April 23, 2014
Chilean-born artist Alfredo Jaar was seventeen in 1973, when a CIA-backed coup d’état installed General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship. The regime’s seventeen-year rule disappeared more than 3,000 individuals, tortured 28,000, and exiled a million.1 Under this oppressive environment, Jaar, now a New York–based MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow, began his artist career in earnest, developing techniques and concerns that persist to this day.
Among Jaar’s most ambitious works is Studies on Happiness (1979–81), his first of many public interventions. In a climate in which the appearance of dissent could result in electrocution, waterboarding, rape, or execution, Jaar took to the streets of Santiago to ask one simple yet subversive question: Are you happy?2 The multi-part project began as a poll similar to Hans Haacke’s seminal MOMA Poll (1970), which asked Museum of Modern Art visitors to cast a ballot to answer the question: “Would the fact that Governor [and MoMA trustee] Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon's Indochina policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November?” Jaar cites that piece, along with philosopher Henri Bergson’s book Laughter, as inspiration for Studies on Happiness.3
In a place where free speech was severely limited, Jaar created temporary spaces for Santiaguinos to express their opinions, even if limited to dropping a tiny ball in a ballot box marked “yes” or “no.” The act of asking passersby whether they were happy or not was more seditious than either possible answer, since posing the question publicly suggested there was good reason to believe that discontent occurred under the junta. In fact, photographic documentation of the interventions reveals that in one ad-hoc poll, 66% of respondents answered “no,” but even that figure might be artificially low given fear of the cruelty perpetrated against dissenters. In addition to the extreme violence, in the time Jaar was taking his polls, unemployment was skyrocketing and the nation’s GDP was plummeting. Under the advisement of American economist and libertarian guru Milton Friedman, economic misery was increasing throughout Chile.4 The Chilean economy would finally collapse in 1982, the year Jaar permanently left the country for New York.
Building on the polls, Jaar began interviewing respondents and creating portraits with brief personal profiles. He then moved on to an even bolder approach: placing billboards around Santiago asking—now more like a shout—if residents were happy. One sign next to a Canada Dry ginger-ale ad asked, “¿Es usted feliz?” A sign next to a billboard for La Segunda, a pro-regime newspaper, asked, “¿Es usted feliz?” And one billboard among many on a busy Santiago street goaded, “¿Es usted feliz?” Billboards usually try to sell happiness, or some perverted idea of it. But Jaar’s posters—rendered in stark black text on white backgrounds—disrupted those messages by eliciting reminders of one’s poverty, hunger, or disappeared child, bringing together the promises and failure of authoritarian-backed consumerism.
Jaar is perhaps most well known for The Rwanda Project (1994–2000), a six-year series of twenty-one pieces dealing with the Rwandan genocide and its representation. One of the earliest pieces is the iconic Rwanda, Rwanda (1994). Similar to Studies on Happiness’s billboard phase, Rwanda, Rwanda took the form of 400 simple text-based posters displayed throughout Malmö, Sweden, as part of Artownaround, an exhibition of outdoor site-specific installations. Each poster, placed on advertising light boxes, repeats the word “RWANDA” several times in a bold sans-serif font suitable for a Marc Jacobs or Chanel advertisement.
While Studies on Happiness grappled with representing the ineffable, The Rwanda Project addressed a situation in which direct representation was possible but often either inadequate or turned into a spectacle. Jaar could have utilized photographs of scarred children, mutilated corpses, or mass graves; thousands of photographs of the Rwandan genocide exist and have circulated freely in Sweden and elsewhere. Such images can have an emotional impact, but they can also become anonymous and forgettable. Zaire, Rwanda, Sudan—for many in the world, these countries are interchangeable with each other, their histories, cultures, people, art, and wars all rendered as “African.”5 In this case, graphic images of genocide may only serve to momentarily stimulate before becoming yet another picture of the nebulous and distant “third world.” Jaar’s approach, however, uses a visual language that is familiar and commercial to call out in name this place of ongoing tragedy. The word “Rwanda” asserts the singularity of the nation; it rips it from the sweeping master narrative of “Africa.” The lack of images is haunting—it creates a void into which someone may project their worst fears and associations—and the word “Rwanda” itself has immense emotive power; like “the Holocaust” or “September 11th,” a darkness creeps up when reading the word.
