Stumbling into The Enclave it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust, first to the dark, then to the layout, and then there’s the pink. Elsa Schiaparelli would have called it “shocking”. As a surrealist fashion designer working between the two world wars, this lurid shade was to become her signature colour. Richard Mosse describes it as: “Ludicrously palleted bubblegum pink.” Elsa Schiaparelli described it as: “Life-giving, like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world put together, a colour of China and Peru but not of the West.” And in this instance a colour of the Congo, beautiful, life-giving, but violent in it’s assertion of dominance over the landscape and people. But it is this beauty which Richard Mosse describes as “the sharpest tool in the box.” Not only does in create a conflict for the viewer between horror and awe, but it highlights the limitations of photography and film as a documentary medium, the images we see are always heavily edited, selected, and often the real story goes on behind the scenes. “People are so offended by the colour pink,” Richard jokes, “It’s just a feckin’ colour.” But how differently we would react if the images were black and white, or colour. We associate black and white with “truth with a capital T” and yet pink highlights this inherent fallacy.
The symbolism of the infra-red film goes beyond the colour to the idea of ‘revealing’. Now discontinued, the infra-red film was invented to reveal camouflage against landscape, as healthy plants omit infra-red light where camouflage does not. As a conflict that remains mainly unseen by a Western audience, and one in which the conflict is often hidden, by highlighting the limitations of documentary photography Richard Mosse reveals the fuller picture outside the frame. Richard Mosse describes his experience of often arriving just after a horrible act of violence, for example the rape and murder of innocent women and children. Unable to film the act itself, instead we see a funeral, a child sized coffin, juxtaposed with a house being lifted and carried, a reminder of the instability and impermanence of life in the Congo.
Even when he did come face to face with scenes of incredible violence and horrific gore, Richard Mosse chose not to show them. He does not aim to shock the viewer with violence, something that is thrown at us as an almost daily occurrence through film, computer games and on the news. We are desensitized to violence, we are not desensitized to shocking beauty. We are not desensitized to human suffering. Even scenes of enjoyment are like a metaphor for the violence itself, a talent quest and a mock attack seem disturbing but also give a glimmer of hope. These are human beings, on all sides of the conflict (and there are many, it is a very complex situation), all know how to laugh and dance and have seen death. Watching the film we do question what is staged and what is not. The cold challenging faces of the fighters look posed, but really it is a stand off between the subject and the camera. Not wanting to be filmed they take a strong stance, through their defiance creating some of the most lasting and iconic images from the film.
Once your eyes adjust to the dark you realise that’s about as adjusted as you’ll get, the layout of the work does not ask for the viewer to be stagnant (although there are seats provided so that you can chose to be) rather you can stand, walk amongst the screens, sometimes showing the same images, sometimes different. The screens turn on and off, forcing you to change positions, view it from another angle. A group of people stand around a corpse on the street, they gather around it close, then walk to another, standing once more in silence. We stand with them. We walk together to another screen to stand around another fallen body. We are basked in pink, emerged in Ben Frost’s eerie soundtrack. All the screens turn black, we are surrounded by darkness, and the gun shots ring out, first behind us, and then a return shot from in front. We are right in the firing line. A screen lights up, a mountain glowing pink, and streaks of smoke curling across it. We are complicit.
For myself, I was deeply aware of my own ignorance. 5.4 Million people dead. That is more than the population of Melbourne. And many of them children. We take for granted the security provided by the rich mineral wealth of Australia, and yet it is mineral wealth that has fuelled the conflict. Have you bought a diamond, maybe not everyone has, but I am pretty sure you have purchased a mobile phone. The Congo is rich in Coltan which is a major source of Tantulum which is used in many devices such as mobile phones. Ironically Tantulum is named after the Greek Mythological figure Tantalus, “a symbol for temptation without satisfaction”, the route of the word tantalize. And so the wealth of the Congo is a temptation, but one that cannot be satisfied. In a country that has the potential for great wealth, instead great poverty prevails.
There has to be an element of exploitation and voyeurism in a work like this. It would be possible to argue that Richard Mosse is trivialising war by making it beautiful, and as a Western outsider he cannot possibly understand or convey the extent of suffering through such a medium. Richard Mosse’s own knowledge of this is revealed by his obsession with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which he read repeatedly whilst in the Congo and was a great inspiration for this work. And yet it is this very fact that lends power to the work. He is aware of his limitations, the limitations of his medium, of his understanding, and the limitations of reaching people and making them feel something. His own journey deep into the heart of darkness, The Enclave, would always have to be an introspective one as well. And so too our experience is an introspective one, it poses us with a moral dilemma, we too are faced with our own limitations. Nothing in our world is black and white, but maybe it’s pink: shocking, ludicrous, and beautiful.
Richard Mosse The Enclave
October 2015 – February 2016