For the past few months, internationally recognized artist, architect and filmmaker Alfredo Jaar has been teaching a class on “Public Interventions” to students at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Last week, I spoke with the Chilean-born Jaar about the role public intervention plays in his artistic practice and how he brings that experience into the classroom.
ArtsATL: The first time we met was in the early 1990s when we were installing your piece “The Fire Next Time” in the exhibition “Equal Rights and Justice.” Since that work is in the High Museum’s permanent collection and many here may have seen it, could you begin by telling us a bit about that piece?
Alfredo Jaar: Absolutely. When I moved to New York in 1982, I came with an image of this country. That image was given to me, like every non-American living outside of this country, through the media, which is American-dominated, through Hollywood, through literature and the visual arts. In that image I had believed that the Civil Rights Movement had achieved and accomplished its mission in the ’60s, and that I was coming to a country where there was no more segregation, no more racism, and there was equal opportunity for everyone.
Jaar: I’ve always said that I am a frustrated journalist in a way. So I am trying to recuperate the extraordinary amount of information and of experience that these images carry and that was lost through the way they have been presented to us. I want to bring back their original weight, their original history, their original setting, their original articulation of ideas. I take these images that exist in the world and have lost their power because of the way they have been decontextualized, and I create a new context for them, the context of my installation, where hopefully I help them recuperate the original essence that they were meant to say.
The “Sound of Silence” is a theater built for a single image. This is the kind of respect that I have for these images. I’m offering a theater, 128 cubic meters, and eight minutes dedicated to a single image. I invite the audience to come in, to sit and to listen to a story about a single image. It’s a model that suggests that images are important; let’s give them time to be.
ArtsATL: You also work with the moving image and recently released “The Ashes of Pasolini.” Was this your first feature film?
Jaar: No, I studied architecture and film. Because of the budget problems, I’ve been making art, but I’ve been able to do a few short films. In 2006 I released my first short film, that was 36 minutes, called “Muxima,” a documentary on Angola. The Pasolini film, which is two minutes longer, is my second short film.
ArtsATL: It’s again taking a lesser-known subject, the Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, and highlighting his life. What about him in particular inspired you to do this piece?
Jaar: I was living in Chile in 1973 when the military coup of [Augusto] Pinochet and his military junta killed [Salvador] Allende, the Socialist president, and Chile went through 17 years of dictatorship. During that period, those of us who were in the resistance against the military government were inspired by the writings of [Italian political theorist Antonio] Gramsci, mostly his book called “Notes From Prison.”
In my research on Gramsci, I discovered the most extraordinary poem perhaps ever written in the 20th century, called “The Ashes of Gramsci,” written by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini was a poet when he wrote this poem, but after a while he moved into filmmaking, and he became one of the most extraordinary filmmakers in the history of cinema. When I studied film, I studied Pasolini and it confirmed Pasolini in my mind as one of my models. He was the complete intellectual. He was not only a filmmaker and a poet; he was also a writer, a critic, a polemicist, an activist, a Communist. He was the first political voice against the government at the time, and he spoke with an incredible clarity about Fascism in Italy.
I created this film last year because I was invited to the Venice Biennale. As you know, Italy today has a prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who is a little Fascist. So I felt that it was just perfect to bring Pasolini’s voice back. It makes so much sense to hear what he was saying at the time against Fascism and to bring it to today’s Italy.
ArtsATL: You have also worked with architecture. Two of the most interesting projects I’ve read about, one in Japan and the other in Sweden, both have to do with building a space for art and culture where there is none. Why do you feel this is so important?
Jaar: These are two very different projects, but they are connected by the fact that they are about museums and culture. So let’s start with Sweden, which was first.
I was invited to a small town called Skoghall to do a public intervention. I discovered very quickly that the entire infrastructure of the town was created by their paper mill. In other words, this town never existed 30 years ago. They founded the town because they wanted to create their headquarters there. They realized that they needed a habitat for their workers, a church, a school for the children, a hospital, and a town was born. Today 80,000 people live there and the entire economy of the town revolves around the industry of paper. In my research, I discovered that there was no museum, no space for culture.
I refused the funds that the city had offered me for this project, and I requested a meeting with the board of directors of the paper mill. I gave them a lecture and said, “Listen, you have created this town, so it is normal and logical and coherent for you to finance a Kunsthalle, a small museum, and not let the city pay for it, since you have done everything else.” They accepted my logic and financed the first Kunsthalle in Skoghall, built out of paper and wood from the mill. For the opening of the Kunsthalle, I invited 15 young Swedish artists to create works focusing on paper, since we were in a paper museum in a paper mill town, etc. The climax of the project was that, 24 hours after the opening, we burned it.
Everybody knew from the beginning that was the project. A few hours before the burning, some concerned citizens and the mayor came to see me and said, “Mr. Jaar, congratulations, we understand now what you are trying to do. We love it; please let’s keep it.” I said, “No, we can’t. This will not resist the first rain, the first snow. It is made out of paper.” They said, “Let’s save the foundation, let’s save something, and we can rebuild later.” I said, “Listen, I’ve been working with the fire department for six months. This has to be burned; please let me finish my project. But of course I am very happy. This is the kind of reaction I expected from you.”
