Richard Mosse: Incoming
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There’s two things you need to know about this show. One: it will make you rethink the European refugee crisis. And two: it contains some of the most beautiful images you will see in a gallery this year. Or ever. Paradoxically, it achieves both these things thanks to some very non-touchy-feely battlefield technology. In his last major installation, ‘The Enclave’, Mosse used film stock that rendered greens as reds, casting the jungly confusion of the war in the Congo as gorgeously, defamiliarisingly pink-hued. This time, the images are all black-and-white, but taken with a camera that responds to heat, rather than light, and which can pick out a human body 30km away. Of course, the major application for it is military, but Mosse uses it to document the experiences of refugees and the results are startling.
At the heart of the show is the title piece, ‘Incoming’, a three-screen video projection accompanied by a soundscape of electronic drones and field recordings by Ben Frost. It runs for nearly an hour, but you quickly lose all sense of time. The footage includes scenes we’re all accustomed to: knots of men behind wire fences, people in rubber boats, police in riot gear. But the effect of the heat-sensitive technology is breathtaking: the images are pin-sharp, full of contrast and detail, but profoundly ‘other’. You struggle to read them – especially across three screens – while marvelling at their abstract beauty and moments of delight: a gull flies across a beachscape; a warm handprint remains on a blanket. Mosse flicks between positive and negative: sometimes warm faces and hands are dark, sometimes bright white. ‘Real’ skin tone is irrelevant. One of the major causes of death among refugees is exposure, and ‘Incoming’ makes us question which parts of the images we’re seeing are the hypothermic ones. People are pulled from the water and swaddled in foil wraps. At the other end of the spectrum, there are white hot fighter jet exhausts and out-of-control campfires. Heatwise, this is a world of total extremes.
Humanitarian disasters are tough for artists: get too close and you look like you’re making a moral point; stand too far away and you risk leaving the viewer cold. See? Cold. Mosse makes the viewer literally decide what’s hot and what’s not. As you read huge landscapes looking for a spark of life, or work out which parts of a person are frozen or baking, you are re-analysing a political crisis using the most basic physical criteria. That those criteria also create such ravishing art is a quite unbelievable achievement.