Thomas Bolger visits the Yorkshire Sculpture Park to witness Alfredo Jaar’s permanent installation
“It is possible for prison walls
For the cell to become a distant land
– Mahmoud Darwish
A stainless-steel cell sits half submerged in a lake, water lapping at its sides. It is one of ten that stand dotted about the surrounding woodland, cold to the touch and as silent as the trees. They are both bluntly conspicuous and strangely at home in the natural setting, empty monuments hiding in the undergrowth. Alfredo Jaar – the acclaimed Chilean “architect making art” – is the man responsible for these structures, which have now found a permanent home at the vast Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Principally referencing CIA ‘black sites’, secret detention facilities such as Salt Pit in Guantanamo Bay or Code Black in Afghanistan, the cells conjure up a myriad of meanings that traverse incarceration, authority, exile and – inescapably because of the aquatic staging – the ongoing refugee crisis. Their one-metre square bases are directly inspired by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, someone who was routinely imprisoned and politically exiled for speaking truth to power. In 2001 he wrote: “I love the particles of sky that slip through the skylight – a metre of light where horses race.”
The long-standing director of the Park, Clare Lilley, accompanies me to see Jaar’s work, titled The Garden of Good and Evil. Undeterred by the drizzle and bluster that February has to offer, we ramble in our wellies past the Park’s temporary sculptures that sprout up out of its 500-acres. Privately owned for a thousand years, the surrounding area can’t help but be defined by its industrial past, old coal pits closed down by Thatcher visible from vantage points. Passing towering work from Damien Hirst, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore (all born nearby), I ask, how does seeing art in the elements change the viewer’s experience? Lilley throws her hands happily up to the slanted rain: “It’s this! It’s the entire sensory nature of it, the walking and the wind and the mud. You’ll see things in a certain condition and come back an hour later to see it in a different way because of how the light falls. That constant change is incredibly revitalising. I’ve been coming here for twenty-seven years and I’m still noticing things I’ve never seen before.”
The Garden continues Jaar’s longstanding “balance between information and poetry” and commitment to art as political activism, with previous award-winning work examining environmental pollution in Koko, Nigeria, the Rwandan Genocide and perilous gold mining in Serra Pelada, Brazil. Having been born in Santiago in 1956 but lived in New York for the majority of his life, Jaar has always been preoccupied with the geographic imbalance of power, best exemplified through his 1990 piece Geography=War (which simply showed proportionately accurate maps of the world and therefore a much smaller North America) or This Is Not America (A Logo for America) (a flashing billboard saying exactly that, overlooking Times Square). The first time Lilley met Jaar was at Kings Cross station and all he carried was a coat and a newspaper. She remarked that he travelled light – he held up the paper and replied, “this is extremely heavy.”
When we reach the first scattering of cells, time’s hand has already introduced variety to their colouring, rust matching fallen leaves while some better retain their polished lustre. They are ominous and brooding among the oak, ash and hazel. First unveiled in the open air on the United Nations International Day of Peace in 2019, The Garden not only engages with overt American secrets, but with one of its most celebrated aesthetic movements – minimalism. Created in the USA during the 1960s, Jaar plays with the contradiction (or necessity) that out of one of the most radical and violent decades came an artistic practice that nullified and simplified, created an absence of detail. Lilley notes that “He’s definitely playing with obfuscation and simplicity. Just before we opened, The Guardian did a huge exposé on black sites. These outrageous events come up on news cycles and then just disappear, people are being waterboarded right now, but the agenda moves on. We crave simplicity, sometimes at the expense of reality, and this work is an extraordinary rendition of the time we’re living in. It’s a chilling form of poetry. There is also a note of hope though, which is such an important part of Alfredo’s work. He often quotes Gramsci – “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” Optimism has to be our strategy for the future, because without it, we don’t take ownership…In the spring, all of this will be surrounded by bluebells, it will be the first time we see it like that.”
Afterwards, we loop round part of the Park’s circumference, stopping to soak up Ai Weiwei’s arresting Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads (reinterpretation of 12 bronze animal heads), Saad Qureshi’s Something About Paradise (quasi-religious mindscapes housed in the Parks 18th Century chapel) and the deeply moving Deer Shelter Skyspace by James Turrell. Turrell transforms the Grade II Listed deer shelter into one for humans, its hushed stone walls feeling closer to an Egyptian tomb. Entering a large square chamber, you are greeted by an aperture cut into the roof, the moving Yorkshire sky flooding the room with light. Drying off inside and watching the clouds drift by almost feels like therapy.
Jaar was painfully shy as a boy and his concerned father sought advice from a psychiatrist, who recommended he learn magic tricks to build confidence. He trained as a magician before architecture, which may explain his skill in suspense, mystery and the all-important reveal. The small arena between the artist and his audience, the suspension of disbelief. The Garden of Good and Evil works as a perverse kind of magic trick, revealing the deeply uncomfortable truth of state-approved torture and murder that the international community actively chooses to ignore. The idyllic setting only adds to the dramatic sleight of hand, and the work will continue to shift and blur with each passing year as it becomes slowly assimilated into the woodland. When I say goodbye to Lilley I promise to visit again in the summer, so that I may see the work in a completely new light.
Photography Jonty Wilde