Issue #43, 2013

Lesson About Blindness (A Reply to Alfredo Jaar, the Indignant Artist)
Bogdan Ghiu

“Alfredo Jaar fills the churches“, cited humorously François Hébel, director of the already traditional “Photographic Meetings“ in Arles (placed this year under the title “Arles in Black“), a witticism about the above artist in the opening of the commented tour he made on Thursday, July 4, 2013, to his exhibition, The Politics of Images, held in the church of the “Minister Brothers“ (Église des Frères-Prêcheurs) in Arles (1 July to 25 August).

The photography “annual“ in Arles has become, over time, more critical.1 In 2013, besides celebrating Sergio Larrain (a Chilean, like Jaar), the “guru“ of postwar photography2, the focus of the current global photographic production seems to fall exactly on the contextualization of photography and on the moral and political necessity to resist, to invent use techniques for the more and more advanced and invasive, more soothing technologies of producing images.

However, even in this context, both photographers and artists may have questioned, even may have been irritated, annoyed by Alfredo Jaar being invited to such a renowned international (and touristic) photography “annual“ such as the one in Arles, for Jaar is not a photographer, that is, neither a photographer-artist (such as most of those invited to this prestigious international exhibition), nor an artist-photographer (an artist who uses photography as a medium, a category very widespread), since his reflection and artistic practice, the thought-art (see below) as he practices it, does not produce any photos and does not meditate on photography by producing it, from within and from the immanence of the photographic practice.

Alfredo Jaar – an artist of the “eighties“, one may say, if one can export internationally and globally a vague, local typology: outraged conceptualism? – meditates and reacts, working on thepicture, where we don’t look, since the contemporary essence of media images (no matter whether still or moving, what matters is the flow, the supremacy) is pragmatic, eccentric, having to do with their use and contextualization: the photography, the current media image shows, makes visible only what is meant to be seen, thus masking, occulting, de-realizing everything else.

As much visibility, just as much invisibility and, especially, just as much blindness, says Jaar’s artistic thinking in act, productive artistic meditation. We only see what we are being shown, we do not seek to see, to know what we are not being shown – and even more, ironically, as if occultation was not enough, even when we are being shown, we prefer not to see, to hide our heads in the ground, we have, as they say, no eyes for that, since we close them when facing reality or we turn them from it: “The politics of images“ as an ostrich politics. Photographic image, photography. “The politics of images“ as denounced by Jaar, is not only aimed, already traditionally, at the manipulation by the media of the images of reality, but also at our complicity in avoiding the truth, in not-seeing the horror. Not only we are not being shown or we are being shown selectively, preferentially, biasedly, normatively, but even when we are being shown, we prefer not to look, not to see. And not-seeing kills, it is death itself, a complicity to murder.

And that’s not all. This would be only the first “boundary crossing“ or landmark contribution by Jaar to the acknowledgment of the “politics of images“ in the era of domination of and through image. Jaar’s second “inference“ or rather the second aspect of the contemporary not-seeing is the blinding effect that the images produce. Far beyond the already canonical and smooth, encoded plotters’ theory (already a scheme) of the media manipulation of images and through images, Jaar speaks of cancelling, neutralizing the image, of the image that provokes or becomes a counter-image and even a non-image, an a-image. The absent image is being added, thus, the excess of image which causes blindness. Contemporary images affect eyesight moral, the compassionate and indignant gaze. In other words, the contemporary image lies and kills by fictionalizing reality and pretending to hold a (reproductive, observational, descriptive) mimetic-testimonial monopoly on truth. We do not see and we do not want to see the truth, however, when it is shown to us, we turn our heads and close our eyes, we prefer the fiction-image, the happiness-picture.


Alfredo Jaar is an architect by training. The (somewhat) retrospective exhibition at Arles, he made ​​not so much installations or devices, but some micro-architectures and some micro-playwrights, some counter-initiatory, de-initiatory paths which frame the state of our current vision, thus our epistemic situation and cognitive reflexes, diagrams and habitus. That is, contemporary immorality.

It is worth insisting that Jaar acts “spiritually“ by creating genuine counter-mystical architectures aiming the very awakening from the false mystique of the images, the illumination, the revelation of a truth which is not supra-mundane, in fact, of the criminal truth of the world itself, of our complicity to murder by our refuse to see and through our complacency in blindness. Contemporary images are made ​​to cover the murders, to make us not see them (concealment, manipulation), to see something else (propaganda) and, finally, not see anything, not to see at all (moral blindness) – and, ironically, hence the cold fury of the artist, they not only succeed, but seem to be met with enthusiasm, enjoying success.


In the “preface“ to the guided tour of his Arles exhibition, Alfredo Jaar emphasized four ideas, four working principles which cannot be easily dismissed without consequences, even if, and this a maximum risk, they can be considered trivial, obvious, self-evident. There are not, since they are applied, experienced, drawn from practice, turned into apolitics of art, an intrinsically political way to practice, reflectively, art today, whose implications are still to be explored. Four ideas through which Alfredo Jaar meant to generalize his own practice.

