Seeing Something: Richard Mosse’s Incoming

Still image from the video installation Incoming© Richard Mosse

Francis Bacon described the omnipresence of pictures in his contemporaneous media landscape as being ‘bombarded by images all the time’, a phenomenon William Burroughs, using another aptly violent metaphor, experienced as a ‘continual barrage of images’.[1] The latter pointed out that this sensory overload leads to visual and intellectual blindness because it ‘makes haze over everything; like walking around in smog, we don’t see anything.’[2] Times have moved on at a vertiginous pace and today we are surrounded by a multitude of digital images, brought to us in real time by the internet and social media. Bacon’s and Burroughs’s assessments still hold true, and if anything, the effect is amplified. Its cynicism becomes painfully palpable when it concerns human suffering, as it currently does in an increasingly dire refugee crisis. According to the British Red Cross, a growing number of violent conflicts turned 15 million people worldwide into refugees.[3] 80% are taken in by developing countries but many attempt the dangerous journey to Europe.[4] Images of overcrowded boats, washed up bodies, tracks of people trying their luck over land and finding shelter in quickly erected, provisional camps are omnipresent and easily available. And yet, ‘we do not see a thing’; our perception is clogged, our senses are numbed.

There are exceptions, however. Within the bombardment there are ‘only few [images] though, which stick in your mind and have some influence, but some do have a considerable effect’, Bacon knew.[5] One such image, or, to be more precise, an epic three-channel video installation, is Richard Mosse’s Incoming, which has been on display at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery from 15 February – 23 April 2017. It takes the big guns to shake us out of our apathy, and Mosse has some in store. The installation includes a short video piece and two still photographs, but the main event is a 52 minute video screened as a monumental triptych on three 8 metre wide panels, which fill up almost the entire height of the darkened, semi-circular gallery space. The format alone allows no escape. In their composition and arrangement across the screens, the sequences are as balanced and beautiful as their content is chilling. Together with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and sound designer Ben Frost, Mosse followed two major refugee routes. One starts in the region of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq and leads east via Turkey, the Agean Sea and Greece through the Balkans to Northern Europe. Mosse picked up the trail from the Turkish border and Persian Gulf, delivering imagery of an airstrike on a Syrian village, indicating the origins of the crisis, and the launch of fighter jets on the American aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. He ends at the emergency shelter at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin. The second route leads north, from African countries such as Somalia and Senegal, to Libya, where the Mediterranean Sea needs to be crossed to reach Italy. Mosse followed this route from Niger, to finish in Calais where he recorded the dismantlement of the ‚Jungle‘ camp in late 2016.

Still image from the video installation Incoming© Richard Mosse

Some scenes, such as a boat rescue are familiar, but they are complemented by depictions of the lesser-known reality of the crisis: in brutal detail, Mosse presents the post-mortem of a drowned child. One of the most powerful scenes is that of a solitary man carrying out the Islamic ablution ritual and praying, somewhere in the Sahara desert in the middle of the night. The scene epitomizes the exhaustion, solitude, uncertainty and lack of any context the refugee is subjected to. The praying man is reduced to what Georgio Agamben called ‘bare life’- his mere biological existence- and what Gertrude Stein described as they ‘lost all other qualities and specific relationships – except that they were still human.’[6] The scene makes tangible how little that actually is. Sequences of playing children and flying kites border on cliché but make no mistake, Incoming is not a sentimental melodrama but an in-depth artistic engagement with one of the most urgent issues of our time. The piece shows that we have long since lived in a global village, it is literally on the side of the uprooted people, gives them a voice and a face. By Mosse’s own account, Incoming is a political gesture.[7]

To convey his message, Mosse cleverly employs a number of technical and stylistic devices. Incoming is shot with a military grade camera, which records thermal radiation and is capable of detecting a human body from 30 kilometres away while it can identify an individual from a distance of 6.3 kilometres. The camera can be connected to weapons systems to track down and target the enemy and is used in border and battlefield surveillance. With this camera, Mosse has found the device to pierce the heart of the oversaturated media and arts consumer in 2017. The artist has worked with military gear before when shooting Infra and The Enclave in 2011 and 2013, which captured the ongoing, but hidden and neglected civil war in the Congo region. The employment of Kodak Aerochrome, a discontinued infrared film sensitive to the chlorophyll in live vegetation, resulted in distinct bright pink landscapes and backgrounds. The use of the current high-tech camera is thus a logical development within the artist’s oeuvre, which arouses curiosity about what may come next, while bearing the danger of succumbing to technical gimmickry.

Still image from the video installation Incoming© Richard Mosse

Mosse has mastered both the Kodak Aerochrome and the present infrared camera in an ingenious way, however, with tapping into their full conceptual and aesthetic potential and successfully subverting their original use. In his Congo projects, making visible its photosynthesis and showing the African vegetation in a shockingly different manner is reminiscent of the atrocities committed in the shelter of the jungle and a conflict which fell into oblivion. Only a slight change of perspective- or colour- metaphorically brings it to the surface and reveals its whole grim reality. In Incoming, the long-distance observation the camera is designed for is an apt metaphor for the literal and emotional distance we ourselves like to maintain to the refugees and their destiny. The fact that it is army equipment produced to facilitate the observation, hunting and killing of the enemy is an uncomfortable reminder of an aggressive and inhumane attitude in the Western world which manifests itself in far-right rhetorics and politics, and in actions such as the erection of the border fence to Hungary. At the same time, the camera is capable of rendering the most intimate and authentic portraits of individuals- because of the great distance it covers the subjects are unaware of being filmed- and thereby humanising an abstract issue. You can barely get closer to the refugee’s fate.

