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Reflection: Art-Activist Alfredo Jaar Asks St. Louis Students To Stop Making Art and Think

Alfredo Jaar, The Geometry of Conscience, 2010. A woman standing before silhouettes of heads.
Kemper Art Museum

An exhibit at Washington University’s Kemper Museum — In the Aftermath of Trauma: Contemporary Video Installations —  introduces painful political conflicts to St. Louis museum goers at oblique angles.

Cambodian artist Vandy Rattana, Israeli artist Yael Bartana, British artist Phil Collins, Indian Artist Amar Kanwar and Chilean-born Alfredo Jaar use the power of their artists’ perception to stimulate our engagement with important issues. Kemper director Sabine Eckmann describes the format of their video productions as aesthetic hybrids of the real and the imagined, both fictional and documentary. These artists’ video installations are efforts to make it possible to grasp incomprehensible violence.

The opening for this exhibit began with a lecture by participating artist Alfredo Jaar. www.alfredojaar.net/ In The Aftermath of Trauma, Jaar points his finger at U.S. government secrecy, but his rancor is not limited to U.S. political actions. Jaar is known for more than 60 art projects he has organized as “public interventions” all around the world. In 1985, Jaar began photographing the abysmal working conditions of Brazilian gold minds; between 1994 and 1998 he created projects drawing attention to the Rwandan genocide. When in Helsinki, he focused on disheartening Finish nationalism; in Tijuana, the tragedies that occur along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Jaar sees as the overarching demand of his work as “finding and providing context.” He has built a celebrated career around his ability to enter a situation, research the complex realities of those involved and create an art project that demands the local audience reflect on their complicity to injustice, their apathy or their misunderstanding. In St. Louis, Jaar addressed his audience within their own context as residents in the United States and as art students at a private, Midwestern university.

Addoley Dzegede is a Washington University Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) student who attended Jaar’s public lecture and then participated in the small group workshop Jaar organized. Dzegede roots her art practice in her global citizenship, addressing fractures she finds in our ecological and social environment. Jaar asked her to tell the student group in attendance what she was most concerned with at that very moment.

Dzegede gave a heartfelt account of the overt and obscured racial discrimination she witnesses in St. Louis. She described her concern for loved ones who, she worries, are in perpetual danger of attack based on their racial appearance and she recounted her repeated experience of getting “carded” at the Brentwood Galleria Mall. Dzegede is confident that, at age 30, the demand that she show ID when shopping is not because she is perceived as a juvenile and that she would not be seen as possibly delinquent if her skin color were of a lighter hue.

Jaar encouraged Dzegede and the other Washington University students who met with him to make art that requires 99 percent thinking and 1 percent making. He charged the students to be insatiably curious, to study the world until they had something to say and to then choose the medium that best tells the story they felt needed telling. “If you work first with ideas you may find that you can express an idea best with wood, but if you work only with wood, then you will only create what is easily produced from wood.”

Jaar would know. At 58, he continues to innovate, developing projects that are often expressed with cutting-edge technology, communicating in original ways his vision of the contexts he observes around him.

The basics

Where: Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, 1 Brookings Dr., 63160

When: Open through April 20

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. 1st Friday of month, closed Tuesdays and Washington University holidays

Cost: Free

Information: www.kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu

Related Events

Friday, Feb. 28: Kemper Director Sabine Eckmann and CAM director Lisa Melandi engage in Directors’ Dialogue: Exploring Contemporary Video Art. Reception is at 5:30 p.m., program at 6 p.m. Free for Kemper members, $10 others, register in advance

Thursday, March 6: Svea Bräunert, Tonya Edmond, Erin McGlothlin and Sabine Eckmann discuss Terror, Trauma and Memory, Reception is at 6 p.m., program at 6:30 p.m. Free

Friday, March 7: Film screening of Kira Pollack’s Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience, 8 p.m. Free

Wednesday, April 2: Gallery Talk with Sabine Eckmann, 5 p.m. Free

Monday, April 7: Lecture by Lisa D Freiman, Representation and Trauma in Contemporary Art: Examining Four Perspectives in Work by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Alfredo Jaar, Aziz and Cucher and Allora & Calzadilla. Reception is at 6 p.m., program at 6:30 p.m. Free