One. “The artist is a thinker.“ I quote from memory: “Ninety percent of what we do is thought, only ten percent is materializing, which may be diverse, no matter how (writing, visual art, music, dance, etc.: expression).“

Two. You, as an artist, have to have one single idea, to restrict yourself to one big idea, we, as artists, have to “edit“ ourselves, that is to remove, to retain only what is important for a project. (This “methodological“ principle is actually a political one, and it has to do with the “politics of images“, in harmony with Jaar’s ideas about the contemporary proliferation of blinding images.) What is important, as an artist, as a gesture and as an attitude from the part of art, as an artist’s intervention, is to reduce to the essential what we want to say. Which takes us to the next principle.

Three. The artist must be careful to communicate, to thecommunication. But communicating is not “throwing a message“. If there is no response to the message, there is no communication. If there is no response, you do not communicate. However, today, the public, people do not respond to contemporary art, or art. People do not respond to art. Jaar cites a statistics according to which the current art consumers (the itself term gives away the answer), the public assailed by so much art, contemporary or not, spends on average three (3) seconds before a work. (And this is also a political principle, productively structuring Jaar’s works-interventions.)

Four. “I am a project artist, not a studio one. I cannot create from nothing. I react.

The artist reacts as a man, as a human, just like the public itself, people as people, should react to art (made just for that, ​​to establish an inner constitutive contact between reality and man) that is to the reality that made the artist react.

Torespond to art, thus to be responsible of the reality to which art, through the artist-as-a-man, is a reaction.

The artist wants to achieve, to establish communication (as a moral foundation, as an internal politics, as a self-ontology through others). That is, first of all, consciousness – communication-thought with the self (see – at least the movie as a popularized reading, as a video-book, because that’s what it is – Hannah Arendt)...


The white, the blindness, post-image sight. Lament of the Images (2002). Writing in a blinding neon. A new essay on blindness, with the same counter-metaphysical value and political power as Sábato’s or Saramago’s. An essay on the new blindness: blindness through images, in order not to see. Blindness through false images, with images that are not descriptive, but prescriptive and normative-formative, images that do not show, but show us how and what to see: political images, images of government, a government through images shaping the sight. Images making us not see. The new blinding “Lights“ produce moral and political darkness.

Jaar’s devices, counter-devices, architectures are initiative-secular paths not towards a religious, but an ethical and therefore a political awakening. An awakening not to God, but to man, to the self as humanity. They must be told and experienced.

The Sound of Silence (2006). The initial white, at the entrance, of blindness, the neon white, is also the white of the page, it writes backwards, against, white on black, on the blindness produced by the images’ colored color, to signal that things, the perspective on things, should be inverted, reversed. White neon on world’s black background: no color, there is no color, the colors are “pornography“. Theimages must write, state, not as a not loco-centric text, black on white, but as a new revelation about man’s duties to himself, as a process of illumination (Aufklärung) through the ethical image, white on black (on the black produced by the blinding pornographic coloring).

Real Pictures (1995). In another corner of the exhibition, Jaar hides the images, he evades them, putting them in black boxes, like tombstones and small graves, graves of human images which do not awaken the man to man, describing through a verbal text, but white on black, on the box cover where theimages are withdrawn, evaded, what the hidden images show. Because man did not react humanly, as a human, to those pictures, that is, he was blind, he let himself blinded, he did not see them, they should be withdrawn, left for later, when man will be ready to react morally, hence politically, to his own destruction.

Hidden, “apophatical“, revealed through hiding and indirect verbal description, white on black, the images for the future, forthe ethical sight after the current transition through blindness with false pornographic-colored images of man, these images for the future are hard to be reproduced, to be photographed, to be made actual images, liked by the present.

As Derrida generalized on the footsteps of Lévinas and as Didi-Huberman continues to do today, the images are made ​​to awaken or to cause, in that order, reactions, responses, responsibilities (“de-bestialization of man“: Sloterdijk). To respond morally, politically, humanly to an image or towards an image is to be responsible for and about what the picture shows, to assume responsibility for the truth, in other words, the captivity (Lévinas) to truth, to the face and image of the world: duty. Ethically and politically, all images are portraits – and, in a bifacialmanner, in the mirror, too, of the viewer himself. In the (temporary-curative) refusal of the image to which Alfredo Jaar, indignant artist, pushes hyperbolically the critique of the image as non-communication, we should read primarily an absence of the contemporary man, a departure from the self, a crisis of the inner communication with the others, with himself as another (Ricoeur).

If the “media-threshold“ images of the global politics through sign-images (the contemporary semio-capitalism) are (non-)communication of the man with himself through the external relays of techno-media stereotypes and clichés, art can only try to communicate with others through internal moral (counter-)images. By taking over the strength and disruptive wisdom of the reforming drama of the initiatory mysteries, Alfredo Jaar inverts, reverses black and white, light and dark, image and text, the current mystique of the speed of light.

