Portrait

Richard Mosse turns the war-torn landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo shockingly pink. By Kate Holden.

Artist-photographer Richard Mosse’s journey to The Enclave

The day is grey, one of those hot gritty washed-out days when the sky sifts greyness down on Melbourne just before a cool change and a storm. People sit at tram stops staring heavily at their bare knees, the trees toss moodily and golden dust is streaming from their green. Everything is in suspense before the change. Outside the National Gallery on St Kilda Road a clamour of Chinese tourists are plastering their palms against the streaming water wall as if pleading for coolness. You give your name at the desk, are met by Tim, the publicist, who is neat with a little dark beard and coiffured hair, and taken upstairs to level 3. You are chatting about the weather and the blizzard of hateful pollen when Tim leads you around the corner and you enter a heart of darkness. 

The pun is unavoidable because you have strolled into velvety black nothing, only the sense impression of volume around you and the soundscape, loud and eerie, a kind of tuneful squall, which intimates vast, impersonal space, some kind of unease. Abruptly disoriented, you tread away the flicker of fear (you hate stepping down in darkness) and walk on in. And you are in the Congo. 

Around you, luminous as miracles, are large freestanding screens showing looped clips of an African landscape: wide grey skies such as the one outside, and black sweat-shiny faces, people in shorts and shirts, army uniforms and guns; expansive vistas of jungles and fields and roads. The camera is swooping steadily, solemnly, alongside trails of refugees carrying bundles of over-thick foliage towards a pallid horizon, crowds in marketplaces pausing near a covered corpse. It is mesmerising, this fluid, disembodied perspective, as if a weightless astronaut were levitating carelessly over rough, humid vegetation. And the vegetation is pink. It is shockingly, hallucinatorily, unbelievably fuchsia and magenta lushly pink, setting off the dark skin and the grey sky and the scarred roads. It is a weirdness, and it is so stunningly beautiful that you stop, astonished. The music is scraping on and it, too, is austere, intimate. Just a little louder than you can bear. Now you notice others standing in the room, apparently unmoved, checking cables, holding clipboards, negotiating a mini-cherrypicker around the back of one screen. From the darkness around you steps a man’s pale face and outstretched hand. 

Richard Mosse is the artist, the creator, along with musician Ben Frost and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, of The Enclave, this work. And he is gentle and Irish and courteously bemused, too, walking with you out of this extraordinary place, your ears aching, the visions swooning their pinkness and their sadness all around you, out back into neat gallery rooms, him begging to nick some of the NGV’s stash of San Pellegrino water. “I’m coughing like a hoor,” he says, and apologises for jet lag. 

Nothing about him is disappointing; in fact he’s smart and funny and handsome and pleasantly self-deprecating, but it’s weird to sit in a neat little office lounge upstairs at the gallery and ask him about flights from New York. He drinks thirstily from his bottle, blinks at you. The pollen has fucked you both up. His eye twitches and you’re forgetting the end of your sentences. Heaving thoughts to the surface. You say you don’t need to talk about his work, actually, really, more just delve into who he is… He stares. “Jesus, there’s not much… of interest there.” Nothing? you ask. “No!” You both laugh. 

So the short of it was that he was documenting rotten bodies in the Balkans, getting interested in abandoned places and quarantine and went from shooting derelict farms in Malaysia to frustration, then tried to film Ebola stuff in the Congo. And he couldn’t get there so he went to the war instead. And he had this weird film stock used for combat surveillance and agriculture surveys that shows vegetation as pink, and he made the Infra series of works, of which The Enclave is the biggest. In his maggoty brain, he says – and as he wearily stretches his arms behind his head, a pale ribbon of tummy is bared under his T-shirt – yeah, it was about representation, showing the unshowable, what’s not there (secretive nomadic rebel groups, missing murdered people, sorrow, damage, conscience…) and asking questions of us and himself. Is it okay for pictures of horror to be so beautiful? Where are you looking from when the camera glides so oozily? Is it racist for a white Westerner to depict war in a black country? I was, he says, trying to turn the camera on myself in a way and raise the flag on representation. “It sort of indicts the viewer, or I hope it does.” 

You begin riffing back and forth about the panopticon and the colonialist gaze; fun, but what about delving into his soul? How does a boy from Ireland come to be doing this, you ask, and hear the dumb question. Oh well. You blink stupidly at each other, stoned with the dirty day. Look, I’ll just make shit up about you, you say, and he grins, conspiratorially. Tim appears, to take him away again. You hug, twice. “Make sure you put in my belly popping out,” he says. He goes off in his baggy old black cardigan, his hipster jeans; you wish you’d had longer. 

Back into the dark exhibition space; soundtrack shrilling, the sumptuous visuals; the cherrypicker-man silently fixing sockets above footage of a body on the street. The body’s blanket is peeled back; you feel immediately awkward for staring. The bystanders in the footage step aside, curious, not really disturbed; you step back, a little disturbed. Standing there too long feels wrong; looking away feels wrong… The soundtrack goes on. You get used to the darkness.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 31, 2015 as "Art of war". Subscribe here.

Kate Holden
is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.

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