UNTITLED (WATER), 1990, six double-sided lightboxes with 12 color transparencies and 30 mirrors, 116.8 × 1356.3 × 71.1 cm. Installation view from the exhibition “It Is Difficult” at Hangar Bicocca, Milan, 2008. Courtesy the artist and M+, Hong Kong.

How to See and Why

Alfredo Jaar

USA Hong Kong Vietnam Japan Korea, South Myanmar
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Since the 1980s, the work of Alfredo Jaar has dealt with the forms and ethics through which art takes responsibility for complex phenomena in society. He has created a language that breaks through the mechanisms that dehumanize individuals and communities in moments of turmoil from our recent history. Whether documenting the Vietnamese “boat people” crisis of the late 1970s through the early ’90s, the immediate aftermath of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, or disasters like the 2011 Fukushima earthquake in Japan, Jaar has always proposed his own politics of the image.

Born in Santiago, Chile, in 1956, and a New York resident since 1982, Jaar studied filmmaking and architecture, two practices that have informed his often-dramatic installations critiquing media representations of human tragedies. Along with numerous solo exhibitions at galleries and museums worldwide, Jaar has created more than 60 public interventions. He has participated in the Venice Biennale (1986, 2007, 2009 and represented Chile in 2013), the São Paulo Biennial (1987, 1989, 2010) and Documenta (1987, 2002). In 2016, two solo exhibitions of his work were held in Johannesburg, at Wits Art Museum and the Goodman Gallery, and his project Divina (HK) (1990) was shown in Hong Kong at Para Site in the exhibition “Afterwork,” as part of “Hong Kong’s Migrant Domestic Workers Project.” For ArtAsiaPacific, Jaar corresponded with Inti Guerrero, a co-curator of “Afterwork” and the Estrellita B. Brodsky Adjunct Curator of Latin American Art at Tate.


Why did you decide to go to Hong Kong in 1990?

I had been following the Vietnamese boat people crisis for many years, reading all related news with a mixture of horror and sadness. These were pre-internet times, so all the information I was able to gather was only through newspapers and news magazines. After surviving the Vietnam War (1955–75) that left millions dead, the nation was further inflicted with a barbaric trade embargo by the United States that severely undermined its economy, forcing its people to make a dramatic exodus across the South China Sea, risking their lives, only to be greeted with the intolerable conditions prevailing in refugee camps. I had learned that there were thousands of refugees in crowded camps in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Philippines and even India. Filling these camps were innocent people who had fled Vietnam in search of a better life. These refugees were the survivors of a cruel journey, during which perhaps 20 to 25 percent of the estimated total of a million and a half had perished in stormy seas. It was reported that thousands more had died when Thai pirates robbed and sank their boats. It was also well known that thousands of women and young girls had been raped and murdered or sold to brothels in Thailand. It had reached a point when I had decided to go and witness it with my own eyes.

But what finally triggered my trip to Hong Kong was when I learned that, at the British colonial government’s threat of their deportation back to Vietnam, hundreds of the boat people in the camps had announced suicide pacts. Previously I had read too many stories of self-mutilation by refugees who had insisted that they would rather die than return home, but this time they had announced they were ready to commit collective suicide. I had read that several families in the detention camps had stored rat poison. I had to go.

OPENING NEW DOORS, 1991, text project on vinyl, 20.3 × 30.5 cm. Courtesy the artist.

In that moment of the 1990s, what was the international media’s representation of the boat people crisis? How would you describe your own perception when you finally came to Hong Kong and witnessed the crisis with your own eyes?

In the summer of 1988, the Hong Kong government had decided, with the full support of the United Kingdom, that all Vietnamese migrants and refugees arriving in Hong Kong would be treated as illegal immigrants. With this cruel decision, the UK had converted these innocent people into aliens—and then they started treating them like criminals.

Upon arrival in Hong Kong, I had discovered that a large majority of the boat people incarcerated there were from Hai Phong. Back in 1972, half of Hai Phong had been destroyed by B-52 bombers during the war. These were the survivors of Hai Phong, and they were being treated like criminals!

After I visited the Whitehead Detention Centre in the New Territories I could not sleep. I could not get the 20-foot-high barbed-wire fence surrounding the camp out of my head. To encounter the hundreds of children living in the camp was heartbreaking. Most of them had been born in the camp and had never seen the outside world.

I was also particularly shocked by the incredibly sad situation of the so-called Amerasians, who are the abandoned children of American soldiers. They fled Vietnam hoping to be reunited with their fathers in the US. And there they were, incarcerated in Hong Kong! I met with many of them. It was estimated that there were hundreds of thousands of them in all the camps across Southeast Asia.

You must realize that to read about this in the media is one thing. To see a couple of black-and-white photographs printed in a newspaper is another thing. But to witness it with your own eyes is altogether something else. It is this sort of real life experience that feeds my work.

