JTF (just the facts): A total of 16 black-and-white photographs, unmatted and framed, hung in the main front and back galleries, as well as the two smaller rooms on the side. All of the works are digital c-prints on metallic paper, dated 2016, and issued in editions of 5+2AP. Eight of the prints are roughly 12×20 in. (the smallest size) while three are 50×289 in. (the largest). Six of the prints are stills from the 52-min. video Incoming, not exhibited here but playing at the Cuve Gallery in London’s Barbican Centre. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Boys love high-tech military toys, all the more if those boys have never served in the military. So it must have been an irresistible temptation for Richard Mosse when he was given access to a camera so powerful it needs to be operated on a motorized tripod and is sanctioned under international law as a weapon. Built by an unnamed defense and security corporation for aerial surveillance, this thermal-imaging device with an extreme telephoto range can detect heat from human bodies at a distance of 19 miles, and pick out individuals almost 4 miles away.
Mosse’s mistake—and morally, it’s a grave one—was thinking he should train this invasive camera on anonymous refugees, who for the last 15 years have been seeking shelter from war and revolution in temporary camps around Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Why he thought this was a fitting application for this technology is hard to understand. After all, it’s not as if these people aren’t suffering enough indignities without having to wonder why a photographer should be spying on them and presenting records of their make-shift daily struggles as slick, high-priced art.
The press release claims that Mosse’s decision has to do with Brexit, Le Pen, and Trump and the “shift to the extreme right.” Such fearful cant provides only flimsy camouflage, as the gallery also emphasizes that the <thermal imaging> “camera dehumanizes its subject, portraying refugees—whose statelessness has stripped them of essential human rights—as a mere biological trace…”
Viewers who come away from this show and think of refugees as less human than before—as smudge marks of radiation—have only Mosse to blame. Not that his camera reveals hordes of “criminals,” which candidate Trump claimed many of these people to be. The faceless beings here are engaged in walking, playing soccer, and other benign activities. But the inherent abstracting of reality that happens with black-and-white photographs is further increased when images are infrared and shot with a telephoto lens. By applying techniques that remove us from the gritty and desperate state of the modern refugee, and by using a military camera that, by his own admission, “dehumanizes” people, this body of work only increases their numberless namelessness. They exist only as outlines. What is the point of taking photographs that imitate ones made by national militaries and border patrols, whose snoopy behavior you ostensibly abhor? What should we make of the fact that almost none of these stateless people here will ever know they were observed, photographed without their consent, and displayed on the walls of a Chelsea gallery? Equally puzzling is that one of Mosse’s pieces is now in the section on the refugee crisis of Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change at ICP, founded as the haven for “Concerned Photography.”
How seductive this technology can be is easy to see on every wall at Shainman. Without much effort, anything in infrared will look surreal and ghostly, thanks to unpredictable tone reversals. The show is composed of broad multi-panel panoramas—digitally stitched together from hundreds of smaller frames—that depict the refugee camps (tents lined up behind fences or in aircraft hangers, shipping containers in ports, and close-ups of men scoping the horizon with binoculars or performing other chores aboard ship). Even a photo of two men wringing out a rag can be studied for the elegance of its smooth grays and the evidentiary pattern of heat dispersal. (The liquid being squeezed out either must be thick and oily or extremely hot. Whichever, it stands out here as a dark knot being held between four pale hands.)
While the DEA and ICE have for years used this equipment on the U.S.-Mexico border—thermal images are a spice routinely sprinkled over tabloid TV reports about drug dealing and human smuggling—it is worth noting (and unmentioned both in the press release and the accompanying essay by Mosse) that indiscriminate use of thermal-imaging camera in the U.S. is illegal. The Supreme Court ruled in Kyllo v. United States (2001) that law enforcement may not use FLIR (forward looking infrared) without first obtaining a warrant. A police car may not drive by a suspected drug dealer’s house and aim a thermal device toward the walls, based merely on a hunch that a meth lab could be operating inside. That would be unconstitutional—a violation of the “unreasonable search” clause of the Fourth Amendment. The 5-4 decision was written by none other than Anthony Scalia who, in other matters, was certainly “extreme right.”
Trevor Paglen is an inspirational figure for many activist artists now, but the results of his battles against the security state are usually amateurish, often deliberately so. When he shot infrared video for Laura Poitras, the target was an NSA facility. It was a clever role reversal—spying on the spies—and Paglen’s camera didn’t disclose much of anything. He wanted us to see this isn’t a fair fight. The government will always have more sophisticated tools and know more about us than we will ever know about them. Mosse tries to disguise the lush aesthetics of his mural-sized photographs by having us believe they support a searching political statement. Paglen skirts this pitfall.
It won’t be long before the art world is overrun with images from drones, if sales at camera stores are any gauge. Mosse’s misguided project is a warning that surveillance technology has to be carefully employed; if not, the contentious issues that surround it can draw incoming fire from all sides.
Collector’s POV: The works in this range in price from $7500 for the 8 small prints to $65000 for the single tri-panel print. Mosse’s work has just begun to trickle into the secondary markets in the past year or so, with prices ranging from roughly $15000 to $25000. That said there are so few lots coming up for sale, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.