Step into Alfredo Jaar’s (b. 1956) The Garden of Good and Evil at Yorkshire Sculpture Park and you’ll get a jolt. At first, it’s a pastoral scene – the sun piercing through leaves, rustling in the wind in the middle of a grove. But these dreamy visions suddenly give way to a concealed steel cell, and another, and yet another. There are 10 of these cages in all, metaphors for CIA black sites where “terror” suspects are detained, tortured or killed around the world. Despite these heavy-hitting concepts, the act of contemplating the cages transforms the viewer into a witness – one with relative freedom: of speech and movement. The contrast is stark enough to briefly pause from the constant, ADD-inducing distraction brought on by the demands of our plugged-in, online lives that leave little room for observation.
A precursor to what has now become a permanent installation was launched two years ago, when 101 evergreen trees were neatly arranged in wooden planters for an exhibition at YSP. A gallery space hosting a retrospective at the time opened with a bank of lights, The Sound of Silence (2006), for viewers to “clean up their brains.” Once the cleansing was complete, they could absorb the story of South African photojournalist Kevin Carter, who committed suicide after receiving a Pulitzer Prize for his 1994 photograph of a starving Sudanese child and a vulture, an image that also triggered an outpouring of international aid. The current edition of The Garden was unveiled on 29 September – the United Nations International Day of Peace. It coincides with the beginning of YSP’s fifth decade as one of Yorkshire’s best attended venues.
Time has transformed Jaar’s metal structures; they have become a part of the woodland, nestling into mounds and surrounded by leaves. Some are partially submerged in a lake. Each cell has a one-metre-square base, in reference to One Square Metre of Prison (1986) – a poem by Palestinian activist Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008), who spent much of his life in prison or exile. The structures evoke stories from some of the most turbulent periods in recent history.
Jaar, who fled his native Chile in 1981 at the height of the Pinochet regime to launch his career in art and activism, says he considers himself “an architect making art.” This background is evident in the way he cuts through spaces and makes use of light and darkness to desired effect. Built in varying heights, some of the cells prevent light from ever entering inside, others feature solid walls and a skylight, or bars. Jaar also achieves a delicate balance between information and poetry that underlines some of the direst situations brought on by contemporary geopolitics. It’s a new way of seeing that takes into account what the eye cannot perceive alone.
As a platform for debate around today’s most pressing issues, this exhibition continues an important and popular strand of Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s programming that has included Shirin Neshat, Amar Kanwar and Yinka Shonibare.
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Lead image: Alfredo Jaar, The Garden of Good and Evil, 2017. Courtesy the artist, New York, a_political and YSP. Image: © Jonty Wilde.