You developed a series of major works from this visit. Could you tell us what your intentions were? As with most of your works, your “Hong Kong Project” seems to address both the trauma of recent history and the politics of image-making. 

To travel to Hong Kong and visit the camps was, essentially, my modest way to express my solidarity with the boat people incarcerated there. I have learned how important it is to be physically present, to talk to people, to listen, to invite them to express their feelings and to give them a space for articulating their grievances and their hopes. The subsequent work I do as an artist is of almost no importance next to what I can accomplish just by being there. I am not the only one. There are many nongovernment organizations and sometimes a few journalists and photo-reporters. I have always regarded these different witnesses as signs of solidarity in a landscape of tragedy. And I feel that their supporting role has never been properly acknowledged.

But I am an artist and, in the end, I am perfectly aware that what really matters to my audience are the works of art I have created as a result of this experience. I created four series of photographic works, each one with a distinct conceptual typology, and a few individual pieces that fall in between the series. The photographic works are titled “Untitled (Water)” (1990), “Opening New Doors” (1991), “Fading” (1991–93) and “A Hundred Times Nguyen” (1994). As you correctly suggest, in these series of works I am interested in the trauma of history and the politics of images.

“Untitled (Water)” represents the tragedy in all its absurdity and sadness and focuses on confinement (the boat people) and freedom (the sea). “Opening New Doors” makes a direct reference to the European Union’s open-borders policy that was being implemented at the time (the Schengen Agreement)—the spirit of which the British colonial government, shamefully, did not extend to Hong Kong. “Fading” makes a comment on history that fades away, images that fade away and lives that fade away. Finally, “A Hundred Times Nguyen” focuses on a single individual, a little girl I met in the Pillar Point Refugee Centre. She was born there. In this work I name her and tell her story to the audience, and hopefully empathy becomes possible.

UNTITLED (WATER) (detail), 1990, six double-sided lightboxes with 12 color transparencies and 30 mirrors, 116.8 × 1356.3 × 71.1 cm. Installation view from the exhibition “It Is Difficult” at Hangar Bicocca, Milan, 2008. Courtesy the artist and M+, Hong Kong.

UMASHIMENKANA (detail), 2013, video projection, 12 blackboards, Plexiglas structure and chalk, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

You worked on the “Hong Kong Project” for three years in the early 1990s. Have you returned to Asia? Have you developed new projects about the continent?

I have produced an extensive body of work in Japan, where I have been represented for a long time by Kenji Taki, who has galleries in Tokyo and Nagoya. My most recent project in Asia is a memorial I created for the victims of the March 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and the tsunami that followed. It was an immense tragedy that led to almost 20,000 fatalities. As I write, almost 100,000 people are still without homes, five years after the tragedy! My project was titled Umashimenkana (2013), after a poem by Sadako Kurihara (1913–2005), an extraordinary poet and antinuclear activist who died a decade ago. Back in 1945, she was living in Hiroshima when the nuclear bomb fell on the city, but she survived. That same evening she assisted a neighbor who gave birth to a baby and later wrote this magnificent poem about the need to bring forth new life even in the face of immeasurable tragedy. In this work I pay homage to her and to a dozen children who died in their school in Ishinomaki during the 2011 disaster. Sadly, they were misinformed about safety protocols by their teacher and perished when the tsunami hit their school. I created a memorial using the blackboards I found in the destroyed school. I calculated that these blackboards had received 15,000 hours of the children’s gazes. I thought that they contained all their dreams.

UMASHIMENKANA (detail), 2013, video projection, 12 blackboards, Plexiglas structure and chalk, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

I have also worked in South Korea, where I created a public intervention about famine in North Korea (Jae Gong Ham, 2000). The international media only focuses on Pyongyang every time its dictator Kim Jong-un makes a crazy pronouncement or launches a missile to make some noise. But they shamefully ignore the fact that between two and three million people in North Korea have died of hunger in the last decade. It is a well-known fact that the North Korean people, in total despair, would feed themselves with grass and soap. My project raised some USD 20,000, an amount that, in North Korean terms, is equivalent to approximately USD 200,000 worth of spending power. We transferred the funds to two pasta factories managed by an international nongovernment organization. South Koreans who donated were incredibly generous; they were so grateful to be able to assist their northern neighbors.

Sadly, as you know, a new boat people crisis has been developing in the last few years. I am thinking of Burma’s 1.3 million Rohingya, whose plight every country in Southeast Asia seems to ignore. This has become a spiraling humanitarian crisis for this stateless Muslim minority who are fleeing a brutal persecution in Burma by the military and extremist mobs. I observe this tragedy with a sad sense of déjà vu. I do not think I have the stomach to take this new crisis on.

You are one of very few artists outside of Asia with such an extensive body of work on the continent. What is it that attracts you about Asian cultures or societies?

