The Enclave, Richard Mosse

natalie olivia papillion
May 12, 2014 7:51PM

Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, and Nick Ut - to name a celebrated few - all worked in black and white. It lent an air of bleached melancholy to their devastating landscapes, a velvety dynamicism to their portraiture. Richard Mosse, similarly employed, works in pink. A shocking, euphoric magenta; much more suitable to the psychedelic Seventies Haight than today’s war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yet for half a decade the Irish photojournalist has made a life documenting the tragic, unremitting conflict; his work has graced the pages of major newspapers, it has been staged in all the best galleries. “The Enclave,” a six-part video installation currently on view at New York City’s Jack Shaiman Gallery, is the series’s pièce de résistance.

First exhibited at last year’s Venice Bienniale, “The Enclave” plays on six hanging screens, arranged irregularly. Disregarding Aristotelian convention, “The Enclave” cares little for the primacy of plot. We see long, panoramic shots of the sweeping vistas and crystalline lakes of the Congolese countryside. We follow rebel groups, outfitted in seemingly florescent uniforms, as they traipse through pillaged villages and and stumble upon military embankments. We see death, and despair, and occasionally darkness… without warning, whole screens cut to black. Unburdened by a coherent narrative, the footage oscillates between the thrilling and the indecipherable. The neon topography, produced by Mosse’s signature employment of a now-extinct infrared film, adds to the surrealism of the spectacle. One is informed that Kodak originally developed the medium for the American military, so as to better detect camouflaged installations by air. When we consider the magnitude of the Congolese conflict - over a decade long, more than five million killed - we can only hope it serves a similar purpose here; to expose explosive realities. 

Still, there’s the looming question of classification. “The Enclave,” exhibited at a blue-chip gallery in the heart of Chelsea is not, at its heart, documentary. Mosse is a photojournalist, but “The Enclave” is not reportage, it’s capital-A “Art”. Its showing in the Irish Pavilion - a Western country, albeit with loose ties to the colonialism that sowed the seeds of today’s conflict - complicates matters even further. Then there are the formal elements; the professionally-composed music, the expert cinematography. Mosse worked with videographer Trevor Tweeten to develop a modified tracking shot so fluid it looks as though the collaborators had attached a Steadicam to the hips of a Spector. This technique, especially when considered with Ben Frost’s sublime soundscape, produces some grand moments. But unlike a great documentary, whose power pivots upon education, analysis, and introspection, “The Enclave” appears to tell no story.

Whereas photojournalism was once considered the work of the auteur, today anybody armed with a smartphone and a social media account, can  produce imagery as valuable as that of the professional photographer. What they can’t do, however, is produce work like “The Enclave.” Still, to what end? It is only during rare moments, like the cyan-tinted portrait of an infant ravaged by hypoxia, that we are forced to truly confront the horror of what is in front of us. For thirty-nine minutes we are told there’s a war on, and it’s true — we see people suffering, we witness bodies strewn upon the landscape.  Yet it’s all taking place in a bizarre, beautiful, candy-colored world.  Cognitive dissonance overpowers our intellect. The Congo might as well be Mars. The unreality of the scenery, coupled with the sheer artistry of the film, makes deep examination difficult, if not impossible.

natalie olivia papillion