Richard Mosse – Broken Spectre
There’s a page in Bertolt Brecht’s book War Primer which I think of often, because it seems to encapsulate one of the challenges that we face in environmental change and ecosystem collapse. It shows a group of men at the Krupp Steel Works in Essen, Germany, working on huge sheets of iron which will be made into cannons for the coming Second World War. Brecht’s question to the workers is ‘what’s it all for brothers?’ and the response he imagines them giving never fails to send a shiver down my spine. ‘It’s our living’ they reply. I often wonder what happened to those men in the years that followed.
Environmental destruction reflects a similar paradox. This devastation is not purely wanton; in the end it happens because it drives economies, clothes and feeds people, and particularly feeds them to the standards that we in the west have come to consider our right. The idea that ‘things will only get better’ has become the rule, and in this context no democratic politician will ever be elected on a platform of promising a decline in living standards, even if the alternative is a far worse and uncontrolled decline driven by environmental collapse. Addressing climate change then becomes partly a challenge of finding ways to reset our assumptions about the conditions of our existence, not least our place in and relationship to the natural world.
Richard Mosse has in the past described his mixed media practice as being about exactly this, about resetting our image of things and through it, our thoughts about the things we see. He has previously tried to do this in projects like The Enclave, which used infrared photography to document conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Incoming, which employed military grade thermal imaging to picture the refugee crisis which continues to break on Europe’s shores. His new video installation and book, both titled Broken Spectre, are a plea for the Amazon, which is interesting in itself that in this ultra cynical age someone of his profile is prepared to admit to thinking that photographs, particularly artistic photographs, can advocate for change effectively.
Broken Spectre is impressively massive in its scope, taking us from gold extraction to cattle harvesting, from the microbiome of the Amazon to the macro perspective of entire landscapes.
You know that if nothing else, Mosse’s work will be spectacular, and the 74 minute, four screen installation, with its thunderous soundtrack, is certainly that. Like his previous works, it totally consumes the senses and absorbs you. Horrendous as what it shows, it is hard to look away. Broken Spectre is impressively massive in its scope, taking us from gold extraction to cattle harvesting, from the microbiome of the Amazon to the macro perspective of entire landscapes. It also employs a wide range of imaging techniques from obsolete analogue films, intentionally degraded through their exposure to jungle heat and humidity, to very contemporary looking multi-spectral imagery filmed from loitering drones normally used for agricultural surveying.
Unsurprisingly the book operates very differently to the installation, but echoes the issue notable in Mosse’s previous works, that installation based multimedia spectaculars do not translate all that well to the printed page. There’s a feeling here of the book trying to replicate the video installation, which is always going to be an impossible task, rather than trying to do something quite different with the source imagery. Partly this is an issue of structure, that a fairly open-ended narrative, which works well in a 74 minute film which viewers might arrive into at any point, works less well in a book format where narrative functions in very different ways. Likewise the sensory overload of the installation isn’t possible in a book, where the work has to compete with a multitude of other distractions absent from the controlled environment of an exhibition. Put another way, a book just has to work that much harder.
The visual consistency of Mosse’s acclaimed earlier works held them together somewhat, but here the smattering of different imagery in Broken Spectre feels messy and confusing at times. In the video installation the transitions between different types of imagery act as effective visual palate cleansers, resetting your vision just at the point where you’re getting inured to one form of imaging, or presenting different types of image across the four screens in ways which form interesting links between them. In the book each type of imagery has a purpose and resonates with different things, the trouble is that the total is not the sum of its parts, and in some ways the opposite.
Although Mosse’s aims with the work are entirely admirable, the trouble with a practice like his, which is based around attempting to reset people’s ways of viewing things through novel, eye catching visual strategies, is that it becomes increasingly difficult to persuasively reinvent yourself from one project to the next.
Although I think Mosse’s aims with the work are entirely admirable, the trouble with a practice like his, which is based around attempting to reset people’s ways of viewing things through novel, eye catching visual strategies, is that it becomes increasingly difficult to persuasively reinvent yourself from one project to the next. While so much documentary photography is a fetish of the obscure, where photographers try to photograph what no one else has captured before, a practice like his instead fetishizes increasingly obscure imaging techniques, an approach which I think has diminishing returns.
For once I have nothing particularly critical to say about the ethics of Mosses’ work. I could question the over-aestheticisation of some of his subject matter, or the model of advocacy that he has adopted for it. But unlike his previous works at least he isn’t turning advanced, expensive imaging techniques on vulnerable, traumatized people, who are given no opportunity to speak their own part in his drama. In fact in many ways the best part of both versions of Broken Spectre, are the addresses directly from the indigenous people on the frontline of trying to protect the Amazon.
In the installation a truly awe inspiring monologue is addressed directly to the camera by an indigenous woman called Adeneia, who warns against ‘filming us for nothing’, calls Jair Bolsonaro ‘filth’, and delivers an impassioned plea to anyone listening to stop the miners and loggers destroying her land. In the book, a separate booklet inserted at the back contains a series of texts including an essay by indigenous activist Txai Suruí, who writes powerfully of the paradox that ‘those who are marginalised by you, are also your salvation’.
Mosse’s work, once again is visually incredibly powerful, but in terms of advocacy, of resetting the way people think, and particularly the right people, I wonder how far it achieves its aims, and I wonder what these two young women would make of the end result.
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