Interview: Richard Mosse on his Moving Images of Congolese Rebels

Irish-born photographer Richard Mosse has become known for his lucid and haunting series of large-scale photographs that, shot with infrared film, depict vivid scenes of the Congo in a saturated, hyper-real pink. In the next, and apparently final, iteration of his “Infra” series—opening this weekend at the Irish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale—Mosse takes these photographs to moving image. In a six-screen installation titled The Enclave, he captures beautifully devastating scenes of Congo rebel groups and the communities they disrupt. This week, Artsy’s editorial director, Marina Cashdan, met with Mosse to get a sneak peek of the installation, situated in a converted 17th-century warehouse overlooking the Central Canal. Learn about his obsession to find 16mm infrared film, the process behind the installation, and Mosse’s favorite Venice hangouts.

Marina Cashdan: The Irish pavilion moved this year. Can you tell me about how you found this space, and was it difficult to find or decide on?

Richard Mosse: [Laughs.] Yeah, it was a real introduction to the ways of Venice. I came here in August about three or four times and we had the keys to the city—they threw open all the palazzos and all the big churches and pretty much gave me a selection of buildings that I could choose from. Some of them were amazing. And I found this enormous church space, called Sant'Antonin, right near the Arsenale. Even though it was a disaster in many ways—it was difficult acoustically, etc.—my heart was set on it. So I flew in Anna O’Sullivan, [Irish Pavilion] curator, and she looked at us and said, “It’s problematic but we'll go with it!” And so we were quite far down the track of negotiating. They were all interested. We were about to sign the dotted line in November … and then the Bishop of Venice decided that he must see what’s being proposed. So I put together a package of work saying, “This is it, more or less,” and he sees this and he says, “Absolutely not. This flies against the face of the church,” and we can’t show in Sant’Antonin, nor can we show in any sacred space in Venice. So I was banned by the Bishop, which is quite an honor. [Laughs.]

MC: So what did you do?

RM: I was actually in Congo at that stage and Anna had to step into the breech. And she did a lot of legwork; she flew down a few more times. We have a local fixer here, Diego, who knows everyone [in Venice] and who has the contacts. She did all her groundwork, and then she found this place, which is a real gem; it was the Portuguese Pavilion for many years.

MC: So what does it mean, symbolically, for you to represent your country at the Biennale?

RM: It’s a great honor. But the idea of national representation these days is more a joke than anything, as we're all so nomadic.

MC: And practically—is Venice a difficult place to prepare an exhibition?

RM: Logistically, it was a nightmare. Imagine that huge framed photograph had to be lifted off a boat with a crane, in three pieces. And then we actually flew Andreas Gursky’s technician down to install it correctly. He specially designed a system, but it was predicated on straight walls like they have in Dusseldorf; he got here and the walls were Venetian walls—curvy! Actually it’s funny, because you have all of these nationalities working on the install. The Italians, they generally run around and scream at each other, get into fights. The Irish sit around cracking jokes. And the Germans just decide to get on with the work, and do all the work. But even he was in a bit of a flutter that day when we did that big piece. That's just one example.

MC: But it looks like things are all in place now. Are you happy with how it came together?

PM: I’m thrilled.

MC: So I’ve been following your “Infra” series since you started it three years ago. Would you consider this exhibition the culmination of the series?

RM: Yes, I feel personally that it’s evolved an enormous amount. It’s matured a lot, and yeah, it’s the end, the culmination, of the series. I mean I can’t physically continue because the infrared film is no longer available. [Laughs.]

MC: Can you tell us how you sourced the film 16mm infrared film you used for the video installation for The Enclave?

RM: The 16mm version [of the infrared film] is on a special order basis, so it was really hard to find. I was working through a network of used film dealers and found some of it, apparently produced special-order by Kodak for a film to be shot in Death Valley; but once the cinematographer started to research the film, he realized how impossible it would be, because the film is critically heat-sensitive; it only lasts seven days outside of the freezer. So I worked for about two or three years to get it, and these [film dealers] kept saying it was there and then it wasn’t there, and it was there, and I kept offering and offering and offering. I made one last offer and apparently [the owner’s] wife had had a baby, so he found his priorities changed, so he finally decided he could sell it.

MC: Going back a few years, why the Congo? What was it about the subject or situation that drew you in?

RM: Well it sort of went along with the film itself. The medium sees, registers, the invisible type of light, infrared, which we don’t see with the human eye. So that was really what I was starting to conceptualize. I researched the film, and I was like, okay, so the invisible—what exists outside of perception, sight, language. This film has the potential to make the invisible visible. And so then I thought, well Congo’s conflict is really very hidden in this respect. It’s a huge humanitarian disaster that people don’t really see anymore; they don’t bother to take a look, they don't care. According to the International Rescue Committee, 5.4 million people have been killed because of war-related causes since 1998. That’s the statistic, but it’s probably more than that.

So I was really trying to bring these two incongruous notions together—to take two completely unrelated things, one, the history of photography, and the other, the history of Africa, and to examine them in light of each other.

MC: Though infrared is very much part of military history.

RM: Exactly. Its genesis is basically military. It was famous for camouflage detection in the ’40s. Then it also has these other, specific, applications in science, and then in popular culture, in psychedelia. So it has all this weird cultural baggage, and when you dump that on top of Congo, which also, in a Western consciousness, has weird cultural baggage as well.  It’s true madness and darkness.

MC: So how did you insert yourself into the rebel groups of the Congo. Did you spend time there before you introduced the camera? How did you make them feel comfortable with your presence?