So in the end we burned it, because the logic of the project was to offer the community just a glimpse of what contemporary art is and once they had it, to take it away…. Seven years later they invited me back, as an architect, not as an artist, to design a permanent Kunsthalle for Skoghall, which will open in 2013.
ArtsATL: But you also noticed this void in Japan.
Jaar: I was invited to an area called Niigata, an area of 750 square kilometers. They asked me to do a project again, without any preconceived notion of what I would do. Like Sweden, there was no museum of contemporary art, but this was a huge area with five different towns and villages. In this case I decided to propose not one museum but a dozen museums, and instead of being a big museum, they would be very small and we would put them in the landscape in Niigata.
I had been invited because Niigata is poor and they wanted to attract tourists. I thought, why don’t we do a dozen museums and place them around Niigata, inviting tourists to come, and in search of these museums they will see the landscape and they will visit the cities and the villages and they will stay in hotels and eat in the restaurants? We will encourage tourism by inviting people on this journey through Niigata in search of these small museums.
So we [designed] 12 museums, and they were very, very small, 9 square meters, 30 square feet. The idea was that these museums would show a single work of art.… But of course it was also a place for people to come and observe this extraordinary landscape. So they were very tall. They had three floors. You could go to the roof and have a magnificent view of the area. We were able to build one and that was shown for three months. We are still waiting to raise the funds to do all the museums.
ArtsATL: You move from photography to sculpture to video to film to architecture with great dexterity. When you are invited to a town or to a museum to create work, can you explain the process of how you explore a space and determine your response?
Jaar: Yes. I am not what you would call a studio artist. I’ve never been able to create a work out of nothing. For me it is puzzling to see an artist start with a blank piece of paper or a blank canvas and do something from there.
I am an architect making art, and I use the methodology of the architect, meaning that I react to a certain space and a certain situation. My works are site specific and react to a given community, a given space or a given situation. So I react not only to a physical space, as most artists do, but I see that space as a social space, as a cultural space, as a political space. That’s what I do.
I never studied art, so I don’t have any constraints. I feel extremely free because I do not see art as object-making. I see art rather as thinking. I believe we artists create models of thinking, and so sometimes at the end of a long process of thinking about a certain situation, we create something. And that something can take any form: as you mention, a film, an installation, a sculpture, a photograph, a performance, that will articulate in the best possible way the ideas that we are dealing with.
ArtsATL: You’ve been teaching a class at SCAD for two quarters now. How much did you explain to the students about your own practice?
Jaar: I think they signed up for the course because they were aware of what kinds of things I do, and when I’ve had to show them some of my things to introduce myself, I mostly show them the work within the field of public interventions, which has become a very important part of my practice.
ArtsATL: How do you define a public intervention?
Jaar: For the last 20 years I have divided my practice into three main areas. Only one-third of my practice is dedicated to working within what we call the art world: museums and galleries and foundations, the white cube, because I felt this is a space that is very insular, so I’ve felt the need to get out and to work outside, to work with a larger audience in communities and places removed from the art world.
That’s when my public interventions started. I wanted to be confronted with real-life issues with the real world with real people. Public interventions are works that are creative responses to specific situations within certain areas or communities. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time working on these projects, and I’ve realized some 60 public interventions in the last 20 years.
The third part of my practice, and it is a fundamental aspect too, is teaching. I do workshops and seminars like this one around the world. In these instances, I share my experience with the younger generations and I learn also enormously from them. I’ve always said that I feel complete, as a professional, as an intellectual and as a human being, only by doing these three things at the same time.
ArtsATL: What is it that you are doing with the students?
Jaar: The class is structured in five phases; we are on the fourth now. In the first phase, we analyze where we are, we analyze Atlanta. We analyze the city: the history of the city, the neighborhoods, SCAD, the society around us, the architecture, communications, media. We analyze the context where we live.
In the second phase, we analyze the most important issues facing Atlanta today. What are the most pressing problems? And so we discovered dozens of issues and reduced them to the most important 10, and then to five and finally to the top priorities in the life of Atlanta according to my students.
In the third phase, we looked at culture in Atlanta. We analyzed the museum scene, the gallery scene, the theaters and dance and radio and alternative spaces. We analyzed what is the state of culture in Atlanta, the media. We also analyzed how Atlanta’s intellectuals react to the important issues affecting life in Atlanta that we discovered in the second phase. So with those three phases, we pretty much managed to reach a level of understanding of the city, the context, the problems and the culture which is enough to operate.
Now we are in the fourth phase, where the students have been divided into five groups, and they are formulating projects of public interventions in the city. During this phase we will listen to them, we will do critiques and we’ll decide on five projects that we feel are the most interesting ones, the most important ones.
In the fifth and final phase, we will decide if we actually realize them or if we decide to simply do an exhibition where we make a public presentation, through maquettes and drawings and collage, of these five proposals. Then the students would be free to realize them in the future. That is one very important characteristic of my course. I do not come with any preconceived notion of what to do. The students, democratically together, decide where we are going. So they will decide if they are feasible and if we want to do it or not.
Author’s note: I had the privilege of sitting in on one of Jaar’s classes and will continue to follow their progress. Look on ArtCriticATL.com in early June for events, performances or exhibition information resulting from this project.