rarely gets coverage in western media. Mosse has created various series about the Congo, culminating in his 2012 book Infra, that lead him to be chosen to represent Ireland in the most recent Venice Biennale. For the Biennale he took his process one step further, sourcing 16mm infrared film and producing The Enclave, a 40 minute multiscreen installation that was on view at the Jack Shainman Gallery from February 22nd to March 22nd.

Richard Mosse
Still from The Enclave,
39 mins 25 sec
16mm film transferred to HD video

There is a specific process of discovery when encountering Mosse’s photographic works. The photographs are immediately captivating because of their color, consisting mostly of a bright pink rarely found within nature. This is often stretched over a well composed landscape produced as a large-scale print. Almost always these landscapes are exhibited next to portraits of soldiers whose camouflage is likewise a vibrant pink, and whose skin is a dark golden. The color and content are visually intriguing, but their connection is at first difficult to extract. However the visual potency of the images forces further investigation. The information about the conflicts in the Congo can be found simply within the ever-present curatorial text or press release. It then comes to light that the conflict that seems to be rampant in that section of Africa is getting little exposure anywhere outside of Mosse’s work. This process is quiet and unobtrusive. The need for information comes from those looking at the photographs instead of being preached through the work by the artist.

The Enclave uses aspects from this process of discovery, but does not sit quietly as it’s photographic counterparts do. At Jack Shainman, the film was displayed on six screens within a pitch black room, four in a circle around the center and two at opposite corners. There were no seats because in order to view the film you had to walk throughout the six projections. In doing so we begin to inhabit the world Mosse exposes, at first willingly because the colors are again so beautiful and strange. However, where the photographs pose no threat, The Enclave lays out both the people suffering and fighting within the Congo. You stand there among the soldiers, armed with AK-47s and bazookas, as they search a vast pink terrain for potential threats. There is a particularly fascinating scene where Mosse’s camera follows a soldier through tunnels of vegetation, as he holds his weapon in front of him. It’s unclear if they are running toward or away from something, but the tension is present.

For the majority of the beginning of The Enclave, soldiers bear their weapons as an animal would bare its teeth, but no shots are fired. What seems like a potential battle begins to register as play. That is until the forest opens up onto a small village where a man lays dead in the middle of the street. Here Mosse leaves the soldiers and instead shows civilians examining the body, more in distress than in mourning. They look at it, poke at it, but do not cry or show overt concern. Here it becomes heartbreakingly apparent that this is not a new experience. This condition of living is further examined when later in the film Mosse comes across another dead body, this time a soldier on a pathway. He pauses to allow his camera to inspect the body, only to then notice there is a small child hiding in the bushes off the path. This child jumps out and looks directly into the camera, more afraid of it than of the dead. The child, upon recognizing that there is no threat posed by the camera, begins to make faces and laugh, paying no attention to the soldier shot in the face next to him.

In total the film is overwhelming, however in a very thought through manner. Each aspect of The Enclave has it’s own cultural baggage, and when combined the resonance of each is heightened. The film Mosse used is military grade, most notably used for camouflage detection in the 1970’s, so this choice as a medium mirrors the militaristic culture of the Congo. The beauty of this medium was on full display as even the screens themselves had curved corners to match the footage shot on 16mm. This aligned The Enclave with past documentation of war, shot on film cameras, with it’s grain and white flicker at the end of the reel.

Trevor Tweeten, John Holten, Ben Frost and Richard Mosse on the road to Kibabi, South Masisi, photo by Abdu Namula Jean Bedel, Nov 2012.
Trevor Tweeten, John Holten, Ben Frost and Richard Mosse on the road to Kibabi, South Masisi, photo by Abdu Namula Jean Bedel, Nov 2012.

The film is beautifully scored by composer Ben Frost, who Mosse brought with him to the Congo (and had to smuggle through the border). Frost’s composition balances diegetic sound from the atmosphere, ritualistic singing and chanting with deep notes of bass that shake the viewer. Together, with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, the three of them produced a work which feels like the true culmination of what Mosse had been doing throughout the last three years. This feeling of finality came not only from the exceptional use of film and installation, but also from the fact that the film Mosse used to shoot The Enclave no longer exists. After three years of negotiations, he bought out the last remaining stock that was special ordered from Kodak to shoot Death Valley. Part of why it is no longer produced is the film itself is very heat sensitive, lasting only seven days outside of a freezer.

The lengths in which this production had to go through were immense, and the result is truly incredible. With The Enclave ending Mosse’s Infrared work, he should be proud to have brought back into cultural dialogue a devastating situation using the potency of his imagery, rendering the invisible visible once again.

Robert Hickerson is a Brooklyn based artist, who works with video, photography and performance. He is also a frequent contributor to Lintroller.