For his second solo exhibition with Goodman Gallery, Chilean-born New York-based artist Alfredo Jaar presents Men Who Cannot Cry, a series of works inspired by a cairn photographed by the artist on a trip to Robben Island a few years ago. The stones were placed by a group of former political prisoners who returned to the island in 1995 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of their release. This exhibition is a meditation on this stone monument and the poignance it holds for our present political moment.
For seven hours a day, five days a week the inmates spent their time in a quarry, extracting this limestone used to whitewash roads on the island. After years of repetition, this seemingly futile exercise exacted a heavy physical toll. It is said that on the day Nelson Mandela left the island he was unable to shed a tear. The years of mining had permanently damaged his eyesight, a fact referenced in the exhibition’s title.
When Mandela returned to the island in 1995 he was the first to pick up a stone and deposit it a few steps away beside the road. Soon fellow ex-prisoners joined in stacking stones. In Xhosa culture this gesture is associated with asking for good fortune and is known as an ‘isivivana’, marking in Khoikhoi tradition the site of a sacred place.
For Jaar this moment represented the spontaneous creation of an ‘extraordinary public monument of reconciliation’. The fact that the isivivana was still standing when Jaar took his photograph years later further transformed the stones into a ‘metaphor for the extreme precariousness’
of South Africa’s post-apartheid journey and the road that still lies ahead.
In Men Who Cannot Cry, Jaar reflects on this metaphor through various representations of the monument. Beside Jaar’s original photograph of the isivivana itself, there are five geometric neons he describes as ‘speculative forms that try to interpret the fragility of the monument in metaphorical, spiritual, and political ways’. An additional work presents a stone Jaar picked up from Robben Island, shown in a plexiglass light box atop a pedestal. Every few minutes the light intensifies in the box to the point that the stone practically disappears, becoming a black dot that embeds itself in a viewer’s retina like an after-image effect.
The Sound of Silence is the final work on the show. The photographic installation features 15 images of Robben Island taken by Jaar during his visit. The series includes shots of Mandela’s cell, as well as a view from the cell’s window unto the lime quarry upon which Men Who Cannot Cry has effectively been built.
The repeated motif of the isivivana and stones that comprise its form take on a heightened symbolic presence in this context. Through these works Jaar continues to build on his interest in commemorative forms and practices of remembrance – a practice driven by his commitment to championing human rights through art.