At the 2006 World Leaders Forum, Columbia University hosted Strategies of Representation that featured Alfredo Jaar, architect and artist. I was struck by his unique creations that represented sensitive social and political issues.
One of these creations was a paper museum set on a paper mill community in Sweden where residents weren’t too keen for a museum. But at it’s opening, residents went to the paper museum to wonder at the showcase of contemporary local art. However, at the end of the day during the closing, Jaar had the museum burned to the ground the intention being, for residents to feel what it was like to have a museum. Immediately this spread throughout the town and was the talk for days until the community decided to bring back the museum a real one this time. They got together and worked to make it happen.
The museum is set to open in 2012, eight years after the town residents had their first and only glimpse of Jaar’s paper museum.
Another of his creation is the red lights installation – Lights in the City – inside the Cupola dome located in the old section of Montreal, Canada. The Cupola, which was the former seat of national government, has since been converted into a shelter for the homeless, one among many shelters in the City which has 15,000 homeless persons then and the largest in the country. From interviews with the dwellers, Jaar heard their frustration at begging off the streets where people regarded them as if they were garbage. They said they didn’t want to be photographed because they wanted to stay hidden.
Jaar then supervised the installation of red lights. When somebody likes to make their presence known they only have to press the button which in turn activates red lights inside the dome. The lighted dome is a signal to all that one more homeless person is entering the shelter. This was featured in international media and caught the attention of people who called up the City Government to address it’s issue of homelessness.
Prior to making his creations, Jaar researched on the issues at hand. In the Montreal Lights In The City project, it took Jaar seven trips just to study the place. His longest project took him six years. This included the study of the place, engaging dialogue with the community, earning the community’s respect and trust, and revising the work if it didn’t appeal the first time (as with his project in Rwanda).
Mostly, he is invited by governments. I was struck by his view of government which is that he does not see it as monolithic– appearing conservative from the outside but inside it are real people who are sympathetic.
He was asked how as an artist who feels issues keenly could he not be immobilized by emotion. He said he didn’t have a formula only that he reacts spontaneously to what makes him unhappy, at times directly through his projects.
He was asked what he thought about beauty. He said he prefers to make use of poetry and is always in search of the balance between information (or the ethical) and poetry (or the aesthetical).
He believed that the primary work of artists is to create models of thinking or alternative ways of perceiving the world. He rejects the labeling of artists as political because to him all art has a critical dimension – layered, hidden, or obvious – and that without critical dimension that piece of art is dead.
He said artists and researchers are outsiders in the sense that their ideas are their own. He likened the dilemma of the painter-outsider to a Spanish saying – the last one to realize that it is in the water is the fish; the fish has to die for it to realize it had been swimming in the water all along. But, he said, the outsider has every right to go inside if only to speak for himself.
The video could be viewed on iTunes University.