The Flitting of an Image: Visual Dyslexia in Alfredo Jaar’s ‘The Eyes of Gutete Emerita’
Pelle Valentin Olsen
In this essay I hope to destabilize the very tenacious misconception that there exists a direct link between seeing, deduction of meaning, and action. Furthermore, I will argue that suffering and pain can be of an unimaginable and incomprehensible character and therefore beyond representation. There exist, so to speak, images that cannot be read –images that escape the spectator. Thus, the rendering visible of this suffering poses serious challenges to spectatorship as well as to the person trying to represent and convey it, be it an artist, photographer, journalist or academic. Finally, and with Walter Benjamin as inspiration, this essay will analyze Alfredo Jaar’s installation, The Eyes of Gutete Emerita (1996), as an alternative mode of dealing with the problematic of rendering visible.
The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.
– Walter Benjamin
Never before have images of pain and suffering been more easily available to us than now. We are constantly bombarded, in no small amount, by images of war and death and we engage, almost on a daily basis, in acts of seeing – from afar, pictures of wars fought many miles away. Interestingly enough, as the abundance of such images seems only to be increasing, so does the belief that seeing these pictures will lead to action and change. As spectators we often uncritically assume that the image is a direct conduit to meaning and that by watching we can claim to understand what the image contains. In this essay I hope to destabilize, or at least to problematize, the very tenacious misconception there exists a direct link between seeing, deduction of meaning, and action. Furthermore, I will argue that suffering and pain can be of an unimaginable and incomprehensible character and therefore beyond representation. There exist, speak, images that cannot be read — images that escape the spectator. Thus, the rendering visible of this suffering poses serious challenges to spectatorship as well as to the person trying to represent and convey it, be it an artist, photographer, journalist or academic. Finally, and with Walter Benjamin as inspiration, this essay will analyze Alfredo Jaar’s installation, The Eyes of Gutete Emerita (1996), as an alternate mode of dealing with the problematic of rendering visible.
The Eyes of Gutete Emerita and the Limits of the Visible
Before moving on to a reading of the installation, I find it necessary to describe the artist as well as the context in which the installation came into being. Alfredo Jaar, born in Chile in 1956, is a contemporary artist, architect and filmmaker. He lives and works in New York, and his work has been shown all over the world. Recognized for his individual exhibitions as well as his public interventions and installations, much of Jaar’s work has dealt extensively with the limited efficacy of photography as documentation and as a forerunner for action. In fact, one of his most critically acclaimed projects, entitled The Rwanda Project 1994-2000, was born out of the artist’s frustration with the indifference and lack of action following the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and with the horrid pictures documenting the atrocity. Outraged at the media coverage of the genocide, Jaar decided to go to Rwanda. Upon his return to New York he realized that the more than 3,500 photographs he took of the genocide were tantamount to useless:
I realized that I couldn’t use them. It didn’t make sense to use them; people did not react to these kinds of images. Why would they react now? I was starting to think that there must be another way to talk about violence without recurring to violence … (Art21, interview, “The Rwanda Project”).
The Rwanda Project, therefore, ought to be seen as an examination of the possibilities of representing atrocity and trauma rather than the representation of the actual atrocity. Such a moving of the focus automatically also challenges more traditional and positivistic modes of representation. The project, as I see it, is the result of Jaar’s attempt to create “another way to talk about violence without recurring to violence.” The project is by no means solely an opening toward a new mode of artistically dealing with violence, pain, and suffering, but also a coming to terms with the consequences of the ambiguous relationship between seeing and taking action – the fact that pictures of mutilated and unidentifiable bodies effect us only momentarily and that they in no way dictate action (Allen 2009: 169; Sontag 2003: 14-17). Simultaneously, the installation articulates that photography is utterly insufficient when it comes to translating the suffering and pain depicted within it (Sontag 2003: 125-126). In one interview Jaar described the 21 pieces that comprise The Rwanda Project as “an exercise of representation.” However, in Jaar’s own words, “they all failed” (Art21, interview, “The Rwanda Project”). Just as Jaar was extremely affected and haunted by his experiences in Rwanda, the work is indeed a haunted work. He is a traumatized person, searching for a way in which he can share what he saw with others, searching for an audience. However, Jaar is by no means a complete failure. He manages to pose extremely compelling questions, and, at the same time, finds a way “to talk about suffering without making the victim suffer again” (Art21, interview, “The Rwanda Project”). In this vein, I will argue, Jaar’s work is ethical in that it preserves the dignity of the photographee (Gutete Emerita). The installation is void of any form of the pornography of pain and suffering as well as cannibalistic voyeurism. Since a display of the “corpses on the ground, rotting in the African sun” (fig. 1; 1996) would only have made the victims and survivors relive their very private and incomprehensible pain, Jaar shows them respect by not reproducing the atrocities inflicted upon them.
