Art of darkness
Richard Mosse’s dispatches from Congo, in ‘The Enclave’ at the Royal Hibernian Academy, dispense with familiar styles of war-zone reportage to show life in the raw
Richard Mosse’s six-screen film installation The Enclave plunges us into a world that is unfamiliar, in more ways than one. Shot in the provinces of North and South Kivu, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the border with Rwanda, it explores a heavily populated, densely vegetated, volcanic and watery terrain rarely visited or depicted by westerners. It’s also a fiercely contested region, where the inhabitants are vulnerable to the shifting tides and random cruelties of warring factions. As always in this country’s troubled history, outsiders stoke and contribute to the conflict.
Apart from all that, Mosse and Trevor Tweeten, the cinematographer he collaborated with for The Enclave, shot their footage using an infrared film stock that radically distorts the conventional visible spectrum. Most dramatically, the region’s dense blankets of lush green vegetation are rendered as shades of psychedelic violet, leaving the imagery unearthly in appearance. As with his earlier photographic series Infra, Mosse wanted to short-circuit any easy familiarity we might feel with reportage images from remote war zones. We may think we know what is going on, he implies, but we haven’t got a clue. “To try to reduce the situation in Congo to a simple, conventional narrative,” Mosse says, “would be dishonest.”
With Anna O’Sullivan of the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny as commissioner, The Enclave represented Ireland at the 55th Venice Biennale, last year. No other Irish exhibit has had as great an impact. As well as garnering extensive international coverage, the work caught the eyes of curators from around the world, and Mosse continues to be busy bringing his work to a succession of far-flung locations.
It’s no wonder that, in the midst of a hectic installation at the RHA, in Dublin, he seems disorientated. There’s also the fact that he hasn’t quite shaken off the Congo yet. He was back there late last year – when, having come through long spells working in what is essentially a war zone, his luck almost ran out. The car he was in plunged off a bridge and came to rest upside down in the river below. He emerged almost unscathed, and his driver and interpreter suffered only minor injuries. But it has made him wonder whether he should draw a line under his involvement with the country.
That involvement extends back to 2010, when he first visited what used to be Zaire with no clear idea about how he might make work in a place that was largely off limits. He was by then a seasoned traveller, having undertaken photographic projects in Iran, Pakistan, Haiti and the former Yugoslavia, as well as in Gaza, Iraq and many more places. But the Congo is exceptionally challenging.
He knew that if he could engineer the circumstances he would shoot on Kodak Aerochrome film with an unwieldy, large-format banquet camera, effectively messing up the conventions of reportage photography in as many ways as he could. As soon as he heard that Kodak was discontinuing Aerochrome he knew he wanted to use it.