Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Eva Mak reviews Richard Mosse: Incoming at the Barbican in London.
No matter race, age, origin, or legal status, while the human body performs the physiological processes that keep its vital functions intact, it radiates heat, thereby making it detectable to thermographic cameras like the ones used for military-grade surveillance. In Incoming, on view at the Barbican, Irish conceptual documentary photographer Richard Mosse repurposed heat-sensitive surveillance technology to create a powerful piece of humanist art: a portrait of today’s refugee crisis, registered in black-and-white signatures of relative temperature difference.
Flipping a dispassionate war mechanism to function as a subversive documentary tool, Mosse worked with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten to scan the land- and seascapes traversed by today’s staggering numbers of migrants: from Syria and Libya to Berlin; from Sahara Desert to the Calais camp. The photographic project is a chilling document of human suffering, yet resonates with a striking lyricism. The mesmerizing footage shows glowing ghosts—without identities, without origins—moving in slow motion through dark, otherworldly settings.
The exhibition’s titular piece is an immersive, multichannel video installation hidden inside the cavelike space of the Barbican’s Curve gallery. To arrive here, audiences move around the bend of the ninety-meter-long corridor, gaining an understanding of the thermal camera’s logic through photographic work that demonstrates how the device registers human activity with missile-like, depersonalized vision. Penetrating deeper into the darkened Curve, a contemplative quietude appropriately sets the tone–yet fails to prepare–for the horrors of Incoming’s main tour de force.
The large-scale video piece shows people clambering out of overloaded lifeboats, doctors trying to resuscitate drowned children, and rows of survivors traveling onward, their abstracted, spectral faces downcast in grief. The work’s most grueling scenes include dark, hypothermic bodies lying too still, or hot white hands zipping up body bags. Accompanied by composer Ben Frost’s highly effective score–which combines eerie ambient tones with the documentary noises of roaring helicopter blades, shouting rescue workers, and wailing women–the piece oscillates between documentation and abstraction, between intimacy and distance, making it ambivalent, unsettling, and highly effective.
The logic of the thermographic camera and its arresting aesthetic—abstracting, anonymizing, yet rooted in a universal, shared physiology—provides the crux to Incoming’s integrity and power. Mosse’s unique lens sets his work apart from the straight documentary images produced by mainstream media and makes viewable—palpable, even—the levels of human suffering we might otherwise wish to turn away from. Medium, content, and form present a piercing, ardent confrontation with the harrowing realities faced by fellow humans: their bodies warm, like ours, currently seeking refuge from inhumane conditions globally.
Richard Mosse: Incoming will be on view through April 23, 2017.
Eva Mak is an art historian and writer from Amsterdam, currently living in London. Her interests go out to politically engaged and challenging conceptual practices revealing both local and global perspectives.