Fig. 1. Alfredo Jaar, The Eyes of Gutete Emerita, 1996, slide 2/4. Part of the artist’s Rwanda Project
Susan Sontag, among others, has described how we seem to have an unquestionable right to show the pain of others and, as I have already mentioned, that we think that we are actually capable of showing this pain. This right, she writes, is left particularly unchallenged when the atrocities happen far away and even more so when the atrocities are committed by exotic and dark-skinned people (2003: 70-73). If we expect – the result of a media-sanctioned reflex, to see the mutilated and famine-ravaged bodies of Africans, then Jaar lets us down. “One craves the images,” writes Josè Falconi about Jaar’s Rwanda Project (2008: 134), but we are provided only with splinters and flitting fragments. It is as if Jaar wants to draw attention to our unquestioned habits as spectators. We expect to see something terrible, but the installation mocks us by only giving us the flickering image. Another striking feature of the installation is the title. The names of victims are rarely mentioned in the caption of photographs (Sontag 2003: 79).
Rather, they remain anonymous bodies to which it is impossible to relate. The Rwanda Project, on the other hand, is experimentation with other ways of establishing empathy and compassion. Yet in Jaar’s work the focus remains on the individual rather than on the hundreds of thousands – a number beyond imagination, killed in the Rwandan genocide. The title – The Eyes of Gutete Emerita, is both the individual story of a victim who survived, and the turning of the photographic object into a subject in her own right. Regardless of whether her story can be told or rendered visible, Gutete Emerita is an individual with an individual story. Her eyes, as they for a split second, break through the screen, but vanish before they can accuse us of ignoring her pain and closing our eyes to the atrocities witnessed by the eyes in front of us. The ghost of Gutete Emerita does not make claims and as spectators we are left only with the hazy memory of a flitting image.
The Flitting of an Image
“The picture of the past flits by,” wrote Walter Benjamin in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and never seen again” (1968: 255). Although he never saw himself specifically as someone preoccupied by the study of visuality, the indeed very visual and poetic language of Benjamin lends itself as a viable framework for an alternative discussion of representation and spectatorship, and, as we shall see, particularly when read in tandem with The Eyes of Gutete Emerita. The eyes of Emerita certainly ‘flit by.’ In fact, the final image is a shock-like projection fired into the face of the spectator only to disappear again after less than a second. The image, as Benjamin wrote, flashes up and is never seen again. Were the eyes – the eyes of Gutete Emerita even there, or is she simply a ghost that haunts not only Jaar, but his work and now us, the spectators as well? What did her eyes look like? Were they brown, or perhaps colored in a different complexion? What was reflected in her dark pupils? In no small measure then, and just like Jaar, are we faced with failure when we think back and try to recreate Emerita’s eyes. As if complying with Benjamin’s Theses V, Jaar does not allow us to see the image again – it simply ‘flits’ and ‘flashes.’ Jaar prevents us from any lingering on the image and we are incapable of reading it. Thus it refuses both identification and recognition and no narrative can be found in Emerita’s gaze. Furthermore, Jaar enhances and accumulates suspension and expectation by decreasing the time lapse between each image. By doing so the text-image juxtaposition builds up and almost foreshadows the catapult-like shock of the final image by also decreasing the words of each frame. Seconds before the image of the eyes assails us, the spectator is left with only two sentences that for years have haunted the artist: “I remember her eyes. The Eyes of Gutete Emerita” (fig. 2; 1996).
