By: Zoe Aslop
Before the massive wheel of a stopped truck, a thin man, oblivious to a thermal radiation camera watching from miles to the east, turns a little to urinate on the sand of the Sahara, before facing the camera again, to Mecca. He performs Wudu, splashing the contents of his water bottle over his head and face, hands, arms and neck. The camera reads the heat produced by his body as blackness. The water, which is cool, splashes over him like milk. He falls to his knees and prostates himself toward us, not to us. When he’s done, he slumps sideways off of his heels, still upright but collapsed in a private despair, looking out over a desert thought to be just as deadly for migrants as the more infamous Mediterranean crossing. He is in Niger journeying north. The viewer sits in the exquisitely controlled climate of a darkened chamber of the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art, watching the man projected onto the central panel of an encompassing semi-hexagonal wall.
As with so many images in the 52-minute video, Incoming, at the NGA until April 5th, it is impossible to look away from the man and it’s disturbing to look at him. His conversation with his God is a clearly private one. The viewer’s discomfort is intentional on the part of the artist, Richard Mosse, whose thermographic camera has a range of eighteen miles and is categorized as a weapon under international law. The camera is used by militaries, border control agencies and, sometimes, relief agencies to track insurgents, monitor borders and zero in on targets. Mosse shot the footage over the course of two years, starting in 2014, when the world reached peak awareness of an ongoing refugee crisis. Situating the camera at points along two major routes of migration into Europe – in the desert in Niger, at Turkey’s border with Syria, on an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, on the coast of that sea, as well as in cramped migrant camps in Greece and France – the artist gathered his footage remotely, zooming and aiming his camera using an X-box control and a lap top.
“I’ve got a military tool and I’m trying to work against it,” Mosse explains in an interview. “I’m rubbing it against the grain… to cover the struggle of refugees.”
As the man in the desert unfolds himself from kneeling to squatting to standing, using his empty hands as ballast, the hoarse-voiced traveling rhythm of some kind of desert afro-pop rises and two trucks carrying loads of people atop their official cargo, rumble to light on the flanking walls. People glow with heat. Their gestures and genders are clear but their ages and races are masked somewhat by the nature of the imagery – cool hair is white, skin is dark with cellular combustion. Clothing is white and so is sweat on bare skin and urine on the soiled pants of a toddler. The object is intimacy and anonymity, according to Mosse. The warm hands of relief workers leave dark prints on a cold, still body pulled from the water. On the deck of an aircraft carrier, men whose bodies very much resemble those of the migrants load a white/cold missile onto a plane that will strike a village controlled by the Islamic State. Like the plane, the black bodies of birds fly over borders mindlessly. The burning of the IS village is echoed in footage of the miserable-looking “jungle camp,” Callaise, in Northern France, where black fires lit by residents rage in protest of their imminent eviction.
Even sitting through a second loop of the video, the viewer is still not sure whether it is right to watch. They still can’t look away. One scene is only sound, the constant stammer of camera shudders can be heard – a relief worker screams for space, a woman sobs, the cameras are taking the boat pictures the viewer has seen on the news, has been moved by several times and then less so, absorbing the news, pushing it quickly to the same room of the mind as the other unanswerable questions, the same questions, really: Why? How? What is to be done? This happens in writing too. Mid-story, the writer, slipping from urgency to despair, realizes this narrative is exhausted. And it’s true – the story of human migration and exile are so old as to be dated in carbon. At the same time, Incoming tracks this story’s sinister evolution through a medium that makes it hurt again.
Photo Credit: Still from Richard Mosse, Incoming, 2014–2017, three-channel video with sound, 52:10 minutes, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee and Robert B. Menschel Fund. © Richard Mosse. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York