Sunday, October 19, 2008

Art Space Talk: Richard Mosse

Richard Mosse’s photographs and video work often reveal aspects of horror that focus on the fears of society-- the devastation of a plane crash or war torn streets. However, his work als0 notes the aesthetic value of these scenarios as objects. In a sense, his photographs display the reality of these disasters in a manner that one could describe as commerically voyeuristic. His photographs provide a safe zone for viewers to explore the chaos of these scenarios. Viewers often discover an odd sense of beauty in the images due to Mosse's skill as a photographer and selective process.

Richard Mosse has exhibited internationally. He has been involved with group exhibits at the Barbican Art Gallery, Art Chicago, and the Tate Modern. Mosse earned an MFA in Photography at the Yale School of Art. He also studied art at Goldsmiths.

Brian Sherwin: Richard, my understanding is that you originally studied literature and language in college. You then studied art at Goldsmiths and earned an MFA in Photography from Yale School of Art in 2008. Can you discuss your academic background and how it has influenced you as an artist? For example, did you have any influential instructors?

Richard Mosse: The BA in English provided an excellent grounding in literary criticism and turned me onto various strategies for reading the text. It also made me comfortable with the notion that every gesture is political, whether or not it is intended to be.

After the BA I studied an MRes (Master of Research) in Cultural Studies at the London Consortium. It was an excellent bridge to making art, and turned the literary tools from the BA into tools for reading the world. I turned in a dissertation on memory and photographic representation in the post-war Balkan nations, after a few months spent travelling and making work in that part of the world.

I suppose what was happening at this stage was that I was starting to challenge my own desire to be a photojournalist. I was looking at ways in which contemporary artists had succeeded in representing pain and suffering where photojournalism had failed.

BS: How is your youth reflected in the work you create today? My understanding is that you were born in Ireland in 1980. Did those years and the travels you have had since influence your art?

RM: My video work usually involves an exchange of some sort with people I can relate to, who are often around my age and interested in the same sorts of things that I am. Youth is less apparent in my still photography, but it’s very much there in the sense of someone whose reading of history (and here I mean current affairs in a state of being written and rewritten) seeks to violate previous narratives beyond the threshold of responsibility.

BS: What attracted you to photography as a means of expressing yourself as compared to other mediums? Can you give our readers some insight into your practice as a photographer?

RM: The camera often feels too comfortable in my hands – which is why I prefer the dark cloth and tripod of large format photography, forcing me to slow down, and hopefully the viewer too. However, many of the places where I photograph require a speedy capture and a sharp exit. For this reason, I try my hardest to let the subject speak for itself. The dumbness of the lens is something that I can’t get over, and is central in constructing images.

"I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed."-- from Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, 1939

I feel this dumbness is a fabulous tool for unpacking history, probably because it points to the visual amnesia of our times. A bit like we’ve stopped reading novels, we’ve stopped being able to see the still image. We see them but we immediately forget them. David Levi-Strauss wrote about this in an article published on the Open Democracy blog (‘Click here to disappear: thoughts on images and democracy’).

BS: Can you discuss some of your other influences? For example, have any specific artists influeced your work?

RM: Artists and writers who have left their trace include Walter Benjamin, Victor Burgin, Phil Collins, Willie Doherty, Johan Grimonprez, Ori Gersht, Werner Herzog, Marine Hugonnier, Alfredo Jaar, Emily Jacir, Walid Raad, WG Sebald, Robert Smithson, Jem Southam, Thomas Struth, Paul Virilio, Jeff Wall.

BS: Tell us more about your Airside series. My understanding is that the series focuses on understanding how air disasters shape our cultural imagination and how they can be related to the fear and myths of flight throughout history. Can you discuss this further?

RM: You can watch a very beautiful film on Youtube of a controlled air disaster performed by Nasa many years ago. They put different coloured powders in each part of the fuselage. At the point of impact, each section of the aircraft produces colourful plumes which are sustained for the few moments it takes for the large plane to be reduced to virtually nothing and captured from several angles on high-speed cine cameras. I want the viewer to understand, as I have, that the air disaster is a profoundly aesthetic object.

Writing about Gehry in 2001, Hal Foster observed that: "Thirty years ago Guy Debord defined spectacle as ‘capital accumulated to such a degree that it becomes an image’. With Gehry and other architects the reverse is now true as well: spectacle is an image accumulated to such a degree that it becomes capital."

