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The Horror & Sublime

When my friend Hana Layson, new to the education department at the Portland Art Museum, invited me to participate in a 3-week program she was facilitating linking Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the video installation The Enclave by provocateur Richard Mosse I:

  • Hadn’t seen the exhibit (but wanted to)

  • Had read Conrad in college – and found the text a bit predictable

  • Was aware of the famous Chinua Achebe argument that Conrad is thoroughly racist for depicting Africa (and Congo in particular) as “the other world”

  • Felt compelled by the material, and interested to take a stab at understanding

I also had been writing poetry about my experience in Cape Town South Africa in 2013. Fashioned and distilled from my blog written the summer my family was living on the tip of the African continent, my on-the-ground experience was complicated, messy and still something I was teasing out. It felt like a good time to talk about “Africa,” and what better part of Africa than Congo, the very heart of the darkness.

There were a few things I loved about the format of Hana’s “In Dialogue” series at PAM. A 3-week engagement, you could sign up for all three or pick and choose – which meant there were different people around the table every week. There was also a different facilitator bringing a more particular point-of-view to our discussion. We started the first week with a careful and intense unpacking of Conrad’s book as it informed and connected with Mosse’s work and then moved on to discussions on Globalization, Human Rights, Photojournalism and the Sublime.

The Enclave itself is a masterwork in many ways. Curated as a mix of still photography and a 45-minute videographic sensory assault, it’s been a very long time since a work of art made me so uncomfortable. Using a recently discontinued military film technology that creates an infrared relief of the landscape to unearth military installations, the technique turns the whole world pink. Everything that is green, that is. The grass, the trees, the uniforms, the huts. The saturation of pink mirrors that “other world” reified by Conrad but manipulates it at the same time in a really sophisticated way. The content of the exhibit, too, is very particular. It provides little context on the actual conflict in Congo, instead exploring the complex relationships in Eastern Congo in the fluid and confusing way you would understand them if you were living there – or if you were an embedded photojournalist, which is mostly what Mosse and his small video production team was. Yet you can tell that Mosse was conspicuous as hell at the same time. He blended in about as much as the white British officer Conrad would have among the native peoples of Congo when he traveled there in1890.

The Congo is one of the most complicated and confusing countries in the world, and the more-than a century-long conflict there is impossible to understand. What I loved about the chance to discuss Congo and how art has tried to wrestle with and explain it is that I felt reminded of many things all at once: the Western world’s general lack of understanding about the many individual nations that make up the African continent and yet our compulsion and need to try and understand it anyway. The complexities of the white gaze on African peoples and how it somehow both validates and negates attempts at artistic expression that seek to provide new access points. How globalization takes us closer to and further from ourselves – and how troubling and challenging that ultimately is. How far away from my ideal conception of human rights we still are, which is something that caused me daily pain while I was living in South Africa. And probably most particularly for me, how conflicted I am about what to do about all of it. What’s my role? To read classic books and watch amazing video installations? Talk to other people doing the same thing? Volunteer? Give money? Go there? Make my own art? Read more books and try to be a more thoughtful steward of my personal knowledgebase in countries that (in most cases) I’ve never even been to? Try to do something closer to home that acknowledges and tries to address how conflicted our whole world is about questions of race and politics?

I didn’t get answers to these questions, per se. But I thought the invitation to be in dialogue in this way was really satisfying. I’d sign up for PAM’s next In Dialogue series in a heartbeat, and meanwhile I’m busy simultaneously reading about 15 books on the conflict in Congo and our mixed attempts at shedding light on it. And though Achebe and many other venerable Africans have a lot to take Conrad to task about, his book was much more compelling to me this time. It’s so beautifully written! So many pristine sentences! And so much personal justice-work in bringing his experiences to light in thinly-veiled fiction that houses a few of the most seminal metaphors of our age. The horror and the sublime, all in one.

Stay Backwords,

Sara Guest

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