The irony of the news media’s representation of the Rwandan genocide is that while documentation existed, European and North American media have been widely criticized for ignoring and under-reporting the massacre.6 In the United States, the media was enchanted by celebrity scandals and commercial trends to the detriment of significant and timely coverage of the crisis. Jaar’s Untitled (Newsweek) (1994) brings attention to the priorities of the media and their consumers through the case study of seventeen weeks of Newsweek covers during and immediately after the genocidal campaign. The installation pairs Newsweek covers from April 11 through August 1, 1994, with text detailing major events that occurred in Rwanda that week. While some covers reported on issues of world historical importance— the death of Kim Il-Sung and the election of Nelson Mandela—they were more likely to detail the O.J. Simpson murder case, the World Cup, or the antioxidant craze. On June 5, Jaar reports, the U.S. was arguing with the United Nations over the cost of providing armored vehicles for peacekeepers, and the death toll rose to 500,000. That week, Newsweek ran a cover story that could inspire future BuzzFeed writers: “The Myth of Generation X: Seven Great Lies About 20somethings.” Three weeks later, as 30,000 bodies were found in Rwanda’s Kagera River and the UN Security Council passed a resolution declaring the killings in Rwanda genocide and committing to deploy UN troops, Newsweek featured an article titled “Men, Women & Computers” with a comic of a blonde woman asking, “Is he as cute as his e-mail?” and a pimply redheaded nerd insisting, “Bet she’ll love my war games.”
The genocide ended that July after Tutsi rebels gained control of Rwanda, and the Hutu government that was perpetrating and encouraging the killings fled to Zaire.7 A month later, as Untitled (Newsweek) documents, the magazine featured its first cover story on one of the world’s greatest humanitarian tragedies. The cover reads, “Hell on Earth: Racing Against Death in Rwanda.” The accompanying image is everything Rwanda, Rwanda isn’t. A young child in ragged clothes stands alone in front of a mass of corpses laid out on a dirt field. Not to waste space, a teaser reminds potential buyers of an O.J. Simpson story included inside. The covers of magazines do not speak for a publication’s entire reportage, but they are snapshots of what a particular society or readership deems important. Untitled (Newsweek) reminds viewers that the news media’s attention to and representation of the world is driven primarily by market forces.
There is no way to sufficiently represent tragedies like the Pinochet regime or the Rwandan genocide. The suffering is incomprehensible to those who have not experienced something similar, and the political, economic, cultural, and moral complexities are vast. Simplification and sensationalism are easy, if not unavoidable and sometimes necessary. Jaar deftly avoids these pitfalls by opting to provoke contemplation with negation and absence, by referencing what is missing or unseen. The images in and documentation of Studies on Happiness and The Rwanda Project show so little but say so much.
- Jack Epstein, “Augusto Pinochet: Chilean leader's regime left thousands ‘disappeared,’” San Francisco Chronicle, December 10, 2006, http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/AUGUSTO-PINOCHET-Chilean-leader-s-regime-left-3249159.php
- “Life under Pinochet: ‘They were taking turns to electrocute us one after the other’, ” Amnesty International, September 11, 2013, https://www.amnesty.org/en/news/life-under-pinochet-they-were-taking-turns-electrocute-us-one-after-other-2013-09-11
- Caille Millner, “Alfredo Jaar and the Happiness of Chile,” Los Angeles Review of Books, December 8, 2013, http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/alfredo-jaar-and-the-happiness-of-chile
- Naomi Klein, “Milton Friedman did not save Chile,” Guardian, March 3, 2010, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/mar/03/chile-earthquake; and Paul Krugman, “Fantasies of the Chicago Boys,” New York Times, March 3, 2010, http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/03/fantasies-of-the-chicago-boys/
- Nicolas Kayser-Bril, “Africa is not a country,” Guardian, January 24, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/24/africa-clinton
- Allan Thompson, “The Media’s Failure in Rwanda,” Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen, March 2007, http://www.journalismethics.info/interviews/media_failure_in_Rwanda.htm
- “Rwanda: A Historical Chronology,” Frontline, accessed April 6, 2014, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/rwanda/etc/cron.html