I have deep admiration for a group of Japanese artists from the 1960s, like On Kawara, Yayoi Kusama, Jiro Takamatsu, Atsuko Tanaka, Jiro Yoshihara and Genpei Akasegawa. I have collected their work for years. I even lectured last year on On Kawara at the occasion of his retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. I also follow closely developments in contemporary Japanese architecture: I am a big fan of Kazuo Sejima, Shigeru Ban and Toyo Ito, to name just a few. Every time I visit Japan I reserve a day or two exclusively to see their newest works. This passion for Japanese culture moved me to study Japanese for a while, but I did not get very far, most regrettably.

I am also a great reader of Japanese poetry, particularly haiku. In fact, I use the haiku model as an inspiration for my works. I am always trying to be as efficient as a haiku with each work I create—to express the maximum with the minimum. Whenever editing a work to its bare essence, I am always thinking of the haiku. The economy of means in a great haiku gives me vertigo. And I aspire to that model.

But, as you know, for me context is everything. When invited to work in these countries in Asia, I am naturally compelled to react to what I feel are the most important issues of the time, and sadly, they were often tragedies. So I reacted to these tragedies and they became the focus of most of my Asian projects.

LAMENT OF THE IMAGES, 2002, three illuminated texts, light screen, text by David Levi Strauss, dimensions variable. Installation view from Documenta 11, Kassel, 2002. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong, New York.

The installation 
Lament of the Images (2002) is one of your most memorable works, not only because it was a milestone piece at Documenta 11 in 2002 but also because it echoes previous elements of your works on iconoclasm—there are no images that could narrate a tragedy. It was also made at a moment when we were entering a new century of overproduction of virtual images. Could you tell us about this piece?

I created Lament of the Images right after I finished working on “The Rwanda Project” (1994–2000), which became my longest project to date and without doubt the most difficult. A million people had been killed in less than a hundred days, in the face of the criminal indifference of the so-called world community. I had visited Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and Zaire in August of 1994 as the killings were ending. This was the third genocide of the previous century and I wanted to witness the aftermath. I developed some 25 different projects in a period of six years. They all failed miserably. I was confronted with the impossibility of representing an immeasurable tragedy like a genocide. But I kept going. How do you make work out of information that most people would rather ignore? Each one of these 25 projects became an attempt to answer that question. They became exercises in representation. I discovered that reality cannot be represented; artists can only create new realities. But there exists an enormous gap between the two. I never agreed with Adorno when he suggested that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” I was much more attracted to Paul Celan’s position, insisting that, on the contrary, poetry after Auschwitz was more necessary than ever. “Suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream,” he wrote. But I also concede that, as Adrienne Rich wrote, “Tonight no poetry will serve.” It is not an indictment against poetry, but instead it suggests that poetry will serve most of the time, but it must be allowed to fail. And in the case of Rwanda, it had to fail.

The Rwandan experience triggered a radical change in my work, essentially regarding my use of images. In a way, a sensation of distrust invaded me. I was not exactly sure if my images’ lack of affect was a symptom of an indifferent society, or if they were innately incapable of effecting change.

Lament of the Images is an expression of all my deep uncertainties—the existential impasse I was facing at that time. It was an attempt to “let there be light,” to offer a radical blinding experience that would help us see better. The white screen contains every doubt, but also, strangely enough, every hope I had left in me.

With the rise of a new ultra-right wing across many continents—a kind of global fascism—that is escalating hatred and radical religious fundamentalisms everywhere, have our current times become hopeless? How can one produce an image when we consume live-stream videos on our smartphones of war refugees being beaten at the borders of Europe?

Europe’s reaction to the current immigration crisis has been despicable. Europeans are panicking in the face of a million immigrants, who represent less than 0.3 percent of their population. In the meantime, Turkey has already welcomed more than two million people, Lebanon a million and a half, and Jordan close to a million. Hungary is at the forefront of the new European fascism, while Germany struggles to be generous. Even Scandinavia is now contaminated: Denmark now seizes all valuables from refugees entering the country. The only thing they don’t steal from them are their wedding rings!

This so-called immigration crisis is not new. It has been developing for years. But the faces were black and they arrived in the south of Europe: Italy, Spain and Greece. So Europeans paid less attention, of course. Now refugees are arriving everywhere and cannot be ignored any longer.

Then a three-year-old boy’s body washed up on a beach in Turkey one Wednesday morning in September 2015. That image changed history and the world stopped. It made the front page of every newspaper in the world. It triggered a remarkable amount of reflection through editorials and essays. It went viral on social media.

Because images still matter. They can affect the way we understand the world. But they struggle to survive in a sea of consumption. It is up to us—artists and visual producers—to make sure we do our job. That is why art is important. We create models of thinking about the world and for the world, through images and through words. The so-called art world is our little world. It is not perfect, for sure. But it is the last remaining space of freedom.

SIX SECONDS, 2000, from “The Rwanda Project” (1994–2000), lightbox with color transparency, 182.8 × 121.9 × 19 cm. Courtesy the artist and Kenji Taki Gallery, Tokyo.