Perhaps, and this is my argument, the image is not supposed to be read, cannot be read. We are bound to fail if we think that by conduit of the image we can share Jaar’s experiences, not to mention the incomprehensible pain and suffering of Gutete Emerita. Once again, I find it useful to consult Benjamin. In his illuminating reading of Benjamin’s acclaimed essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Michael Taussig emphasizes the importance of the distinction that Benjamin made between ‘contemplation’ and ‘distraction.’ Benjamin argues, according to Taussig, that ‘contemplation’ is the epitome of academicism – the rewarding and thorough study of an object. What Benjamin had in mind, Taussig tells us, was the artwork, in all its shapes, prior to the invention of the camera and the movies (1991:148). Contrary to ‘contemplation,’ ‘distraction’ is an entirely different type of relationship between object and spectator. This type of spectatorship has more in common with the “type of flitting and barely conscious peripheral-vision perception unleashed by modern life at the crossroads of the city, the capitalist market, and modern technology” (ibid: 148). This type of spectatorship then, is centered on photography, movies and advertising. Having already described how Jaar uses the image as a visual shock-like assault and how he prevents us from any subsequent lingering on it, I hope to make viable my application of Benjamin’s notion of ‘distraction’ to The Eyes of Gutete Emerita. Exactly because it “stressed the uselessness of its work for contemplation,” (ibid: 148) Benjamin found inspiration in Dadaism. To Benjamin, the art of the Dadaists was an “instrument of ballistics,” something that “hit the spectator like a bullet” (1968: 238). Is this not, one is compelled to wonder, exactly what is at work in Jaar’s installation? Are the eyes of Gutete Emerita not a visual bullet that hits us between the eyes and by its volatility shuts out all possibility for subsequent contemplation? The eyes of Gutete, which is to say the distraction, the shutting out of contemplation, is a ghostly assault on the camera as well as the spectator. How? The flitting shock therapy of the catapulted image assaults and undermines the camera/gun that shoots and objectifies. After the assault, the indexical quality that the camera is allegedly equipped with is left in a painful seizure of epilepsy. As Falconi writes, the assault is not simply a “deferral” of the camera’s indexical status, but an attempt to completely destroy it. The ghost, according to Falconi, “is the desired result, of the explicit assault on the photograph’s indexical quality” (2008: 133). But far from attacking only the camera, the unworldly Gutete Emerita, as a ghost – the epitome of unreliability and diffidence, also attacks the spectator. For something, “an instrument of ballistics,” hits the spectator too. The projectile unravels us as spectators and challenges our critical ability. As a result, the objective distance is totally obliterated. The camera is not a gun and the spectator is visually illiterate. Dyslexia is the inability to read caused by the brain’s disability to recognize and handle certain symbols. In the case of Jaar’s installation, our inability to read the picture leaves us in a state of visual dyslexia beyond recovery. Taken by surprise and completely confused, all we have to relate to is the shock. Comparing the screen on which a film takes place to the canvas of a painting, Benjamin asserts that the painting almost lures the spectator to contemplate, to read the picture through a long and patient line of associations. The frame of the movie, on the other hand, does not allow such an intimate and mature relationship. Rather, the movie frame, because of its constant oscillation and flicker, and much like the image of Emerita’s eyes, “cannot be arrested” (1968: 238). Thus, the representation of pain and suffering fails except for in a flitting moment which “is never seen again.”
