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

The Arts Council and artist Richard Mosse installing his work 'The Enclave' at the RHA. The piece represented Ireland in the 55th Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition and adresses the conflict in Eastern Congo. Video : Bryan O'Brien


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.

“It’s sensitive to infrared, and it had a number of specialist uses, especially in the land sciences, from agriculture to geology. And it had military uses. But in all those areas it had been supplanted by various digital technologies. So I saw this as the last chance to experiment with it.”

Mosse has a record of throwing himself into ambitious and costly projects that have not been financially productive; in any case, cash was never his prime motivation. At the time, he says, he was running out of money. “I was really thinking, Well, I’ll do one more thing and then maybe I’ll work as a barman for a while.”

He was struck by Jeffrey Gettleman’s reports about Congo in the New York Times. “He wrote so clearly and so well about these terrible, complex things. I realised I knew nothing about what was going on in Congo now.”

His knowledge of Congo was filtered through associations with Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement. To travel to Congo would be, as he puts it, “a preposterous gesture. I thought it would be a good way to test the limits of war photography – which, let’s face it, needs revision. If you go as a reporter you’re very limited in the scope of what you can do. You don’t have much wriggle room. But [as] an artist, the expectations aren’t the same; an artist has wriggle room.”

Still, it was a wildly impractical plan. “I had no French, which is sort of essential. So I arrived and I was staying in Catholic missions for a while. There was a UN stabilisation mission, and I thought I’d go and call on them.” As luck would have it the UN communications officer at the time was a Cork man, a former journalist named Ronan Goggin. “He asked me what I was doing there, and I said I didn’t really know.” That was the beginning of Mosse’s education about Congo, and how he might go about negotiating it.

As Jason Stearns, an American writer with more than a decade of experience of the country, writes in the Aperture book based on The Enclave: “How do you cover a war that involves at least 20 different rebel groups and the armies of nine countries, yet does not seem to have a clear cause or objective?”

Eventually, Mosse “headed out into the sticks”. Congo is about the size of western Europe, but without many more roads than there are in Ireland. “There’s a limit to how far you can get even in a four-by-four. Then you walk. It was exhilarating.”

But it was also frightening. He linked up with members of one of many militias and had a wary meeting with their commander. “Not long afterwards I heard that this man’s mother had died.” Relying on the strength of the local gift culture, he rounded up as many desirable commodities as he could to bring as mourning presents. They included sugar, iodine, a live pig and a handbag for the leader’s wife.

After receiving Mosse hospitably, the commander asked him what he wanted in return. He asked for an introduction to one of the more notorious rebel groups that operated in the area, Hutu exiles from Rwanda. He was given a guard of 12 men who guided him to a meeting with a colonel in one of the groups. “He was an educated, articulate man, very measured and calm. Not surprisingly, he offered quite a different narrative to the familiar account of the Rwandan genocide.”

Acts of cruelty
Mosse is under no illusions. Stearns describes eloquently in his text how, in a perpetually destabilised, violent environment, the most ordinary, sensible people are, out of desperation, capable of extreme cruelty. As Mosse observes, the colonel had undoubtedly done terrible things. Some time later, says Mosse, “He was assassinated. It’s not clear by whom. Perhaps some other group. My own bet would be Rwandan commandos.”

He made an exhibition and a book, Infra, based on his Congo experiences. “Subsequently, I traced 16mm infrared film stock.” Having worked with Tweeten previously, he approached him about making the film. “He very sensibly said no. But then he saw the images from Infra and he immediately changed his mind.”

Then the Australian composer and producer Ben Frost, who is based in Iceland, got in touch to say he had come across the book, and liked it, and he was drawn into the project. Later, when the first stages of the film had earned Mosse a ticket to Venice, the Berlin-based Irish publisher, writer and curator John Holten came on board.

Surreal palette
Mosse appropriately uses the word “immersive” about The Enclave. Its fragmentary form and surreal palette suit the subject. As Stearns puts it, all of the standard explanations for the chaos break down along the way; to merely describe the violence and look for a culprit don’t work, although there are certainly culprits. “Congo always felt that way to me, as if the regular colour spectrum, the usual yardsticks we have, don’t quite hack it.”

Mosse found himself a little too close to things when, just on the point of leaving the country in November 2012, he was caught up in the fall of Goma to the rebels of the March 23rd Movement, known as M23. The footage features in the installation. “It’s the one sequence that has no soundtrack,” he says. “That seemed to best describe how it felt.”

He is not sure whether he has come to terms with his experiences in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Walking down the street in Brooklyn, if there was a sudden noise I’d just fall to the ground.” After Venice “I just fell off a cliff, emotionally. But then,” he adds, “in many ways that’s quite a good place to be, for an artist.”

The Enclave is at the RHA Galleries, Dublin, until March 12th;, and at Ormston House and 6a Rutland Street, Limerick, from March 27th to May 5th

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