Alfredo Jaar The Garden of Good and Evil to 8th April 2018, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
It seems to me that a lot of art galleries these last few years have been devoting more and more space to exhibitions which tell of human suffering. Refugees, torture, assassinations, mass migrations - nearly all of them, if not all, the product of our political dystopia. And we haven’t really got stuck into the consequences of climate change yet. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) seems an incongruous place to find more of this genre. The YSP is not far short of the Garden of Eden. Indeed, the first installation one sees of Jaar’s exhibition, with its garden centre like appearance belies the horrors that await. One hundred and one trees in rows of planters each one metre square conceal in their midst rusting steel cages and cells which replicate the space available to detainees in secret CIA detention centres around the globe.
Inside a cage
The work was inspired by a poem One Square Metre of Prison by Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet. In this respect one could dwell on the containment of nearly two million people in the Gaza strip, also known as the world’s largest prison. In Jaar’s installation, even the trees themselves are contained. In the Underground Gallery adjacent to the Garden the first installation – The Sound of Silence - is an eight minute long film of captions of text and a solitary photograph which briefly flashes on screen (literally). This piece tells of the brief life of a disturbed South African photographer, Kevin Carter. In 1994 he won a Pulitzer Prize for a picture taken in the Sudan of an abandoned infant, alone except for a vulture lurking not far behind. Carter spoke of how he waited twenty minutes to see if the vulture would flap its wings, but he had to make do without. He took his pictures and then retired for a fag. The picture was published in the New York Times, and then as we say today ‘it went viral.’ It brought scorn on his head. Three months after winning the Pulitzer Prize he committed suicide. The whole artwork makes for an uncomfortable experience. The simple, factual retelling of the story, and the brief exposure of the picture is of course in itself presented as an artwork, and thus begs the question whether we, at a third remove, are voyeurs observing the pornography of war. Others would argue that the photographer’s job is to capture the truth, and Carter’s picture certainly did that powerfully, just as years before a screaming napalmed Vietnamese child did, or more recently a dead baby washed up on a Mediterranean island did. These pictures may tell the truth, but in truth they don’t seem to change anything very much. The next installation consisted of one hundred pictures, arranged in quartets of a single, seemingly happy child. A Hundred Times Nguyen takes one child to represent the Vietnamese Boat People. The singular photo-booth style portraits exclude context. One wonders what happened to the child.
Large Pile of Old Brick
Elsewhere at YSP I spotted two outdoor sculptures neither of which were given a little identifying plaque. The first, by an unknown scaffolder (or scaffolders) has been there ever since I can recall in over twenty-odd years of visiting YSP. It’s time to credit this as a bona fide installation. Let’s call it Balustrade With Tubes and Brackets. It seems to capture the decay of a classical ancien regime in a cradle of post-modernism. Doesn’t it? The second sculpture, which unfortunately I didn’t have time to explore but only glimpsed from afar in the lengthening shadows of late afternoon, is called Large Pile of Old Brick. I am sure my picture doesn’t do it full justice, but even from where I was stood it looked impressive, with a bearing of symmetric solidity, a large cone between pine trees. I suspect it won’t be there the next time I visit. By then it may be called Pulverised Road Filler.