As Benjamin is often invoked, in a by now quite versatile number of contexts, I find it increasingly important to contextualize my use of his aphorisms. It is needless to say (and therefore it must be said) that Benjamin, with his notion of ‘distraction’ as a new form of perception surrounding movies, photography and advertisement, did not refer to post-modern or experimental cinema à la Godard. Nor did he have the latest breathless Hollywood action movie in mind. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” was published in 1936. The movies available to Benjamin in 1936 differ vastly from contemporary movies both in terms of form, content, and structure and I certainly do not suggest that his ideas, without further ado, can be applied to contemporary culture. Such an application of Benjamin would pass too lightly over his profound insight into his own time. However, what is pertinent to the matter at hand is his notion of ever-changing and unstable images – distractions, refusing to be read – images that assail and confuse the spectator.
Fig. 3. Alfredo Jaar, The Eyes of Gutete Emerita, 1996, slide 3/4. Part of the artist’s Rwanda Project
Fig. 4. Alfredo Jaar, The Eyes of Gutete Emerita, 1996, slide 4/4. Part of the artist’s Rwanda Project
The Breach of a Contract
Unlike the picture of Gutete Emerita’s eyes, we are required to pay close attention to the text. All the images including text (the first three) simply stay on the screen long enough for us to linger on them and read them. As I have already argued, the image of the eyes holds no narrative and conveys no meaning. Rather, the only narrative in the installation seems to be located in the text preceding the sudden ‘flitting’ of the eyes. The text conveys the story of the individual Gutete Emerita. However, the text is not a stable conduit to the acquisition of meaning, empathy, and compassion and conveys only the story written down by the artist, not the experience of the atrocities. The text does not direct us but rather, it is simply all we have. The text is a trap of sorts because it gives us a fake impression of understanding. The few lines of text do not, as the image does not, enable us to understand the atrocities witnessed by Gutete Emerita. In fact, the verbalizing and intellectualizing of the suffering in words and images might have the opposite effect. By reconstituting violence and suffering as something verbal or visual, according to Veena Das, we may end up neglecting the reality of the experience since verbal discourse unravels “the concrete and existential reality of the suffering victim” (1995: 143). With both the image and the text destabilized as signifiers of meaning it is extremely difficult to contemplate the installation and to decipher the experience of atrocity hidden within it. In his critique of the academic practice of reading “ideology into events, and artifacts, cockfights and carnivals, advertisements and film, private and public spaces,“ Taussig does away with the status of the “surface phenomenon” as something that “stands as a cipher for uncovering horizon after horizon of otherwise obscure systems of meanings” (1991: 152). Following Taussig, we ought to admit that we are in fact not contemplative individuals, but rather, that we are merely distracted spectators in front of the screen. Jaar’s work strips both the act of seeing and spectatorship itself from its claim to meaning, insight and truth. But instead of giving up, Jaar gives us the shock. The shock is all there is. It does not get better than that. The image is the cut and the black gap between the frames, and the flicker that cannot be read. The Eyes of Gutete Emerita leaves no space for “thick description” (Geertz 1973). Nor can there be a “civil contract of photography” as described by Azoulay (2008). In fact, Jaar’s installation seriously questions the possibility of implementing Azoulay’s project. In The Civil Contract of Photography, Azoulay advocates for a new ethics of spectatorship. By entering into a civil contract we, the spectators, must abide by our contractual duty to pay attention and try to understand the photographed persons. Hence, according to Azoulay, the photograph speaks a language of obligation – we must treat the photographed person as someone who is making a claim. As citizens of photography, the spectator becomes the addressee of such claims (2008: 143-144). But the ghost of Gutete Emerita and her flitting eyes do not make claims. In this sense, I see the installation as a productive breach of the contract and the foundation of a much more radical project and since the surface of the photo does not render itself visible or readable, no contract can be drawn upon it and no claims are made by the eyes of Gutete Emerita. Moreover, when the image is a mere distraction and useless for contemplation, we are compelled to ask: with whom are we to enter into a contract? Where is the photograph and what happened to the photographed? Azoulay’s contract ignores too easily the difference between “reading” and “being read” and locks the