Alfredo Jaar (Chilean, b. 1956) is an artist, architect, and filmmaker whose art takes form as installation, photography, film, and community-based projects, exploring the limits of representation in catastrophic human-induced events. With subjects ranging from the holocaust in Rwanda to gold mining in Brazil, toxic pollution in Nigeria, and Mexican-U.S. border crossings, his work bears witness to military conflicts, political corruption, and the imbalance of power between industrialized and developing nations while also interrogating the relationship between photography and the language with which photographs are captioned and contextualized. Jaar emigrated to the United States from Chile in 1982, at the height of the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, and has since been based in New York City. He has participated in biennials around the world, including Venice (1986, 2007, 2009, 2013) and São Paulo (1987, 1989, 2010), as well as Documenta in Kassel (1987, 2002). In 2000, he won a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award.
In 2010, Jaar was invited by the New School Art Collection Advisory Group and the curators Silvia Rocciolo and Eric Stark to propose a project for The New School’s newest building, the University Center. His initial proposal—a multilevel, data-driven interactive installation—proved to be beyond the school’s resources. The artist then proposed a site-specific version of his 1996 piece Searching for Africa in LIFE, which in its original form comprises five C-prints mounted on Plexiglas. For The New School, Jaar reframed this work as a lightbox installation for the seventh-floor reading room in the University Center’s Arnhold Forum Library.
The resulting five-panel work includes all 2,128 covers from the complete run of LIFE magazine, which was founded as a photojournalistic weekly by Henry Luce in 1936 (prior to that, it had been a humor magazine) and continued publication until 2000. Jaar’s project centers on his longstanding interest in light as the sine qua non of photography, as likely to disorient as to reveal or to dazzle, while interrogating distinctions between the popular press, advertisements, and systems of knowledge relay such as libraries and archives. The fifth panel of the lightbox contains images of the magazine from the final years of its run, laid out in seven rows, with the rest of the panel projecting a blank glow. Installed behind the reading room’s glass partition and facing a wall of windows overlooking Fifth Avenue, the work is saturated by ambient light as well as light emerging from within its own form. This glow, along with the small yet highly detailed images of the covers—each measures 2.5 by 1.9 inches—draws the viewer in close, encouraging attentive reading. Yet the “incomplete” final panel signals a refusal to ratify ideas of comprehensiveness, while the layering of the lightboxes’ Plexiglas screens with the glass enclosure of the reading room, all bathed in the ambient wash of the building’s artificial lighting and the daylight admitted on three sides by windows, subtly implies an accumulation of framing devices, an accumulation of distance.