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Sunday, 19 March 2017

Simply Brilliant: Incoming by Mosse, Frost and Tweeten

Richard Mosse's  Incoming is showing at The Barbican in London. It's an installation made in collaboration with composer Ben Frost and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and it really is special, a spectacular piece that combines thermographic imaging, extreme long lenses with straightforward documentary practice and a huge element of story telling that works on an emotional level to tell the story of the refugees who have been coming to Europe from war-battered countries in Asia and Africa..

If you live anywhere London and you're interested in anything, go and see it. It's fantastic.

The installation starts with a grid of moving images. This is a camp somewhere (in Lesbos maybe) - and it's filmed with the thermographic camera. The images shiver and shift and flash before our eyes  - we see the mountains, the sea, the roads and the forests. And then we're into the camp and lines of tents mix with barbed wire and people. This is a controlled landscape, one bounded by the failures of our imaginations and the physical manifestations of those failures. It's an enclosed, surveilled landscape and we're all a part of it, a reminder that what we are beginning to see, what we are about to see more of, is not just an isolated problem but part of our deeper seated failure to inhabit the world, the land we are all part of. But here we're not part of it. We are artificially separated from it by all those lines and barriers and fences and grids that inhibit and constrain our human existence.  

Move forward and there are a couple of still photographs. These are spectacular and huge, inviting you in to look at the lives led in these places of confinement, of limbo between one state of being and another. In the small text at the entrance to the exhibition, Brueghel is mentioned. But it's not really Brueghel-lesque, it's too literal for that. It's more Lowry-esque with the layering of huts against sea against containers where children, bicycles and impromptu games of football or volleyball are played out.

It's already impressive. And then you're into the next room and 150 people are spread out on chairs, on the floor, against the wall, watching 3 cinema-sized screens of Ben Frost's thermographic footage from Syria, Libya, Greece, Calais and other places that we are left to guess at.

It's immense and it's a spectacle but as soon as you enter there is a collective sense of emotional intensity in the room. And so you sit down and you join it.

The films are on a loop so there's not really a start or a finish. Or there are multiple starts and finishes; the sun rising, the moon growing, the man praying. The man praying does it.

We see him in close-up, washing his face. The thermographic element makes the water look like milk. There's a cleansing. He stands and he's exhausted. It's as if he turns away from prayer but then he goes back to it. The focus here is on his face, a face that is filmed from a distance with a 500mm lense, a 1000mm lens, who knows, it's very long.

The film continues (and the order is not necessarily as it is shown, but is as I remember it.) and we see people on overloaded trucks starting journeys across desert-like landscapes. We might be in Senegal, or Mali or Libya somewhere else I don't know. What is clear is the desperation on the faces of the people, a desperation accentuated by the thermographic camera and the three-screen format; sometimes it's three screens of a stretched out image, sometimes it's detail opening up to wider shot, sometimes focus moves to one screen). This is something biblical we're witnessing and it shows in faces worn by the wind, the heat, the dust that are marked by the photographic technique. Mosse is dealing in the big themes here and there is none bigger than the lost tribe wandering in the wilderness.

So there's a journey, there's a quest, there's classic storytelling. There's death, there's sacrifice, there's salvation, there's heaven and there is the burning of hell.There are also faces. From the faces on the truck, the open-mouthed denizens of this nether-world of half-escape/half-salvation, the faces of the soldiers we see loading missiles onto a plane on a US aircraft carrier.

These are different faces, these are the soldiers of Mosse's hell, and throughout there's a focus on uniform, on military might, on the shields of the CRS to the helmets of the French fire crews. This is not a kindly world.

There's a focus on the militarisation that has led to this exodus, one that is played out throughout the film. Militirisation begins at home it seems. But there is also some kind of hope. We see it in the people plucked from the sea somewhere in the Meditterranean, the children handed up from lifeboat to solid deck, we see it in the people landing on the shores of Lesbos, some kind of safety at hand at last.

But then there's more limbo.The limbo of camps. Here the sound comes into play, giving a sense of the underlying tension, tragedy and dysfunction that exists in these places. Because the myth of salvation goes only so far, because all that has happened is you've shifted from one circle of hell to a more outer circle of hell. And the stasis is still there, and the memories and learned behaviour of being an adult, or even worse being a child in these places of violence that have been escaped from.  A sequence from a child's fight shows this. You're in Europe and everything is not OK. It never was and perhaps it never will be.

We hear death (a drowned child who is not resuscitated), we see death (the cutting for analysis of a dead child's femur) and we see war (Syrian warplanes strafing enemy positions near the Turkish border). It's a documentary then, not as complete as Vietnam Inc. or House of Bondage, but one that attempts to tie in the different elements of the 'refugee crisis' and one that does assign blame. It does point the finger at the military interests that caused this crisis. Not many projects on the refugee crisis do that.

Most of all, however, it's an emotional piece. That's the level it works on through the faces, through the vignettes, through the human drama that is captured on camera. The long lens and the thermographic imaging changing scale and focus in quite surprising ways. This is not a gimmick but is rather a response. Regular film and photography of the refugee crisis has largely been used to dehumanise and distance the human elements of the crisis, often very deliberately, but mostly due to a lack of visual sophistication. So if regular photography dehumanises... then thermographic will humanise. That's the kind of logic that somehow works here.  And even though it's a big somehow,  it does work, because we don't see these people as refugees, we see them as people with real emotions (that you see even more clearly), who sweat and bleed and wet themselves and die in the water.

It's quite brilliant.

For a different view on the print sales which is a whole different story, go here. 

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