Richard Mosse's bruising images of bloody war

Richard Mosse’s installation at the Venice Biennale features his grim photographs of the Congo, writes Peter Murray

THE ability of the Venice Biennale to capture the zeitgeist is remarkable. Two years ago, the Biennale had a sense of anarchy, spurred on by banks collapsing and the questioning of societal institutions.

In 2013, the mood is introspection, with curator, Massimiliano Gioni, reflecting on the art of the 20th century and its achievements and failures. The Biennale centres on the exhibition, ‘Il Palazzo Encyclopaedico’, an odyssey that covers kilometres of gallery space and includes work by 158 artists. In addition, there are 88 national ‘pavilions’, mostly in the Giardini. Outside of that, countries such as Angola, Azerbijian and Ireland have to fend for themselves, renting spaces throughout the city. Ireland is showing its artist in the Fondaco Marcello, on the Grand Canal, between the Rialto bridge and San Marco.

The impact of the Irish entry has been considerable. Although young, photographer Richard Mosse has a distinguished international exhibition record.

His work, The Enclave , which contains large photographs and a multi-screen video installation in a darkened space, is complex and powerful.

Curator Anna O’Sullivan, director of the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny, has realised one of the most impressive Irish presentations at Venice.

Mosse studied at King’s College and Yale. In 2009, he gained press accreditation to work with the US military in Iraq, representing his campus newsletter, the ‘Yale Daily News’. Mosse used his large, unwieldy camera to photograph US military forces standing amid the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, strafed cars almost unrecognisable, buildings with their sides torn off, and vehicles that had become tombs for their occupants.

In 2010, Mosse extended this interest in the dystopian to the Congo, a country beset by strife, corruption and civil war. Four years earlier, when Joseph Kabila was elected president of the Congo, there was an attempt at reconciliation, and CNDP rebels were wooed out of the jungle and over to the government side. Embedded within the Congolese military, using Aerochrome, a type of film developed in the US in the 1940s, Mosse recorded the integration of rebels into the Congolese army. As well as portraits of rebels and panoramic images of the countryside, he recorded, on 16mm film, the precariousness of life in a Congolese refugee camp. Aerochrome renders the soldiers, mercenaries and refugees in tones of electric pinks, lavenders and purples.

Many of Mosse’s images of the Congo are harrowing: war, rape and strife are everyday events.

In the darkened gallery space, with a thunderous soundtrack, multiple images assault the senses, but there are messages of hope; a baby being born, and a memorable image of a man carrying a gun as he submerges beneath water. Given their grim subject matter, Mosse’s photographs, resplendent in pinks and magentas, mock the phrase ‘rose-tinted spectacles’.

The images are an equivalent of Milton’s Paradise Lost, showing a world sinking away from civilisation. His approach is as conventional as the famous war photographers, and his eye is equal to theirs, in seeking out images that shock, disturb, and yet reassure audiences in ‘normal’ cities that they are protected.

Mosse’s photographs record scenes overlooked by the international press, and many people will shy away from explicit visual narratives of human disaster presented as art in a gallery. Printed on a large scale, and clad in expensive frames, Mosse’s photographs sell in the Jack Shaimam gallery in New York, and are featured in photo-biennales. His work reinforces a neo-colonial view of Africa, presenting a negative picture of a beset continent inhabited by unfortunates and led by corrupt politicians.

His images echo the writings of Paul Theroux, one of the stars at this year’s Immrama travel writing festival in Lismore (Jun 13-16). Theroux has described the government of Angola as “predatory, tyrannical, unjust, utterly uninterested in its people ... and indifferent to their destitution and inhuman living conditions.” This jaundiced view is not shared by all. Some commentators regard Luanda, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, as a hope for Africa.

Mosse’s work can be seen as exploitative of hapless people caught in civil war. But his work is justly celebrated for its epic quality and vision, and has featured twice in Time magazine’s photos of the year.

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