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The Eyes Have It

I went to the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale expecting to sift through yet another juried group show. This time it was the "1999 South Florida Cultural Consortium Exhibition," an annual competition in which more than 350 artists from Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Martin, and Monroe counties were whittled down to the eight fellowship recipients represented in the show.

Out of the 40 or so works in the exhibition, however, only a handful is worth lingering over. The luminous oil-on-board paintings of Victoria Gitman, for instance, deserve a show to themselves. In her Self Representation series, Gitman draws on the art of the past to forge a style of self-portraiture that's also a sly commentary on its sources, while her Fifteen Beauties series re-creates famous paintings from the history of Western art in the form of small, fake, Polaroid-style snapshots.

Four large abstracts by the Asian-American artist Tin Ly also hold their own on the spacious wall that commands the large open area at the top of the museum's staircase. Ly combines painting with sculpture for his pieces, which consist of irregularly shaped panels of steel or aluminum. Some of Ly's works include hinged movable parts, and all are painted with swirls of oil in bright, tropical colors, creating a strangely appealing hybrid of the organic and the mechanical.

Although I didn't find much upstairs, I discovered downstairs a small but enormously potent exhibition. "Alfredo Jaar: Lament of the Images" consists of only three installations, but they have a cumulative emotional impact that overshadows everything else in the museum.

The installations are taken from Jaar's "Rwanda Project," his attempt to make sense of what guest curator Debra Bricker Balken, in her excellent introductions to the pieces, characterizes as "the third largest genocide of the twentieth century." Jaar went to Rwanda late in the summer of 1994, shortly after the country's Hutu majority engaged in an "ethnic cleansing" of the Tutsi minority that left approximately a million people dead.

The rest of the world more or less looked on in horror as the Rwandan massacres took place. The media documented the aftermath, according to Balken, although "this coverage focused excessively on the spectacle of mutilation, the violence of the crazed warlords and their dismembered victims and corpses. But these representations of cruelty proved to be either incomprehensible or, at least, too much for the viewer to take in. For, like the inaction of the international community and its failure to respond to the genocide, these images had the numbing effect of indifference, a monstrosity too large to endure."

Jaar, whose background includes filmmaking, was in Rwanda documenting the atrocities as well. But he came to realize that literal documentation was grossly inadequate to convey the enormity of the carnage. As an artist he took a "different rhetorical approach," writes Balken. "What about occluding the hideous nature of war and focusing on imagery that can metaphorically stand in for the maimed and the dead?"

For one of the "Rwanda Project" installations not on display here, for instance, Jaar concealed photos he had taken in Rwanda in black boxes. He then attached a description of each image to its box, "as if I were describing the picture to someone who was blind," the artist once explained.

Jaar uses the same indirect approach for the installations that make up "Lament of the Images," to devastating effect. The first piece, Field, Road, Cloud, is a series of three large-scale Cibachrome photographs taken in Rwanda in 1997. The first shows a lush field of tea plants, the second a dirt road through the jungle, and the third a billowy cloud formation. Taken at face value, the pictures are pretty but also fairly ordinary.

Alongside each image, however, is a small sketch that reveals information not included in the photograph, information linking the site to the massacres. By the time we reach the third picture, Jaar has provided enough details for us to realize that, beneath that beautiful cloud, a mound of 500 dead bodies was found.

The second installation, Let There Be Light, maintains an icily detached distance that, paradoxically, augments the scale of the Rwandan civil war. The curving wall beneath the museum staircase has been painted black, and along it Jaar displays ten black lightboxes, each of which has one word in its center, glowing white with light.

From a distance the boxes look like a set of video monitors set to the same minimalist channel. As you get closer, the exotic-looking words come into focus: Shangi, Rukara, Kibungo, Ginkongoro, Cyanguru, Cyahinda, Amahoro, Butare, Mibirizi, Kigali. Only at the end of the wall do we get the chilling explanation that each word is "a place name of a site where between 5,000 and 100,000 people were massacred." Jaar has said that while these place names don't have the same resonance as words like Auschwitz and Buchenwald, they stand for the same disregard for human life.

The final installation, The Eyes of Gutete Emerita, begins with a long, narrow lightbox on a black wall, with a single line of illuminated text that stretches perhaps 20 feet. It describes, with a matter-of-factness that only makes it more wrenching, first the basics of the 1994 massacres, then a specific story: "One Sunday morning at a church in Ntarama, four hundred Tutsis were murdered by a Hutu death squad. Gutete Emerita, 30 years old, was attending mass with her family when the massacre began. Gutete's husband, Tito Kahinamura, and her two young sons Muhoza and Matirigari, were killed with machetes before her eyes. Somehow, Gutete was able to escape with her daughter Marie-Louise Unumararunga.

"After weeks of hiding, Gutete has returned to the church in the woods. When she speaks about her lost family, she gestures to corpses on the ground, rotting in the African sun. I remember her eyes. The eyes of Gutete Emerita."

Now step around the partition, and you'll see Jaar's attempt to come to terms with what happened to Gutete Emerita and, by extension, thousands of other Rwandans with similar stories. An entire gallery has been painted black, and in its center sits a huge light table, about 15 feet by 20 feet. A mountainous pile of 35mm color slides rests on the table, spilling to its edges, where small loupes (framed magnifying glasses) are placed.

It takes only a few moments to realize that all the slides contain the same image: Jaar's closeup shot of Gutete Emerita's eyes. It takes much longer for the vastness of her sorrow and its implications to sink in. It is the sorrow of an entire people who have witnessed the unspeakable, the indescribable. As the artist explains: "Her eyes mirror our eyes. Her eyes are full of the content that we rejected."

It's something of an understatement to say that Jaar's photography-based installations, which he has been assembling for more than 20 years, are highly political. (He was born and raised in Chile, which has a turbulent political history.) But this is political art of a sort we may not have seen before now. It's neither propaganda nor art with a specific agenda but rather work that both documents geopolitical events and examines the possibilities and limitations of art in general, photography in particular, to address those events in a meaningful way.

Jaar seems to have concluded that in our media-saturated age a simple image -- even one as eloquent as, say, Goya's Third of May or Picasso's Guernica -- may no longer be adequate to the challenge of conveying the horrors of war and the human suffering it entails. In the year of Kosovo, Jaar's "Lament of the Images" turns out to be unnervingly relevant.

The "1999 South Florida Cultural Consortium Exhibition" is on display through September 12, and "Alfredo Jaar: Lament of the Images" is on display through August 22, both at the Museum of Art, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-525-5500.


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