Nicolas and Alfredo Jaar‘s intuitive alliance
The organising principle behind Nicolas Jaar’s work is to fight against logic, and the logics he fights against take various forms. On Sirens, there are two in particular; musical genre and nationalist narrative. It’s the frictions between elements of both that create the fuel for Jaar’s happysad musical alchemy.
There’s a clear and very literal lineage behind this artistic outlook. Whether it’s his tone, themes, or his approach to discussing them, the traits that constitute Jaar’s style are a distillation of concepts visible in the work of his father, the Chilean installation artist Alfredo Jaar. Jaar works primarily with community-based projects, photography and installations, and is an artist of global acclaim. The title page to his website features a couple of quotes which act as statement pieces to summarise his outlook, and the site could plausibly double up as a launch site for Sirens.
The first quote comes from the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran. ‘I am lured by faraway distances…’, it reads. ‘The immense void I project upon the world. I am simultaneously happy and unhappy, exalted and depressed, overcome by both pleasure and despair in the most contradictory harmonies.’ It’s a beautiful passage, and one that could constitute a verbal expression of the emotionally ambiguous component in the younger Jaar’s music.
Elsewhere on the site, another statement. This time it’s from William Carlos Williams, a nineteenth century poet of dual United States and West Indian heritage. “It is difficult to get the news from poems/ but men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there”. This too seems to express an aspect of Nicolas’ work: not only the emotional, but the political strain that’s so visible on Sirens.
It’s primarily the political that drives Alfredo’s art practice. In an interview with Art:21, he described the reactive nature of his work, how his creativity is a response to real-life events rather than a product of imagination alone. “I do not create works in my studio. I wouldn’t know what to do. I do not stare at the blank page of paper and start inventing a world coming from my imagination. My imagination starts working based on research, based on a real-life event—most of the time, a tragedy”.
His works are underpinned by concrete geopolitical realities and a progressive, awareness-raising agenda. At this year’s Art Basel, an event which can so easily descend into a networking event for the upper echelons, he scattered fragments of our global reality amongst the comfortable hubbub. His work Gift saw volunteers hand out gift-boxes to visitors, which opened up to reveal the image of Aylan Kurdi, the small boy photographed tragically dead on the beaches of Europe in September 2015. Alongside the image was a quote from a journalist Mario Calabresi, an urgent plea for the public not to look away.
The imaginative component in handing out gift-boxes in the context of an art fair is typical of his work, which does not simply bash his audience over the head with the work’s political point but elevates it with a sense of the emotional, the artistic and the ambiguous. A highlight of his career was his turn of the millenium work The Skoghall Konsthall, for which he set up a sort of pop-up museum made of paper in the small, paper-producing town of Skoghall in Sweden. By constructing the museum out of the locality’s primary resource and then burning it to the ground, Jaar was able to create a provocative and transient spectacle that spoke to the lack of cultural provision in the area, and the potentially destructive impact of this lack.
It’s the fusion of the political, the imaginative and the emotional that rendered this such a typically Alfredo Jaar piece. It’s reminiscent of the burning house in Russian experimental filmmaker Tarkovsky’s The Mirror or of the same image in Charlie Kauffmann’s Synechdoche, New York. Something about the image of a building burning slowly and deliberately in real time seems filmic, almost Ingmar Bergman-esque. Jaar’s enflamed museum is like an image from Through A Glass Darkly but in the glorious technicolour of real life.
Jaar’s works are deeply considered. He is most widely known for a work aimed at raising awareness about the Rwandan genocide that lasted six-years, The Rwanda Project, perhaps the most widely known aspect of which is The Silence of Nduwayezu. Nduwayezu was one of many orphans Jaar met in Rwanda who had witnessed the brutal killing of their parents. Nduwayezu remained silent for weeks after the trauma, and Jaar documented what he has referred to as “the saddest eyes I had ever seen.” Nduwayezu’s silence acts as a sort of mirror to the international community’s silence during the devastating tragedy of the genocide.
His son’s new LP begins with the sound of a breaking mirror. It is music of its time, built in the age of Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump, and the punishing backdrop of global tragedy. Like his father’s work it is rich, imaginative and infused with emotion; personal, not preachy. So with lyrics and a tone that speaks almost directly to the themes addressed in his father’s vast corpus of work, the fact he used his artwork A Logo For America to adorn the album’s scratch-off cover makes perfect sense.
Rallying against the predominant limiting of the word “America” to mean U.S, it’s a work that spoke out against the dominance of self-aggrandising U.S economic and political power in popular discourse and the diminution of Southern and Central American identity. Most strikingly when you look at the cover is not just that this is a good point: it’s the imaginative and emotional blow with which it’s delivered. For anyone listening to Sirens, the packaging of a powerful message with a wistful essence will be familiar. Perhaps it runs in the genes.
Read our current cover feature with Nicolas Jaar here