Richard Mosse, Incoming
For a number of years, Europe has been experiencing its greatest refugee crisis since World War II. Those currently classified as refugees are people who have fled their home country due to political, ethnic, religious or gender persecution. Going back often equals death. The greatest numbers of refugees in Europe hail from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as some African countries. The law and the ethical code of democratic European countries require that we give protection to those who are forced to flee. Nevertheless, not only does this tenet encounter civic opposition in many countries, but some governments foment such bigotry in their election campaigns. It is not surprising that artists attuned to social injustice more and more frequently take the refugee issue on board in their art.
In his work as artist and documentalist, Richard Mosse tracks human drama. He has photographed the devastation left behind in the former Yugoslavia, in the cities devastated by earthquakes in Iraq, Pakistan and Haiti, the abandoned palaces of Saddam Hussein, and the rusty plane carcasses, refugee camps and rebel existence of the Congo jungle. It is this last theme that was the subject of his installation The Enclave, which represented Ireland at the Art Biennale in Venice.
A graduate of literature and fine art, Richard Mosse has chiselled the skill of constructing imaginative, oblique narratives to convey an entire new reality. His works use sound to great effect. The artist works closely with the composer Ben Frost, who bases his pieces on the organic soundtrack of the given event. The soundtrack is an integral part of the work.
In many of his works Mosse uses a thermal imaging camera, capable of registering images at a distance of up to 20 kilometres. The technique is normally employed for military, reconnaissance and medical purposes. Those watched from a distance are neither aware of the scrutiny nor can they escape it. This feature of the infrared camera makes it the tool of choice for the countries of the European Union to monitor refugee movements. Mosse uses thermal images to awaken the European conscience and persuade the continent to reflect on this new civilisational challenge.
Richard Mosse, Incoming, 2017
The project Incoming by Richard Mosse raises the ethical crisis related to the growing influx of refugees in Europe. The majority of Europeans are experiencing a profound moral conflict, fanned by the perceived threat to their creature comforts and the fear induced by their exaggerated perceptions of different cultures. Mosse takes the topic head on; however – as he insists on pointing out – he provides no answers, he merely poses questions. These are, nevertheless, questions that provide a pointer: one must be humane. Richard Mosse has created a psychological documentary that aims to activate the humanitarian imagination of the European viewer. The trigger is the complex, multilevel artistic vehicle that he has constructed around the infrared camera.
The thermal imaging camera processes infrared radiation rather than the intensity of visible light, thereby registering the differences in temperature as an image in which cold spots show as white, and warm ones as dark. As soon as you touch something, the camera reveals the outline of the hand. The resultant sharp image – a thermogram, is reminiscent of a photographic negative.
It is two specific qualities of the infrared camera that matter most to Richard Mosse. Firstly, the scope for documenting tragic moments from a considerable distance. This enables the artist to be present at the place of the action, yet at the same time, powerless in the face of the unfolding event. The drama is seen but no intervention is possible. Mosse recalls some particularly cruel moments – which he has decided to leave out of his film – when being helpless reduced him to despair. This method of ‘distance-gazing’ could be interpreted as a perverse analogy of television footage – to which we have become immune. Mosse wants to break through this indifference. The second feature of the thermal imaging camera, which is of particular interest to the artist, is the aestheticisation of the image – the driving device of Mosse’s art, which he has achieved by different means. He has been repeatedly accused of using human drama to produce beautiful images. Nothing is more unfair. Mosse has a unique sense of the effectiveness of the photographic message; he intuitively combines his documentary instincts with an understanding of the visual process. He searches for images that affect us emotionally and which convey the veracity of the recorded event. Mosse has come to realise that the, apparently authentic, realistic image has become too commonplace to have any emotional impact. He has moved on to images that operate not only through their content but also their form. In the series from the Congo, the replacement of green with intense pink has turned up the tension, urging a new way of looking at the conflicted reality.
In Incoming, we witness refugees arriving on the coast of Greece. The dramatic is blurred with the run-of-the-mill, the mysterious with the mundane. All the images – sharp, contrasting and unrealistic in the intensities of black and white – are disquieting. Their protagonists give the impression of ghosts, with which we almost immediately identify ourselves. The thermal image extracts a reflex of empathy. To a certain extent, we ourselves become refugees. The problem reaches us not as information, but as experience. It knocks us out of our TV lethargy, restoring our humane responses.
The Castle, 2016
In the huge photographs that combine into the series The Castle, Richard Mosse has presented the refugee issue from a completely different angle. The shots record refugee camps, which are seen as a permanent destination neither by the occupants nor the providers. The places provide temporary shelter until decisions can be reached – unsurprisingly, they are makeshift, rough-and-ready and unappealing. There is no attention to higher human needs; the focus is on the provision of life’s necessities.
To record these images, Mosse again used the thermal imaging camera. The familiar effect relies on silhouettes registered through their thermal pattern rather than through the reflection of light. This has resulted in images of cities that look skeletal – as if their outer layer has been ripped off. We look at the fences, tents, people queuing for food, the guarded gates and loudspeakers – but it all seems stripped bare, unfinished. The provocative formula of the image demands doubly attentive scrutiny on the part of the viewer. What Richard Mosse excels in is his gift for guiding our perception and empathy.
The ‘spaced out’ images of the refugee city transport us into a world of radically different town planning. Unlike cities that have housed generations of dwellers, these are ad-hoc urbanisations; their inhabitants have no sense of emotional ownership. To the fear that they had experienced first in their own country, and then during their flight, they now experience fear of the future awaiting them. And their problems must now be taken on board by those who live in cities that are confident in their own status.
Maria Anna Potocka