“Everything I know about the world, everything I understand about the world, I started learning the day I became an artist. I can say that I became an artist in order to understand the world in which I live. In a way, I became an artist out of curiosity. And curiosity is perhaps the best antidote against obscurantism. Curiosity is the source of my insatiable inquisitiveness. Inquisitiveness leads to knowledge. And knowledge means enlightenment. The idea is to open your mind to the world. We are, after all, the result of all the stimuli we receive. The more stimuli we receive, the more complete our vision. How can I comprehend anything if I only know half of the story? Perhaps the true enemy of our intellect is apathy. Indifference. As we defeat our apathy, we expand our search and discover places, mental places, intellectual places where we have never been, that we didn’t even know existed. In the process of becoming an artist, I took a journey that went from ignorance, that is darkness, to knowledge, meaning light. This knowledge has illuminated me. It is perhaps the reason why light, physical light, has become such an important device in my work. The process of making art is perhaps nothing more, and nothing less, than to shed light on our world”.

Untitled (handshake), 1985

What is the language of terror? Can genocide, war, humanitarian catastrophes or political atrocities be visually represented in any form? Is there any beauty or any aesthetic to resistance? Does art has to deal with the unrepresentable ? Where are its limits ?

Although political art is en vogue again, few artists have ever dared to touch the limits of representation in this field, and fewer still have asked the question of how to deal with human atrocities.

“Alfredo Jaar continuously deals with the complex ideological structure hidden behind repression and exploitation”, explains Frank Wagner. “The transformation of his political reflections into aesthetics of resistance take place as an open process, which invariably leads to the methods of perception and prompts an impulse to act to bring about change.”

Wagner is the curator of Alfredo Jaar´s extensive exhibition in Berlin, which is on show until the end of September in three different spaces around the city. His works are grouped by their political, social and philosophical aspects, and date from the beginning of his artistic career in 1970s Chile onward.

Alfredo Jaar has been weaving arts and politics since 1973, when the Coup d´État in Chile made him aware of wider issues at the age of 17.

At that time the adolescent Jaar had just arrived from Martinique, where he grew up. His parents wanted to embrace the change in Chile promised by Salvador Allende’s new socialist government. The Coup d´État in which Pinochet’s military (supported by the USA) overthrew the government killed the democratically elected president Salvador Allende, and under the subsequent military regime thousands of Allende´s supporters were tortured, killed or disappeared without trace.

His works tried to visualise this brutality by appropriating images from public media and adapting different forms of protest: for example, pictures of Belfast women banging metal dustbin lids to raise awareness of their husbands hunger strikes, or flagging Chilean territory with a line of white flags which spread across the country and ended in the ocean — a metaphor for the “desaparecidos”, the people who disappeared under the military regime.

In his public work he asked Chilean civilians “Es usted feliz?” — “Are you happy?” — a simple question which appeared like advertisements along motorways, at bus stops or under public clocks, and which revealed the discomfort and distrust of Chile´s society in such a subtle way that the state did not even censor him. The simple question became an almost admonitory slogan and rubbed salt deep into the Chilean wound. Jaar’s art became a form of a collective counselling therapy in a country immersed in decreed silence.

His methods of visualising political and social events showed a profound understanding of public media, culminating in his 1981 work on the cover of ‘Time’ magazine about Henry Kissinger and his implication in Chilean policy.

Shortly after that he moved to New York, and accidentally ended up living there. “I was on my way to Paris when I came to New York and decided to stay here”. He studied architecture and film, and now runs his own architectural studio. The discipline of architecture seems a logical fit for Jaar, as the public sphere is often his platform for installations, and the concept of light and darkness within a space reflect his filmmaking influences. In “Lumiere dans la Ville” he installed a button in a homeless shelter in Montreal which, when pushed, triggered a red light on the rooftop of the shelter, making the social wound of homelessness visible without representing its victims personally. While Jaar was on a 1992 scholarship in Berlin, he inscribed the names of German cities which had gained dubious glory for xenophobic attacks after the reunification of the country onto the steps of the Altar in the city´s Pergamon Museum.

“There’s this huge gap between reality and its possible representations. And that gap is impossible to close. So as artists, we must try different strategies for representation. […] [A] process of identification is fundamental to create empathy, to create solidarity, to create intellectual involvement” says the 56 year old artist in an interview regarding his exhibition about Rwanda “The Silence of Nduwayezu”.

After Latin America, Africa became the focus of Alfredo Jaar´s work for over a decade — possibly as a reaction to his childhood in Martinique. He first went to Rwanda in 1994, very soon after massacres had killed a million and left several million without homes. Rwanda was not on the general international political agenda at that time. Much of the US media was hypnotised by the OJ Simpson case, and the UN even made Jaar sign a “release” freeing the organisation from any responsibility for his journey. In the first of many works based on his Rwandan experiences, he took thousands of photographs — “a cemetery of images”, as Jaar is quoted as describing them — while amongst the survivors and wrote down their stories. But “Real Pictures”, the work which finally emerged from this intensive project, refuses to show its viewers any photographs: instead they are “buried” in 372 black boxes piled up in a dark room, reminiscent of tombstones.

In another work, he reframes the story of Kevin Carter, a South African photojournalist who committed suicide after a furore surrounded his Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a starving African child being attacked by a vulture — Carter was heavily criticised for the cynical voyeurism implied by his failure to help the child, which led to his suicide. Alfredo Jaar retells that story in “The Sound of Silence”. “Are images a symptom of an indifferent society or are we indifferent because these images don´t affect us anymore?”, Alfredo Jaar asks in a conversation with the author and curator Lucy Lippard. “We are losing our humanity… How can we see again?” His answer is found in his determination not to employ mass media strategies, his refusal to show horrifying pictures, and his use of photography to evoke rather than to show — these are Alfredo Jaar´s powerful means of resistance.