Hundreds of black-and-white photographs are pieced together to create vast, ghostly landscapes in Richard Mosse’s recent series of large-scale prints, “Heat Maps” (2015–17). Continuing his engagement with technologies of war, Mosse employed a military-issue thermographic camera with a telephoto lens to document refugee camps throughout Europe from distances of around three to nine miles. The resulting photomontages thus interpret the ongoing refugee crisis through the temperature variations of sites where it is directly playing out.
In Hellinikon Olympic Arena (2016), tents set up in an Olympic stadium in Athens appear to huddle together, surrounded by tiers of empty seats. The image seems like an allegory for the dwindling public awareness of the crisis and its current status. The media furor that arose when it began in 2015 has diminished over time, though the numbers of displaced people have continued to grow. In March 2016, Europe made a deal with Turkey that effectively stemmed the flow of incoming refugees, with scores of people left in limbo in Greece. The tents occupy the majority of Mosse’s composition, to desolate effect, but gradually clotheslines with garments hanging from them and a handful of humans become visible. The latter, due to the thermographic medium, appear almost bleached-out. It is as if they are overshadowed by the makeshift architecture, their presence (and plights) obscured by the substandard infrastructure. The image begins to recall the hell panel from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, in which bodies seem to recede within the dark panorama that consumes them.
Mosse’s camera technology alludes to systems of surveillance as well as to search-and-rescue missions, the works encapsulating the spectrum of reactions to the global movement of people, from negative to positive—with the former seeming to prevail at the state level, given the dissemination of surveillance programs that focus on migrant populations. Mosse’s expansive compositions—which stretch to more than thirteen feet across—engulf viewers, giving them the feeling that they themselves are somehow being watched, though this sense of scrutiny is counteracted by the remote vantage points. The tension that results points to the push and pull between the distrustful gaze that follows refugees (particularly by the right-wing media) and the distance kept from them when it comes providing asylum or meaningful solutions. Indeed, the exhibition’s title, “The Castle,” evokes Kafka’s 1926 novel by the same name, where the protagonist, K., struggles to gain access to or acceptance by the enigmatic governing powers.
The show also included a series of smaller-scale, more closely shot images. These were stills from Mosse’s 2015–16 three-screen video installation Incoming, which was not on view but which uses the same technology to portray refugees traveling by sea. Particularly poignant are an image of a life-jacketed woman recovered from a sinking boat and a shot of a group of near-on thirty people piled high atop a vessel along with suitcases and bags, their faces appearing veiled, with the camera registering mostly vague details (glasses, open mouths). It is as if they are not real people with actual lives they have been forced to abandon. As with Kafka’s K., they are alienated from any meaningful governmental recognition, their legal right to exist under duress.