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Alfredo Jarr at at the SCAD Museum of Art: May 1, 2011

Updated on January 29, 2012
Alfredo Jarr's installation, "May 1, 2011." Photo courtesy of the artist
Alfredo Jarr's installation, "May 1, 2011." Photo courtesy of the artist | Source

Guggenheim fellow, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur fellow and Premio Extremadura a la Creación recipient Alfredo Jarr is on exhibit at Savannah College of Art and Design's new Museum of Art. Jarr is well known for his art installations, film and architectural work.

The white house situation room as members of the security team watch events inside the Bin Laden Compound. Photo by Pete Sauza
The white house situation room as members of the security team watch events inside the Bin Laden Compound. Photo by Pete Sauza | Source

The first thing nearly everyone seems to be drawn to is the image of the white house situation room on the right. The photo, originally taken by Pete Souza, depicts President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden ,Brigadier General Marshall B. Webb, Hillary Clinton Robert Gates and various other members of the security council as they watch raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound. Open laptops are packed on to the surface of the table, their screens off, waiting for input from their thoroughly distracted users. Throughout the image several punctum catch the viewer’s eye and convey the intensity of the moment. Mrs. Clinton’s hand lingers by her mouth, as if stopping as sudden gasp. President Obama, though looking rather haggard in his navy blue windbreaker and dark puffy eyelids, sits on the edge chair, intent on whatever is happening just out of frame. Between them all, laying on the laptop directly in front of Mrs. Clinton, is the interesting punctum of all, a dossier with image that has been obscured from the public. As the details of the image settle questions begin to rise, some of which are answered by a helpful plaque to the right. The plaque has a contour drawing of the figures in the image and each silhouette is labeled with a letter that corresponds to a name. It is not until the photo and the information plaque have been thoroughly explored that the viewer steps back to recognize the white screen, its blank plaque, and truly begin to wonder about the significance of the piece.

[2] David, Jacques Louis, "The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries," National Gallery of Art, Wikipedia Commons. Washington DC, 1812.
[2] David, Jacques Louis, "The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries," National Gallery of Art, Wikipedia Commons. Washington DC, 1812. | Source

The decision to keep any photographic evidence of Bin Laden’s death out of the public eye became extremely controversial. Despite very real concerns that any such photograph would incite more violence from those loyal to Bin Laden, the public demanded that photos of the vanquished be shown because without them, Obama was asking the public go on faith alone. According to Leonie Radine’s description of the installation on SCAD MOA’s website the blank monitor and its accompanying plaque symbolize all of the images the public was not allowed to see and provides canvas for all of the imagined and faked images that circulated in the public’s collective imagination. By juxtaposing the infinite of imagination against the supposedly real, albeit obviously edited, photo of the situation room Jarr critiques the candor of photographic representation, particularly when used in the context of politics[1]. Specifically, it delegitimizes the famous photograph we think of as “reality” by giving the imagined and the fakes that fill the public’s consciousness with a place of honor on the museum wall next to it. It reminds us through obvious editing of Souza’s original image that a photograph itself is an illusion and only contains as much truth as its creators choose to allow through it and thus dismisses the value of “real” photographic evidence of Bin Laden’s death. As an exercise, one might compare Souza’s photograph of the situation room with Jacques Louis David’s painting “The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries.[2]” In David’s painting documents are strewn across the desk, a clock on the wall reveals the hour is 4:15 and candles have burned down to nothing. And just like Obama in Souza’s photo, Napoleon wears the puffy eyelids and the haggard posture of a leader who has been up all night, toiling on behalf of his people. In its day, David’s painting would have commanded a certain amount of belief in its veracity, though today it is hard to imagine anyone accepting painting of a political leader as “truth.” So why, in an age of Photoshop and special effects do we still look to photographs as any more real than a painting, let alone clamor for them as “proof” of a vanquished foe’s death? Jarr’s piece shows us instead the value of photographs, and particularly political photographs, lies in their ability to influence their viewers and sway public opinion.

[1] Leonie Radine, “Alfredo Jarr, May 1, 2011,” Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art, (accessed January 22, 2012).


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