Pondering how to address climate change through his art, Richard Mosse decided to do what he describes as a “case study” in the Amazon rainforests of Brazil and Ecuador. Over the past 15 years the Irish photographer has built a reputation for visually phantasmagorical yet categorically brutal renderings of humanitarian crises, including but not limited to war-torn locales in the Congo and the migration crisis across Europe. But by 2018, he was in search of a project that required a less breakneck pace.
Four years in the making, the intricately-made, 74-minute-long Broken Spectre is beyond moving. The breathtaking, multi-channel documentary stitches together sweeping vistas of the Amazonian wilderness alongside snapshots of its ongoing erosion through a range of industrial ventures, including agriculture, logging, and mining. After simultaneously opening at the National Gallery of Victoria International in Melbourn and London’s 180 Studios in October 2022, the work makes its NYC debut this week at Jack Shainman, where it is shown alongside four photographs taken over the course of the artist’s visits to the region and also inaugurates the Chelsea gallery’s new TriBeCa space.
Mosse, 44, realized the film using three modes of camerawork: bird’s eye views, with a multispectral camera; a “human scale” on 35 mm black-and-white infrared film; and at a microbial level via ultraviolet microscopy. Spliced together, the trio of perspectives lends a comprehensiveness that, as the artist describes, was essential to exploring such wide-reaching themes. “The Amazon is such a big subject,” he says. “And climate change itself is so all-encompassing that I was struggling to find the right scale that would speak as a storyteller.” Designed to register a range of electromagnetic waves—including those beyond the capabilities of the human eye—Mosse’s cameras capture invisible light rays throughout. “I decided to pitch across the electromagnetic spectrum to tell different aspects of the story. I wanted to leap perspectives and points of view to force the viewer to look at the subject from different angles.”
Exhaustive in concept, the cumulative effect is displayed across three screens at the center of the new gallery. Its experience is more surreal than a one-to-one conversation with reality: as forest canopies stretch into the horizon, they appear side-by-side with the pulsing energies emitted by living creatures too small or otherwise amorphous to register. One of Mosse’s most impactful sequences even caught the attention of John Kerry. It arises from an unforgettably gut-wrenching display of human grief and anger, the sort that art cannot fully mimic and rarely gets the chance to capture. The several-minute-long scene shows a woman from an indigenous tribe in a remote enclave off the Amazon River addressing the camera. Donning traditional face paint and flanked by other members of her community, she demands action from those with power in the wake of repeated deadly attacks on her village from illegal miners that have encroached on their territory in search of gold.
Of the manifold juxtapositions between video channels and physical scale in the installation, another scene of men chainsawing down “ancient” trees has brought many viewers to tears. “I try to understand why that is,” Mosse reflects. “I think it’s because it’s preceded by these ultraviolet, microscopic shots of biomass from the forest floor. As a viewer, you almost unconsciously start to feel the power of the forests—the beauty of it, certainly—through the power of beauty and aesthetics. You feel how special it is. All of a sudden, we switch to a scene in a different medium with the guys chopping down the tree. I suppose, your heart combines the two… or your intellect… or your imagination. That’s what I’m trying to do as an artist: try to force the viewer to have this emotional, psychological connection with the non-human, which is hard to do, because we don’t relate to forests.”
The artist pauses before adding with a wry laugh: “We don’t relate to trees but that’s what artists can do. Art can make people feel new and powerful things, to feel in new ways.”
“Broken Spectre” by Richard Mosse is on view through March 16, 2024, at Jack Shainman Gallery at 46 Lafayette Street, New York, 10013.