Alfredo Jaar

Professor at The European Graduate School / EGS.


Alfredo Jaar (b. 1956) is a Chilean artist, architect, and filmmaker who presently lives and works in New York. His oeuvre is unquestionably politically motivated, often exploring the very notions of politics, ethics, and representation, and complex issues such as genocide, political corruption, humanitarian crises, and the relationship between geography, power, and exploitation. Alfredo Jaar is a devoted educator, and has made approximately sixty public interventions in his career. For him, there is a strong connection between art and thinking: “I strongly believe that artists are thinkers, as opposed to object makers. My working process is 99% thinking and 1% making. That thinking process is at the core of what I do and this process is always triggered by a specific site or issue. In my career, I have been incapable of creating a single work of art out of nothing. That is why I am not a studio artist: I define myself as a project artist. I try to propose, with my projects, a creative model that responds to the particulars of a given situation. That model can then be projected into the world. I believe that this is what artists do: with each project we propose a new conception of the world; and that new conception is a new way of looking at the world. That is why I believe that we create models of thinking the world.”

Between the ages of six and sixteen, Jaar lived on Martinique. In 1972, his family returned to Chile and, one year after that, the military coup installed the infamous regime of General Pinochet. For almost ten years, Jaar lived under the scrutiny of Pinochet’s regime but nevertheless studied both filmmaking at the Chilean-North American Institute of Culture and architecture at the University of Chile. After the completion of his studies, he was offered a job at the architectural company SITE in New York.

One of his most famous works is a video project This is Not America (A Logo for America) (1987). This work consists of a sequence of projections that include a map of the USA with the words “This is not America” written across the US flag. The video concludes with the word “America” written across the whole continent, from north Canada to Tierra del Fuego. Jaar explains this work in the following words: “It is so embedded in education that the US is America, whereas the rest of the continent is erased. I think it is important to remember that language, again, is an expression of reality, and language will change only when the reality changes. In this case, the geopolitical reality is that this country dominates the entire hemisphere. If that doesn’t change, then language will never change.”

Jaar attempts to draw our attention to the inherent political dimension of representation. He says: “Every single image out there in the world, represents a conception of the world. Represents an ideological conception of the world.” His four works, The Rwanda Project (1994-2000), The Sound of Silence (1995), Searching for Africa in LIFE (1996), and From TIME to TIME (2006) are concerned with this inherent political dimension of images but also with the limitations (and inability) of art to represent horrific events like genocide in Rwanda. The Rwanda Project is a response to the silence, indifference, and inaction of the Western world to the events in Rwanda that claimed over one million lives. The Rwanda Project consists of 25 different works and Jaar describes them as “essays of representation.”

The Sound of Silence is a film installation, and its 8-minute film focuses on the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a small starving girl and a vulture that South African photojournalist Kevin Carter took during a famine in Sudan in 1993. The film informs us what happened after the publication of this image, and it uses both the history of the photograph and of its photographer to examine some basic concepts of journalism: image, information, and narrative.

Searching for Africa in LIFE focuses on non-representation and the absence of Africa in LIFE magazine. It is a collection of 2128 LIFE covers from 1936 until 1996 that is illuminated by an enormous light box. The covers are ordered chronologically, and only five of them refer to Africa. These are mostly photographs of animals, and actually, none of the covers refer to the social issues or significant events that happened on the African continent. Jaar uses a similar formula in the work entitled From TIME to TIME and again brings to the surface the painful cliches that govern the Western perception of Africa. This work consists of nine covers, and eight of them are photographs for the stories that revolve around wild animals and natural disasters. The ninth cover comes with the caption “Somalia; The US to the Rescue” and it is “a line that perfectly captures the mix of naivety and hubris that prompted the ultimately disastrous interventions of 1992-95.”

Other notable works of Alfredo Jaar are (Un)Framed (1987-1991), One Million Finish Passports (1995), The Cloud (2000), Infinite Cell (2004), The Gramsci Trilogy (2004-2005) and Muxima (2006).   As an artist, Jaar has received worldwide recognition and critical acclaim. He became a Guggenheim Fellow in 1985; a MacArthur Fellow in 2000; and, in 2006, he received Spain’s Premio Extremadura a la Creación. His works were commissioned and exhibited all around the world: Venice (1987, 2002); São Paulo (1987, 1989, 2010); New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (1992); Whitechapel Gallery, London (1992); Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1992); Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1994); Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome (2005); Berlinische Galerie, Alte Nationalgalerie and Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst, Berlin (2012); Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki (2014).  Alfredo Jaar represented Chile at the 55th Biennale in Venice and his exhibition Venezia, Venezia was curated by Madeleine Grynsztejn.


Alfredo Jaar

Art today. How to?