Earlier in August, Shana Beth Mason met with Michael Rooks (Wieland Family Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art) to discuss Alfredo Jaar’s 1989 work, The Fire Next Time. Mason relays the material and metaphoric qualities of Jaar’s practice, and why this acquisition for High Museum is culturally significant.
Images have a tendency to become weightless in the presence of an institutional audience; somehow the gravity of the events, subjects and objects they reflect are placed at such a great distance from a contemporary audience, that they feel safe and, at times, removed. For almost three decades, Chilean-born, New York-based artist and filmmaker Alfredo Jaar has avoided and altogether eliminated this symptom with his potent, eloquent installations. Documenting the rippling effects of social unrest, cultural distortions and socio-political crises, Jaar has effectively addressed his viewers in a way that renders them engaged in both conversation and activism on behalf of his chosen projects. Jaar subverts the inherent grotesqueries in a photograph of a dying child in Rwanda about to be preyed upon by a vulture, or a black man defiantly painting his face white addressing his hostile surroundings in the Deep South into a work which ultimately celebrates the triumph of peace versus war and enlightenment over ignorance and apathy.
At the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Jaar’s 1989 work The Fire Next Time reflects the turbulence of the American, segregated South during the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. The title is adapted from a seminal set of essays by black author and activist James Baldwin, published in 1963. Baldwin’s work was considered, by critics and social activists alike, to be a pioneering work that described and commentated on the conditions of a young, black Christian man living in America during the early 60’s. Baldwin, himself, had adapted his book title from that of an old Negro spiritual: ‘God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but fire next time.’ Jaar’s work utilizes twenty two black and white transparencies, depicting scenes from that era such as a black woman being hauled away by white policemen, merciless beatings of peaceful black protesters by local and state police forces, marches where men carry body signs reading ‘I AM A MAN’, and youths proudly carrying an American flag along a highway. Each image is rendered in panoramas, encased in steel black boxes. Images appear on every surface of each box. Michael Rooks, the Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the High Museum, notes that, ‘Alfredo specifically left the orientation of the boxes up to each individual curator that takes on the exhibition’ (it first appeared at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1989 and was later purchased by the High).
In whatever positions these boxes are laid, the effect is simple and long-lasting: a very grey area of history rendered in black and white, revealing a struggle between black and white. These were more than just occurrences or instinctive reactions to racial inequality: Jaar’s work highlights the foundation for an enduring civil malady in the United States and beyond. Rooks seemed to relay a sense of lyricism, a grace which populates all of Jaar’s work, but stood out especially for this project. ‘It’s far-reaching, without being dictatorial,’ he noted. Plural referencing of Civil Rights activists, in the forms of Baldwin (vis-á-vis his book) and the men and women Jaar captures in the thin spaces of black boxes. It is unironic that the function of a black box (in any kind of moving vehicle) is to recall and retain the sensory remains of a violent trauma or catastrophe: Jaar’s black boxes are, too, the receptacles of social turbulence that still haunt survivors and bystanders, alike. But, as is always the case with Jaar, there is light behind those stark, resilient photographs that illuminates equal parts hurt and imminent hope.