Richard Mosse, Barbican – 3.4.17

I am still reeling from the intense experience of seeing Richard Mosse’s video installation Incoming at the Barbican.  The main part of the exhibit is film footage documenting the refugee crisis, shown on three eight metre wide screens. Mosse used a military thermal camera which can detect people up to 30km away.  The camera is very far away from most of the scenes but we feel like we are right in the middle of the action.


This is ‘uncanny’ with knobs on. At times, the people look alien and almost zombie-like but they are also somehow mundane and familiar.  The slow motion, the white noise, the deafening sounds and vibrations, the ghoulish monochrome, the infrared, the huge screens; all this comes together to create tension and disorientation for the viewer.

Much of the imagery is absolutely beautiful and mesmerising but also succeeds in providing a new way of telling this devastating story, with which we are all too familiar. As the camera reads heat only, we are not distracted by skin colour or clothing or other peripherals. We just see people and are transported to their narrow pinhole of existence for a while.  Mosse has captured the vastness and danger of the ocean, the darkness, the vulnerability of fleshy humans, literally the blood, sweat and tears.


I felt a sense of camaraderie but isolation even in the crowd scenes with each person on their own journey of survival.  It is an emotional experience.

Some of the imagery confirms our fears about the refugee crisis, such as the long queues of young men at refugee camps, but this work is very subjective and is designed to unsettle us as we confront the horrendous reality of migration.  There are many ambiguities and layers to the work – not least in the the thermographic camera is internationally designated as a weapon. The subjects are ‘other’, anonymous, silent, dehumanised. The gaze is from a long way off but gets incredibly close and invades this broken world.


“Using a part of a weapon to figure the refugee crisis is a deeply ambivalent and political task,” Mosse says. “And building a new language around that weapon – one of compassion and disorientation, one that allows the viewer to see these events through an unfamiliar and alienating technology – is a deeply political gesture.” [1]

Moss also acknowledges there were technical challenges: “It’s operated through a laptop, so when you’re switching tabs, you suddenly realise the Henri Cartier-Bresson ‘decisive moment’ was 10 minutes ago.” [2]


Key takeaways

  • There are always new ways to tell a story
  • Alien representation can still lead us to a sense of belonging to the same tribe
  • Moving images can have so much more power than stills, especially when combined with audio
  • Monochrome is still ace
  • I would very much like to visit the installation again but this time without a fear-inducing hangover





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