RM:  The whole documentary type work is very intuitive. It’s unscripted—you let the world reveal itself to you rather than the other way around; so you obviously can’t cultivate or construct in the same way that you can in the studio. You basically just land into Eastern Congo, which is a very unpredictable and chaotic place, and just get yourself into the field and see.

MC: So did you have anyone based in the Congo to help you on the ground, like in Venice?

RM: Like I have a fixer in Venice, I have a fixer hired in Congo. I work with a couple now.

MC: And were you introducing yourself as an artist or as a journalist or something else?

RM: I would pose as a journalist, but just because they wouldn’t understand the artist thing. I tried to show them the pink book [Infra] once, and they were like, “Why is it pink?” But usually I just don’t bring it up. With certain rebel groups, each one is just more or less suspicious. Each one is on a case-by-case basis.

MC: I’m sure at times you found yourself in very difficult, potentially scary, situations?

RM: Yeah, it can be very intense, particularly our last trip in November. We were stuck right in the middle of the Battle of Goma. Normally when a battle like that takes place in Africa, the media descends 24 hours later or two days later and they all arrive with their Kevlar helmets—you can see it at the end of the piece. So we were caught in the middle of the battle and very disturbingly, we came across a massacre of six people, including women and children.

MC: That’s devastating. I can imagine those things haunt you.

RM: Definitely.

MC: Can you tell me a bit about the stunning soundscape that accompanies the six-channel installation? How did you meet the composer, Ben Frost?

RM: All the songs were recorded in Congo. Ben came out to Congo on two of our journeys, so the whole piece was made in 2012 and 2013. Ben’s music is devastating. The first time I encountered his work was when he was part of the Rolex Mentor Project Fellowship, a one-year program where a leader in his or her field chooses one talented young person to work with. [Electronic musician and composer] Brian Eno chose Ben Frost. So Ben and Brian Eno decided to meet in New York; and Ben said they were wandering around Chelsea and they wound up in Aperture Foundation’s space, where my book Infra was displayed. So they both bought a copy. Then Ben Frost dropped me an email and was like, I really like your pink photos. So I Googled him and I listened to his music on iTunes and I was like, “Whoa! This man’s amazing.” So I wrote back and I said, “Dear Ben, would you like to come to Congo in a week’s time?” [Laughs] … And he wrote back and was like, “Yeah, I’d love to.” One week later I met him in the Congo. I had to smuggle him across the border. So he watched the shooting, the experience of Congo, and our approach. It was a very, a very organic approach. It really worked well. I don’t know the three of us [with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten] worked together, complemented each other, and our strengths didn’t overwhelm each other.

MC: So has Ben seen how the work is installed?

RM: He arrived this week. We spent the last few days basically just sculpting the three-dimensional space.

MC: Speaking of the installation, how long is the film as a whole? Does it have any sort of narrative?

RM: It’s 39 minutes, 25 seconds and all the screens are in sync. It’s on a loop, so it doesn’t technically have a beginning, middle, or end. But the [Hiroshi] Sugimoto-like, horizon sequence is really where the piece begins. But there isn’t a plot.

MC: Are there any particular details about the installation that a viewer might overlook that you can point out?

RM: Because we had this since January, we really built the piece around it. We had a hard time with the columns. At first, we were resisting the problems with the screens and then we were like, fuck it, let’s embrace these things, and actually allowed them guide the structure. So we built these elaborate screens around the columns, and once we did that we realized that it was starting to look a lot better; it actually feels bigger in there than it actually is. One detail that might be overlooked is that the screens have curved corners. This is because the footage was shot on an Arriflex, an old movie camera, and when we got the footage scanned, it came back from the lab with curved corners. We were in love with these curved corners—it looked like real old-school photographs from the ’50s or something—so rather than throwing that away by cropping those out, we said, “well, let’s embrace those corners as well.” And so we made these custom rounded-cornered screens.

MC: Now that the install of The Enclave is completed and the Venice Biennale is about to start, I’m interested to know what you’re looking forward to seeing. Are there other pavilions that you’re particularly excited to see or experience?

RM: I think it’s going to be a really strong Biennale. I’m excited to see Alfredo Jaar [at the Chilean Pavilion] and Jeremy Deller [at the British Pavilion]. And actually, I’ve already had a sneak peek of Sarah Sze [in the U.S. Pavilion]. She’s great. It’s organic, more playful than other works I’ve seen, and so in that case, more experimental. I like it a lot.

MC: You’ve been spending a lot of time in Venice on and off since February. Do you have a favorite place to go for an aperitif or Venetian meal?

RM: Oh, yes. There’s this fabulous wine bar called La Mascareta just off Santa Maria Formosa.  It's run by an absolute lunatic named Mauro. The food is fabulous. They serve food until about 1 or 2 AM and after midnight everyone who’s working at the place, Mauro and his boys, they’re completely drunk! And he has this trick with a Samurai sword, he’s able to crack the cork from a magnum.

MC: Last, can you tell us what you’re working on now?

RM: So after Venice, my life is a blank slate. And I deliberately made it that way, because I wanted to be able to just have nothing on my horizon. I’m looking forward to a new project for sure, but God knows what that will be. 

The Enclave, 2013. Six screen film installation, color infrared film transferred to HD video. Filmed in Eastern Congo. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery. Photo © Tom Powel Imaging inc. 

See Mosse’s work at the Venice Biennale’s Irish Pavilion, and find a Mosse work in Artsy’s Venice Biennale sale.