Kate Farrington, Cohort ’11
Alfredo Jaar, one of the foremost international artists of our times, delivered this year’s honorary degree recipient address at a warm and celebratory graduation ceremony at the Eventi Hotel in New York during the winter residency. Jaar ended his talk with a curious slide – an image of himself wandering about on a New York street corner wearing a billboard emblazoned with the words “Teach us to Outgrow Our Madness.” As is our tradition, this talk served as a master-class—so what is his lesson for us?
Alfredo Jaar Jaar explained that after decades of making critical interventions into locations around the world, often in reaction to political atrocities such as the Rwandan genocide or the military dictatorship of the Pinochet regime in his native Chile, or to social ills of poverty, homelessness, or human rights abuses, he feels at home as an artist wearing this billboard. The words are the title of a 1969 short story by Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe about a father who gets wrested out of his obsessive and overbearing care of his disabled son after he falls into a polar bear pen at a zoo. Is Jaar suggesting that critical art has reached a limit in addressing the madness of the world? Jaar makes a call for a younger generation to take up the mantle and create new forms of art. Is this next generation found in IDSVA? I’d like to think so.
We have much to learn from an artist like Alfredo Jaar. First, he is a master of form. He teaches us that form brings forth a conception of the world that at the same time shapes the world anew. Most importantly, he understands place to such an extent that place itself becomes his medium. He was invited to make a project in Fukushima, Japan in response to the tsunami disaster and radiation crisis that followed. Upon his arrival, he noticed two buildings that represented the human cost of the disaster. The first was a radio station where a woman reporter hero lost her life while sending out the alarm to locals to move to higher ground and the second was an elementary school where many children were tragically lost. While the ghostly radio station itself served as an eloquent memorial, Jaar turned his focus to the blackboards in the classrooms as a universal sign of collective learning. He installed a number of the chalkboards in a large exhibition space and at timed intervals projected the words “We shall bring forth new life” written in different children’s handwriting across the different boards in the room. It is a line from a famous poem by Sadako Kurihara that talks about her giving birth to her daughter during the atomic bomb attack in Hiroshima in 1945. The familiar words create an echo and a mantra; a hope for continuity and renewal in the face of past, present, and future nuclear catastrophes.
While his images often impact the viewer as an experience of pain, Jaar also enables the experience of place to emerge through pleasure. When invited to make a project for the Nasher Sculpture Center in Houston, he asked why is it that museums and cultural institutions in cities often only serve a small number of patrons? During his research, he mapped the city and noticed that each underrepresented population was served by a hospital. He contacted the maternity wards and recruited families to record the first cries of their babies. In the Sculpture Center, Jaar constructed a pavilion made of green translucent screens and set up chairs for people to rest in that serene space. He piped in the sound of the babies’ first cries captured at the maternity wards across the city at the exact time of day they happened, bringing in moments of joy from the far reaches of the city into the city center. Jaar also arranged for all the newborns to receive lifetime memberships to the museum. Through their initiation, a bond is created with all the visitors in the pavilion. Maybe the best lesson we take from Jaar for creating new artistic form is elementary: create in a beautiful way a shared sense of place for it is only in place that we make the world anew.