Richard Mosse: The Enclave National Gallery of Victoria. Until February 16.
There are many places in the world that are worth visiting — places with a wonderful history, fascinating monuments, a vibrant living culture, friendly people, and good food and wine. On the other hand, there are places like parts of sub-Saharan Africa where you never want to go unless you happen to be involved in mining, arms dealing or the humanitarian struggle against endemic poverty and disease.
These last scourges have been exacerbated by the incompetence and corruption of many of the local governments, whose kleptocratic excesses are usually in direct proportion to the desperate poverty of their unhappy citizens. Meanwhile, already impoverished countries are racked with constant fighting between war lords, criminal gangs, militias, revolutionaries and most recently Islamic extremists who have set a standard of savagery only recently equalled by Islamic State in the Middle East.
The so-called Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the worst of these hellholes. Its history began badly in colonial times, when it was for a time the personal possession of King Leopold II of Belgium (1885-1908), until the cruelty and injustice of its administrators was exposed and forced the Belgian government to take the territory over as a direct colony (1908-60). My father visited during the last decade of colonial rule and recalled stout Belgians in suits perspiring over the heavy cuisine they served in the heat.
Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness (1899) was set in the period when the royal fiefdom was known as the Congo Free State; the country has a history of misnomers. Conrad had direct experience of the country and people, as well as of the colonial maladministration, having, like his protagonist Marlow, sailed a steamer up the Congo River in 1890.
Perhaps because of its combination of social and political acuity with an ultimately bleak vision of the absurd, Heart of Darkness proved a singularly resonant allegory for the 20th century and inspired in particular Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now (1979), in which the story was translated to Vietnam.
Well over a generation later and back in the Congo, Conrad’s story is part of the inspiration for Richard Mosse’s The Enclave, a film work originally made for the Venice Biennale in 2013 and now acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria. A well-known passage in the book is directly recalled at one point when a series of bombs go off as the camera pans across impassive mountains shrouded in mist, but Conrad’s spirit is present in many other scenes as well, particularly wherever human agency and even human wickedness appear dwarfed by the indifference of nature.