The Enclave, 2012–13, is a visceral and moving work by Irish artist Richard Mosse filmed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mosse spent years developing and creating the project inspired by Joseph Conrad’s modernist literary masterpiece Heart of Darkness (1899), set in an 1890s Congo wracked by war as it remains today (an estimated 5.4 million lives have been lost to war-related causes since 1998).1 International Rescue Committee, Mortality in the Democratic Republic of Congo: An Ongoing Crisis, 2007, accessed 12 April 2015. Mosse was in part drawn to a disjuncture between Conrad’s fictionalised account, laden with symbolism, and the author’s documentation of war crimes made as a humanitarian; and in part to the crisis of representation artists, photojournalists and filmmakers are confronted with when trying to depict brutality, suffering and destruction.
Commissioned for the Irish representation at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, The Enclave is an immersive six-screen video art installation. It was shot on 16-millimetre colour infrared film, a discontinued film stock developed by the United States military as a reconnaissance tool during the Second World War. The resultant images reveal parts of the spectrum beyond the range of the human eye, presenting otherwise invisible wavelengths in vivid purple and crimson hues.
Shot in the lush regions of North and South Kivu in Eastern Congo, Mosse’s imagery is hallucinatory, dreamlike and uncanny; while everything is presented in fine and accurate documentary detail, the usual green colours of the jungle and forest are replaced by shimmering violet. The visual distortion is intensified by a surround-sound design by Melbourne-born, Iceland-based musician and sound artist Ben Frost, who travelled with Mosse to the Congo to make field recordings. These Frost later combined with electronic composition to create a score which, like the visuals, combine the real and embellished into a new and strange subjectivity. Trevor Tweeten’s cinematography moves the camera over mud roads and rocky paths, situating the viewer close to individual rebels or villagers to provide multiple viewpoints. When projected across six screens in the gallery, the footage combines shifting landscapes with muted portraiture.
Mosse’s exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria also comprises Higher ground, 2012, a large-scale photograph of a young man, most probably a rebel soldier, sitting atop a small tree with a Kalashnikov slung around his neck, his left hand curled around the rifle’s grip. He looks back at the camera, returning its gaze, somewhat relaxed as his gumboots dangle in space above abundant purple foliage, the blue skyline framing his impassivity.
There is no script or directorial staging in The Enclave. Rather, the work is essayist; we see bodies pass along a path, a birth by caesarean and a beauty contest in a village hall. While the camera is acknowledged, sometimes acted up to by its subjects, it is somehow always distant as we play witness to the visible and some part of the invisible parts of this world. The sensorial slippage introduced by Mosse echoes the approach taken by Conrad in his attempts to come to grips with the far-reaching trauma of colonialism in the Congo. About this, he reflects:
How many different ways can we read a photograph of a child holding an assault rifle? The gesture carried by the infrared ‘false-colour’ palette seems to open up this field of potential signification by stepping across a threshold into fiction. Joseph Conrad followed a similar strategy in Heart of Darkness, representing the specifics of a major human rights disaster with a deeply personal and highly aestheticised work of fiction.2 Richard Mosse in Din Heagney, ‘Elusive enclaves: interview with Richard Mosse for the Foreign Art Office’, August 2011, accessed 17 Sep. 2015.
Rather than fictionalising the place, an element of fiction – or at least ‘non-reality’ – is introduced by Mosse into the filmic realm. This shift is not achieved by manipulating his work on a computer, or by scripting his content, but rather by the artist’s selection of a particular set of tools and materials.
In this body of work Mosse thus engages with some of the key issues of documentary photography: Is there such a thing as truth in images? To what extent is an ‘impassive lens’ important when telling personal stories? Is an impassive lens even possible given that the very presence of a photographer changes the situation being photographed? If the photograph is already a manipulated version of the real, can a staged or recreated scene depict the past accurately?
The legacy and modern-day fetishism of Henri Cartier Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ and the concept of invisible, ‘hands-off’ photography looms large over these discussions; ideas that have little relevance in a world of regularly manipulated digital images. Even Robert Capa’s celebrated Spanish Civil War photographs are said to have been staged, as were many of the iconic images of the Vietnam War that did so much to fuel American public opinion against the US intervention. Mosse plays the role of documentary photographer at the same time as pointing out its problematic position with the arresting colour of his work and by being an outsider. This Irishman in Africa employs a nearly extinct material in order to examine photography: ‘a medium in technological and philosophical transition’.3 ibid.
The Enclave depicts a complicated, strife-ridden place in a way that reflects both its complexity and that of any attempt to communicate warfare and trauma through the lens. The work’s strategy of beauty and transfixion combats the wider invisibility of a conflict that has claimed so many lives.
1 International Rescue Committee, Mortality in the Democratic Republic of Congo: An Ongoing Crisis, 2007 accessed 12 April 2015.
2 Richard Mosse in Din Heagney, ‘Elusive enclaves: interview with Richard Mosse for the Foreign Art Office’, August 2011, accessed 17 Sep. 2015.