Translated by Alex Moldovan




1. �John Davies, “France England“, for example. Devastated landscapes, landscapes of the devastation that show, where you can see the devastation: the paradox of the “traces of destruction“ (what you see when what you could have seen was destroyed: you can sees more, not less). Panned devastated landscapes, the poignancy of details at a distance. Acting in the chiasm, in two complementary directions, in the “scissors“: and panning and extremely clear details. Image as panning (closing) on details. An epistemic model for journalism: image-information is panning on details, details in panning. Landscapes destroyed by industrial implantations, which create another landscape, a non-landscape. Not violent, but comprehensive. Images of prime modernity in its home, in England. Not nineteenth century historical images, but current images, also comprising the postindustrial abandonment of the industrial implantations: modernity turned from process and activity into landscape, the deceased modernity, in the process of retrofuturist aestheticization, becomes a static image, becomes an image, it makes itself photography, a halt. And it has to be contemplated as such, as a halt-image, as history-already-photography, as a beautiful death mask. History produces immanently photos, images. An urban landscape, but not one full of people, as in Larrain (see below), but an empty one, devoid of humanity, ravaged by modernity. Or with a reduced humanity, a detail-humanity in the landscape-history of devastation, in the image-history. Comprehensive and detailed: here, the image becomes panning. People and reduced, very small activities, lost in the scenery, put in their place. An information, that is an image, needs to provide material for mental images, for the cognitive-spiritual images, of transformation through knowledge, images for photography, photography as an inevitable intermediary, as an intervention and mandatory operation between the “ontic“ images (clue-pictures, emanation-image) and the “ontological“ political image. Photography, between image and images, building the image from images. Historical landscapes of modernity with very small people. Landscapes in England and France, but as if in the USSR, in Chernobyl. Photos that show the unique modernity, devastating in its prosthetic and technological delegation regardless of the political regime, with the “historical“ communists to blame precisely because they wanted to do differently the same thing that capitalists did, actually doubling capitalism, wanting to achieve capital differently without changing a category or a framework, considering modernity desirable, too, but achievable divergently, with no controversy as for the great steel goal. The small, tiny man, self-reduced, a detail-humanity in the landscape (diagram-image) of industrialization-modernity, precisely because it has delegated to “tools“ its duty, the task of modernization (reaching “the coming of age“): that is what the photographer, as an artist-reporter, shows in his “Heideggerian“ images. The wide, multiple-aerial angle, Breugel’s multiple views (in another sense). Empty highways: for whom, means without goals, a modernity that has lost its meaning, preserved and nurtured like an intermediary, as a pure means. Is this not exactly why we feel globally represented, as an actual image of history, by the achievements of the Chinese Communist-Confucian capitalism?

2. �Frames, cross(ed) plans, non-face, marginal pluralization of the face. Details which become either vanishing points or entry-reading keys, grid-details. Shift of the meaning, the birth of the meaning through the fugitive crossing of plans, from the dynamic viewpoint of the points of view-details. Only cities, humanity only in cities: Santiago (kids), London, Algiers. He cuts faces. Things that pass through the image. Counter-photos: here, too, ironically, people pose, they are not primarily surprised, like in most of the urban, crowded photos, but show themselves or show something or show themselves as something else, trying to signify with themselves. Hands and feet. A picture of grace, as defined by the author, may include and show everything, it becomes a map, a diagram, a diagram which neither removes nor scours the sensitive visible, nor enslaves it in a fable-like manner. He stops, jams the false images, that is, obvious, immediate given images. There are no given images, only material-image for images, the sensible visible as material for the “inner“ or “mental“ images that the artist, in fact, produces: the artist shows us inner images, commits the sin, the impossible, the hubris of displaying images of/from images, “mental“ images. He commits a contradiction, since he exhibits the spirit. The images are always made of/from images, since “natural“ images, apparently given, are only a material. The image does not exist, it is purely mental, emotional, intellectual. The artist distinguishes himself by searching and displaying them. He cuts the images with other images, no image can claim to be full and complete, finished, the image appears only as a dynamic crossing of incomplete images, as moving incompleteness. An intrinsic, immanent collage, a collage without patching. Palermo, Valparaiso: “the first magical photo that came to me.“ The image is coming, it is being brought and given, assigned, you encounter it, it is itself a meeting. The image is coming, but, in order to form as the image, it must be received and given, because it’s given. It must cross the other images, it is an open crossing. Valparaiso: meta-images, the image is the relationship between images. The “divine reality“: the reality is divine. His photos are images because they are and, especially, appear as an open process, as meetings, crossings. The magic ratio is between plans, an instability of meetings. When it comes to a (real) image (of/from images) as meeting, you let yourself swallowed and at the same time you read it like a map, like a chart. A representative photo is entitled “South America“, 1958, showing a hand in full swing throwing a stone. A hand already cut, detached, autonomous.