Richard Mosse: Incoming / Reviewed by Anneka French / 07.03.17
The photographs and videos displayed in Incoming use military grade thermal imaging technology. Originally designed for border surveillance and battlefield training, the technology is here used by Irish photographer Richard Mosse to highlight the present refugee crisis from a perspective which is both familiar and otherworldly.
The images produced are silvered and high in contrast. They have a haunting effect almost like an x-ray, as the camera obscures some surface details of the subjects but reveals others starkly – the hairs and veins of a man’s forearm, thick eyelashes, beads of sweat – through extremes of hot and cold. The technology is ‘blind to skin colour’. To see only in silver radically alters the perception of a person but it is invasive and heat can be detected in a human body from over 30km away. The images Mosse has produced are universalising as much as they are humanising; not individual people but individual details are recorded. That Mosse’s exhibition at the Barbican comes at a time when much of the world is lurching to the extreme right, makes his troubling and powerful images all the more significant.
The exhibition begins with a 16-channel HD video titled Grid (Maria) (2017), in which cameras judderingly track targets in what seems to be a refugee camp or holding centre. Next are two large-scale panoramic digital C-type prints on metallic paper that show further camps in super-high detail. A line of shipping containers are used to block access and sightlines for those held in Skaramaghas (2016), while the sea and barbed wire demarcate the other sides of their fixed enclosure. Children can be seen on bicycles within the walls.
The exhibition finally leads to Incoming, a 3-channel HD video so enormous that it is impossible to watch it without repeated turns of the head. The work’s visceral soundtrack draws visitors in while the slow-moving images present a fragmented narrative of displacement, struggle, survival and military power played out by eerie, ghost-like figures. The video includes scenes of packed-in refugees travelling by boat and lorry; children being plucked from the water; the body of a dead child in a parka undergoing a post-mortem; military personnel loading missiles on to a jet; photographers; a man praying on his knees; glittering foil blankets; boys fighting; women crying; and riot police torching tents and possessions. Mosse’s distressing scenes are meticulously cut with moving images of the sea, sky, sun and moon. These offer moments of reflection amid suffering. The camera does curious things to the images it captures, transforming substances like smoke and water into tiny pinpricks, streaks and waves of light like shooting stars or the northern lights; transforming chaos into strange beauty.
Though the tone of Mosse’s works are sympathetic to the refugees and critical of those that create and perpetuate their circumstances, the artist’s use of their technology to undertake surveillance-as-artwork sits uncomfortably. This, combined with the content of the work and the fact that the people appear not-quite-human through Mosse’s lens, make for one vastly memorable, discomforting and overwhelming viewing experience that can’t quite be shaken off.
– reviewed by Anneka French
Richard Mosse Incoming continues until 23 April 2017 at Curve Gallery, Barbican Art Gallery
Curve Gallery, Barbican, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS, UK