The Maltese ship that decorated the Nativity scene in St Peter’s Square this past Christmas memorialised the plight of the refugee, a haunting echo of the wars in Africa and the Middle East. Now Richard Mosse, too, is recalling to our minds a conflict that has been made banal by the ugly atonality of the imagery on screens and newsprint.
Mosse, whose work mixing art and photography had already garnered international acclaim with his magical-realist, infrared “war photography” from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has a new work, Incoming, showing at the Barbican (until April 23).
For Mosse, whose previous reportage work included the broken down palaces of Saddam Hussein’s regime and wrecked test flights, the medium is the message. Where he previously used infrared film to pick out fauna in frosty pink, he now uses a military-grade thermal camera – requiring two computers and a 110-pound automated tripod, able to detect life at 30 kilometres – to capture (in photography but mainly on film) the horrific trials of refugees in North Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
Through this lab-cold, fibre-capturing lens, we follow the refugees’ travails through detention camps, stomach-churning boat journeys, the Calais “Jungle” and riot police closing down the camp with water cannon. The most poignant scenes are the those of individual people: a man, praying to Mecca, his hot skin white and clammy with thermal imagery; it is barely noticeable, but he is wiping away tears. This is all filmed from perhaps miles away. I wonder what that man is doing now – whether his is a Canada-relocated success story, or whether he is still on the run.
It makes you think of the Daily Mail’s call for children entering Britain to have their dental records checked. Surgery is something brought to mind in Mosse’s film. These people are anatomised by the camera (which is, in fact, classified as a weapon) – you can see the blood going through their veins – and we see our own discourse reflected back by the camera: why people as stupid as the Mail’s Katie Hopkins would classify refugees as “cockroaches”. The images we see resemble polaroids; black and white are often interchanged. It would seem that these people are being portrayed as human polaroids, the opposite of what it is supposed to be to be human.
The work of another Irishman haunts the Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 exhibition at Tate Modern (until June 11) – that of Eamonn Doyle. In some rooms, we see what Doyle showed us so successfully at Arles Photography Festival last year. The atonality of the modern palette: too clumsy to be kitsch, bunched together too closely by technology, acidic, artificial, careening with the weight of our consumerism, lacking the spiritual – Pop Art, with the bits around the brand names filled in.
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