In photographing these machines, I wished to elaborate the spectacle of terrorism, insisting on its existence as image (advertisement), an image built in relation to capital. To this end, many of the works from Airside are printed very large and the surface of the face of the photograph is mounted to shiny Plexiglass. I am fascinated by these provisional structures, and how they speak unselfconsciously about our ambivalence to terror, their phallic form baldly revealing our unconscious desire for disaster.

BS: Can you tell us about your video work? Such as ‘Fraternity’ and ‘Jew on a Ball’ and the social implications of those projects?

RM: I had been living in America several months, and was struck over and again at how loud Americans can be. For example, on the train from New York to New Haven, where I lived to attend the Yale MFA, there is a conductor on each carriage. The conductors communicate with each other as well as the driver over the public address system. It strikes me as extraordinary that the passengers can put up with this banal running commentary on the journey, sometimes peppered with small talk and bad jokes. Although I love the quaintness of this form of travel, it rather drove me mad. And so I made Fraternity. For the Open Studios, I played Fraternity on the street outside Yale School of Art, and turned the sound up far too loud. A well dressed man and his good looking family came up and told me this was noise pollution.

Jew On A Ball, was made in Lebanon and London during the Israel-Lebanon War of summer 2006. Naked Jewish boys trying to stay on top of a rubber ball – this was intended as a a metaphor for the Jewish homeland: something which the Jew tries but continually fails to stay on top of, and in failing hurts himself, sometimes very badly. And of course, the image of a naked Jew echoes Holocaust imagery, the victim Jew, vulnerable and objectified.

I found the violence of the footage made by the boys disturbing. Although Arabic terms of endearment are less objectified than their Western equivalents, I found certain terms quite dark. For example, it is common to say to your lover, ‘Bury me alive.’ Presenting physical and metaphysical violence alongside each other, I wished to reduce an entrenched and tragic political situation down to the level of a harmful personal relationship, to the point where love and hate are virtually the same thing. As Bono sang, ‘I can’t live / With or without you.’

BS: You have been involved with a number of group shows, including group shows at the Tate Modern, Barbican Art Gallery, and New Insight at Art Chicago. What do you take from group exhibits-- as in the interaction you have with the other artists. Do those experiences inspire you, so to speak? Perhaps you can discuss one of those shows and how the experience made an impact on you?

RM: Bloomberg New Contemporaries, which happens each year in the UK, is a touring group show of between 20-30 selected art school graduates. It’s chosen by a panel of well-known artists which changes each year. The show tours three different cities in the UK, and for each there is a big opening and all the artists, as well as the panel, are flown in for a night of arty parties. It was brilliant, and I am still good friends with some of the other partcipants in that show. More than ‘Goldsmiths class of 2005’, I was more comfortable with ‘New Contemporaries class of 2005’.

There was another superb group show, Belfast’s Ormeau Baths Gallery Perspective Award. It was a group show of about 20 young artists. They brought in Terry Atkinson and Ariella Azoulay to select the award winner, and I was very lucky to win it. However, Ormeau Baths Gallery was forced to shut down only a few months later, and I still feel somehow responsible. However, I think that has more to do with an Irish fondness for intrigue and backroom politicking.

BS: Speaking of exhibits, will you be involved in any upcoming exhibits? Also, where can our readers view your work in person?

RM: Selected works from Airside will be shown from Nov 13 to Dec 20 at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York’s Chelsea district. Shainman has many more works than the few that will be on display, and would be happy to arrange a viewing upon request.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the message you strive to convey to viewers?

RM: I had some work scheduled for exhibition in The Aesthetics of Terror, a group show at the Chelsea Art Museum which was cancelled at the last minute. The museum’s curator, Manon Slome, resigned and issued a statement saying that ‘the president of the museum concluded that the show glorified terrorism’ and the show was met by ‘increasing hostility’ from the museum, which ‘evolved into tactics of blocking, demands for change, for the elimination of some work.’ This relationship escalated to the point where the show, if it went ahead, would be highly compromised. Manon and co-curator Joshua Simon decided, with great courage, to pull the show and quit.

I sent an email to my network forwarding the catalogue of the show that never happened, as well as the curators’ statement, along with a message saying that I was absolutely amazed that this kind of thing could happen in New York City.

"The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge – unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable." –from ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ by Walter Benjamin, translated by Harry Zohn, 1940

You can learn more about Richard Mosse by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--

Take Care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor

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