Verdant Horrors

Verdant Horrors

Richard Mosse at Portland Museum of Art


In the deepest folds of our collective Western imagination lives a place called the dark continent—Africa. This idyllic source of our human genesis is now a place filled with mystery, fear and self loathing in the hearts of Americans and Europeans alike. For over a century European re-discovery of Africa yielded repression, slavery and destruction. Now the African continent is reaping what colonization has sowed.

In the most central heart of Africa lies both its richest and most menacing place, the Democratic Republic of Congo. A country of 77 million equatorial people spread across a dense, verdant, resource rich land mass roughly the size of Western Europe, D.R. Congo has been unraveling since its independence from Belgium in 1960. In 1997 civil war broke out fueled by immeasurable corruption, an influx of Hutus from neighboring Rwanda and a struggle for natural resources. To date the war has killed an estimated 5.4 million people and displaced millions more. It is into this, the darkest of the dark continent, that the Irish-born photographer Richard Mosse entered in 2010, camera in-hand.

The Portland Art Museum (PAM) is hosting Richard Mosse’s exhibit The Enclave in Portland, Oregon. The Enclave is both documentary photography and film footage, is visually riveting in unexpected ways. Mosse stumbled upon infrared film, long forgotten and then sidelined for being photographic kitsch. It was developed by the U.S. military and Kodak in the 1940’s to distinguish military installations from dense green overgrowth in aerial photography. Infrared photography shifts green into shades of shocking magenta-violet. It renders the dense Congolese jungle in vibrant red-blue hues while leaving the human mark of trails, buildings,  trucks and human flesh unchanged. In the familiar landscape of the West this would be far less effective than how it functions in Africa.

22The adroitly timed exhibition sits poised against elevated American racial tension. It tugs at Portlanders (and white Americans) shame, fear and confusion. It reveals the hidden truths of war when our daily experience is curtained off from our collective military actions abroad. The shocking pinks and reds create push black faces against an alien landscape that mimics the European-born, white colonialist fear of the ‘other’. The Enclave is a psychedelic explosion of color that simultaneously fractures our visual ground while heightening our empathy.

The exhibition at PAM is split in two rooms, one containing the large format photographs and the other the video installation. The photos are dimly lit elevating their enigmatic proposition. Mosse owes more to the work of Edward Burtynsky than traditional documentary war photographers James Nachtwey or Lynsey Addario. The photography is less interested in the action of conflict than its aftermath. The work is all about residuals, deeply rooted in landscape photography, subtly rendering the changes manifested out of the depravities of war. Ruin porn is all too often war photography’s de facto position and Mosse elegantly avoids those trappings. His power lies in his ability to break from the obviousness of wars destructive terror as well as the blood and guts of dead bodies. This Irishman, born in a country with a long history of civil conflict is much more interested in the mundane, the bucolic, and the penetrating tension of stillness that is largely what war is. Action may be an attention-getting vehicle that shocks us, but Mosse’s photography wants us to look more deeply into the soul of conflict by examining its quiet moments and subtle residue. 

Bursting sounds roar from a darkened opening at the opposing end of the photographic exhibition space. Entering an unnerving and disorienting pitch black opening, you’re confronted with a black room filled with six hanging projection screens being intermittently and sometimes simultaneously bombarded with infrared film footage that Mosse directed while in the D.R. Congo. A soundtrack ranging from peeping insects, wind through jungle grass, and water washing ashore to gun and artillery fire, and the singing/shouting voices of people is played like a symphony above the screens. The infrared film makes military camouflage look like Haute couture at Paris fashion week than than the clothing of machete-wielding Congolese militia. The pink-pony color shatters any normalcy that otherwise dulls our sense of war. The lack of actual on-screen violence creates a persistent, unnerving tension and at one point the screens go black as the echoing sounds of artillery fire rain from the ceiling speakers. Most disorienting are the filmic apparitions of bizarre military exercises and community parties. Film footage of the deceptively calm waters of lake Kivu (itself prone to limnic eruptions that spontaneously release volumes of CO2 choking the life out of everything near its banks) is played on separate screens while other screens play footage of village music celebrations showing tribal leaders feed money into the pockets of prancing women. The underlying culture and landscape are presented as is and yet intuitively you realize all is not right.

The Enclave first opened at the Irish pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013 and is promised to travel on to other exhibition spaces. In a time when conflict is the disposition of superpowers and terrorists as recently witnessed in France with the Charlie Hebdo slaughter, it is important to reveal the deep roots of human conflict. The Enclave implausibly reveals a distant war as a play on our collective humanity while still holding a powerful aesthetic seat. Despite Mosse’s use of infrared film, the exhibition never falls into gimmickry or kitsch. Seldom does documentary photography and film hold such potency while maintaining a delicate ambiguity.

The Enclave is on view at the Portland Art Museum through April 12, 2105