Photographer Richard Mosse is perhaps best known for his expansive multimedia work ‘The Enclave.’ Using now-discontinued military surveillance film, Mosse travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and captured scenes of the brutal civil conflict in the region. The film rendered the footage in bright pinks and magentas, creating disorienting and dreamlike landscapes, populated by heavily armed guerrillas roaming the hills. In collaboration with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and composer Ben Frost, Mosse then created an immersive installation for the Irish Pavilion at the 55th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia in 2013. He later won the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2014 for the same work (which was also shown in an expanded form by The Vinyl Factory at their Brewer Street Car Park in Soho, Central London that same year).
For his new installation, ominously entitled ‘Incoming,’ Mosse has returned in some ways to the methodology which has been so fruitful and ultimately successful for him. Installed inside The Curve, the unique space built into the centre of the Barbican in London, the artist’s project is a timely and incendiary piece of political commentary that negotiates the current refugee crisis engulfing the Middle East and Europe, while simultaneously building on the artist’s previous work with mitigated gaze and perspective.
When entering the exhibition space, you encounter a grid of screens which all shuffle along in rows, first to the right and then back to the left. Combined they show a single disjointed picture, but the movement creates the sensation of someone searching through multiple shots to find a particular view. In the accompanying press text, Mosse’s equipment is described as a ‘powerful telephoto military camera that can detect the human body from a distance of more than 30km and accurately identify an individual from 6.3km, day or night.’ That feels telling here because the way the screens move suggests someone looking for a target, searching through reconnaissance images purposefully to find, perhaps, ‘enemy combatants.’ At this point the title of the installation as a whole weighs heavy on the mind; the cry ‘Incoming!’ registering almost like a soldier’s warning as they see an opposing army approaching.
As the landscape finally gives way to something more recognisable, we see what looks like a refugee camp, complete with fences and tents. The film used has a dehumanising effect, something which becomes more and more obvious as the viewer progresses through the exhibition. The figures look like an exercise in 3D modelling or graphic design, or maybe proofs for a computer game, but in reality they show what has been called the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Mosse’s presentation increasingly blurs the reality of their situation, while simultaneously documenting it.
Two digital prints follow the multiple screen installation, both of which heighten this sense of shifting perspective. In one, a refugee camp sprawls out across a harbour next to a massive truck stop. The scene is almost certainly the Port of Calais in France, where during the referendum on British membership of the European Union, the right-wing press in the United Kingdom reported daily attempts by refugees to board trucks and sneak into the country. What’s striking is the sense of the everyday, possibly even the mundane, which permeates the image. In the top half, refugees play football, while in the bottom trucks go about running goods between the European continent and the UK. Between the greyscale imagery and the long range perspective of the shot, none of it seems as real or as shocking as we intuitively know that it should.
This is especially emphasised by the second work, which shows rows of tents and makeshift shelters inside what appears to be a sports stadium; two things immediately stand out. The first is that the way the setting is depicted, makes it appear more like a graphite drawing then a photograph. Again the way the image is made feels like it obfuscates what is being portrayed, creating even more distance between the viewer and the frankly unimaginable difficulties they are witnessing. The second is that setting really brings the strange and complicated role of the ‘audience’ into focus as well. The stands surrounding the refugee camp are all empty, and the spectacle we are seeing is not entertainment. Two teams playing football might play to a full house, but who is really paying attention to this crisis? The empty seats are a pointed accusation of apathy and questionable priorities.
The final film work which shares its title with that of the exhibition as a whole is a stark and difficult watch, spaced across three large screens at the end of the gallery space. Sometimes one or two screens will drop out, leaving only a single point of focus. The photographic techniques Mosse employs throughout the show are much more visible here, with less of the jerky movement of the first piece or the limitations of the static works. We see the strangely rendered figures quietly checking their valuables underneath the pillows of their bunk beds. We see children playing football and getting into a shoving match before finally being pulled apart by adults. We see young children riding their bikes or slowly skipping through the giant door of what looks like an aeroplane hangar in which they are housed.
Where Mosse’s attempts at symbolism arguably come up against their biggest hurdles are in some of the quieter moments of this film work. The young boy riding in slow motion on his bike for example, only heightens the sense that the whole thing is really just a strange animation rather than a documentary. I found myself in two minds in particular over a series of images which show refugees collecting Christian symbols together to protect them from fire. Immediately afterwards the left and right panels drop out and we see a single Muslim man washing his face and praying to Mecca in amidst the chaos. Granted with the outright offensive language used by both the press and politicians (‘horde,’ ‘swarm,’ et al.) to describe the threat of a Muslim invasion of Europe from the Middle East, one can more than appreciate what appear to be Mosse’s attempts to subvert that narrative, but there is something here that feels heavy handed in ways which detract rather than support his overall project. From a purely aesthetic point of view, all of the images shown are powerful and confusing in equal measure, the dehumanised figures at once reflecting and chastising their portrayal in much of the world’s media networks.
The work is presented in press materials as a single cohesive installation work comprised of four components, but it’s the gallery space itself which really cements the notion that this more than merely an exhibition of photography. The Curve is exactly what you would imagine it would be from the title, a singular space which arcs around, leaving the audience at most points perpetually ‘in-between’ the work. Considering the subject matter being examined here, that state of being within something where there is no fixed or obvious beginning or end feels laden with significance. As I encountered the final film work, I found myself recalling the detail of the refugee camp from the first block of screens; the trail of people which curled around a fence, seemingly waiting to eat at a makeshift canteen. That sense of being shepherded without a clear idea of destination not only clashes pointedly with the combative connotations of the exhibition’s title, but also helps demarcate the installation as a larger immersive experience that extends beyond any single static or moving image work.
There’s sense contradictory duality that in many ways defines ‘Incoming,’ and a pervasive sense of unresolved tension; this can feel as disconcerting for the viewer as it is accurate for the subject matter. In an era that is increasingly coming to be defined by peoples’ willingness to embrace easy and reductive answers, perhaps that’s the most significant point Mosse makes here. Like it or not, this is all much more complicated than its presentation has thus far indicated, and one way or another we’re going to need to have a much longer conversation in order really address this crisis. Exactly how much longer we will continue to procrastinate having said conversation, sadly remains to be seen.
By Will Gresson