so-called citizens of photography within the picture in order for the spectators to understand their stories and their claims. The Eyes of Gutete Emerita refuses to become a citizen of photography and insists that art-going audiences far from the sites of violence cannot understand the pain and suffering experienced by others. No matter how long we contemplate, the suffering depicted in the photograph will not become meaningful, truly visible, or comprehensible. Azoulay’s project finds its authority in the very accurate lingering and close reading of the photograph and is a demanding contemplative task not completely unlike Benjamin’s notion of contemplation. But citizen or not, as the spectator, in search of meaning, cuts through the myriad layers of “horizon after horizon of otherwise obscure systems of meanings” (1991: 152) to use Taussig’s words again, the spectator makes clear and even reinforces the relationship and hierarchy of power between the reader and the person being read in the photograph. How can we even be sure that Gutete Emerita wants to become a citizen, wants to share her pain with us? Rather than claiming to understand the claims of the photographed, a decent citizen ought to admit his visual dyslexia when it comes to the traumas of others. In his essay “The Prose of Suffering and the Practice of Silence,” Michael Jackson writes that instead of searching for a new discourse that does justice to the suffering victim “it may be more realistic to admit that suffering brings us to the limits of language” (2004: 50). Expanding Jackson’s notion to also encompass visual language, it becomes very relevant to Jaar’s work. Not bound by Azoulay’s contract, Jaar admits the limits of both verbal and visual language. This freedom is what allows him to experiment with the destabilization and dismantling of the photographic medium instead of contemplating it.
In his interesting reading of the cinema of Chinese director Zhang Yimou, Rey Chow describes what he sees as a move towards “an ethics of postvisuality.” According to Chow, Yimou deconstructs and undermines the medium in which he works – the visual. Hence, Yimou deflates visuality’s “claim to clarity, truth, and wisdom and its contemporary media claim to documentary transparency and authenticity” (2004: 686). In conclusion, I would like to suggest that it might be helpful to think of Jaar’s project in similar terms: a destabilization of the visual as a category. The camera/gun, in the case of Jaar, has backfired and instead of shooting to capture, objectify, and render transparent, it shoots its own positivistic conquests. But is The Eyes of Gutete Emerita also a move towards the post-visual? The installation, of course, is not post- as in beyond the visual per se, but definitely post as in beyond visuality as a secure and stabile conduit to meaning and truth. However, the installation does leave open a small space for compassion and empathy – such is my hope at least. Perhaps this makes me guilty of strutting naively through Taussig’s “horizon[s] of otherwise obscure systems of meanings” too, but I believe that it is possible to establish at least a minimum of compassion and empathy since the consequences of the opposite are simply too somber. In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt describes pity as the “perversion of compassion” (1963: 84). Pity, she writes, establishes distance from the suffering victims because it views them as belonging to anonymous groups such as “the refugees,” “the poor,” and “the suffering hordes.” Compassion, on the other hand, “abolishes the distance, the in-between which always exists in human intercourse” (ibid: 81). Moreover, Arendt describes compassion as having a tense relationship with words. Compassion is linked to “muteness” or “awkwardness with words” (ibid: 81). Is it viable to transfer this tense relationship to both image and words in Jaar’s installation? Is the shock-like projection of the eyes perhaps an act of compassion? “An instrument of ballistics” that by distraction takes us by surprise, breaks down, and “abolishes the distance, the in-between” that Arendt talks about? Is there perhaps room for a second of compassion and a sort of mutual vulnerability in the collapsed distance between the suffering victim and the unraveled spectator? Jaar does not answer these questions. Instead, he leaves them open in his search for an audience and the main function of the installation remains the destabilization of visuality. After all, as Chow writes, “having sight may be nothing more than being able to afford and possess a video camera” (2004: 687).
Pelle Valentin Olsen is an undergraduate student at the Carsten Niebuhr Department at the University of Copenhagen where he focuses on, among others things, Arabic literature, modern culture and the study of the visual. His main research interest is the concept memory and identity in Iraqi-Jewish literature. Pelle has also studied at the University of Damascus and the University of California, Los Angeles.
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