Christopher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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.

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