Mosse considers himself a photographer but has developed an ambivalent relationship to the medium.[8] Documentary photography, on the borders of which his work can be located, frustrates him for ‘its conservatism, the way it makes claim to the truth and eternal relevance, yet is as authored and considered as any other medium’, and to see him as a documentary photographer would be a misunderstanding [9] He positions himself only just, but distinctively, on the side of art. Art is a different language altogether and a powerful tool which can to great effect be employed- and has been in the past in pieces ranging from Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, to Mark Wallinger’s Threshold to the Kingdom, 2001, and Omer Fast’s Continuity, 2012- to address political issues, conflict and war. In contrast to conventional forms of documentation, such works have no aspiration to accurately record facts and figures but can be elusive, contradictive and ambivalent, and deliberately detached from plain ideas of reality. They approach the audience on a more intuitive, emotional level, which makes them ideally suited to delineate less tangible subjects such as grief, horror and trauma.

Still image from the video installation Incoming© Richard Mosse

Bacon said that ‘reality in art is something profoundly artificial’, pointing at one of the craft’s most pivotal underlying mechanisms.[10] By means of style and technique it can challenge our viewing habits, and alienate enough to stop us in our tracks and have a second look. ‘I feel a lot of the imagery of the refugee crisis is so saturated’, Mosse says, ‘I wanted to try and make this imagery of refugees as unfamiliar as possible. […] I wanted to create work in which we have no automatic response.’[11] Consequently, a large part of Incoming‘s impact is generated by the strange, novel aesthetics the camera generates. The black and white pictures seem similar at first to monochrome photography, which we have grown accustomed to over the past 150 years, and yet, it is removed both from human vision and any common forms of representation. It takes some effort to decipher the information the camera produces, which is not designed for art or storytelling. Light and dark areas do not follow the intensity of light and shadow as they do in black and white photography, but the darkest area is the warmest, the lighter something appears, the cooler an object or subject is.

This results in extraordinary, unexpected imagery. For instance, we can see the blood circulation underneath people’s skin and someone’s warm breath ‘staining’ their headscarf. This is visual information irrelevant for the precise documentation of the refugee crisis but which is perfectly suited to illustrate the cruel reduction of the refugee to a piece of bio mass, ‘bare life’. The cool water the praying man used to wash his face appears white and opaque, like milk, eyes are barely distinguishable and opened mouths are black holes. The camera knows neither night nor day and no skin colour. Such moments of confusion are sufficient to interrupt our perception process and allow for anger and compassion to sneak in. Other elements of Incoming add to the artificiality of the piece and mark it as a well-composed piece of art. Due to the technical specifics of the camera the scenes had to be shown in slow motion, which, as Mosse explains, is a device to heighten the impact of any film footage; and Frost’s soundtrack, while partly recorded on site, is partly synthetic.[12] The aesthetics of Mosse’s Congo work were so new and forceful that despite their grim context and subjects including obscure warlords and disfigured victims, they were appropriated far and wide. Bizarrely, they even made it into the Hollywood movie Star Trek: Into Darkness. Incoming, which is equally as powerful, will hopefully be spared the same fate.

Incoming, stands out from the everyday bombardment of images. As a work of art, it pushes aesthetic and conceptual boundaries and reaches out with its message beyond the borders of the gallery space. As part of the present day image culture it opens the doors for an engagement with the refugee crisis on a deeper and more meaningful level. Some people hopefully went away ‘seeing something’.

Heat Maps, a series of stills from the project just won Mosse this year’s Prix Pictet, and will be on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, from 6 May to 28 May 2017.

Grid (Moria), from the series Heat Maps. © Richard Mosse, Prix Pictet 2017

All images © Richard Mosse

Katharina Guenther is a professional fine art researcher and author based in London. As an independent art historian M.A., she currently working on a PhD thesis on Francis Bacon which explores the artist’s relationship to photography.


[1] William S. Burroughs and Daniel Odier, The Job. Interviews with William S. Burroughs, London: Penguin, 2008, 1969, p.34. Michel Archimbaud, Francis Bacon In conversation with with Michel Archimbaud, London: Phaidon, 1993, 1992, pp.147 and 148.

[2] Burroughs and Odier, 1986, p.34.

[3] Seen 25.04.2017, 12.00.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Archimbaud, 1993, pp.147 and 148.

[6] Hannah Arendt quoted by Georgio Agamben, in: excerpt from ‘Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life‘, 1998, published in Richard Mosse, Incoming, exh. cat. Barbican, London, February 2017 – 23 April 2017, London: MACK, 2017, no page numbers.

[7] Mosse in Seen, 25.04.2017, 13.00.

[8] Seen, 25.04.2017, 13.00.

[9] Ibid.

[10] David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London: Thames & Hudson: London 2002, p.172.

[11] Mosse in BJP.

[12] Mosse, 2017.

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