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Permanent Error

· Where the good and evil intentions of the West run aground ·

Cattle graze peacefully in the midst of dense black smoke: what from afar seems a marsh from close up turns out to be an immense stretch of old computer monitors, half-buried in the mud, a strange post-modern crop in which women and children are collecting and rolling up cables: they are in the Agbogbloshie slum, north west of Accra, one of the largest dumping grounds in the world for electronic waste, where old printers and fragments of motherboards are burned to retrieve the copper, brass, alluminium and zinc that they contain.

The poisons that rise from the smouldering mounds contaminate the air and the water and there are high concentrations of lead, mercury and prussic acid in the ground (the same toxic agent as the sadly famous Zyklon B [Cyclon B]). In his reportage, “Permanent Error” – on show at the Maxxi in Rome until next 29 April – the South African photographer, Pieter Hugo, has chosen the computer cemetery on the polluted shores of the Korle Lagoon, which the inhabitants themselves call “Sodom and Gomorrah”, to describe one of the many hells in the contemporary world where not only the wicked run aground, but also the good intentions of the West.

For decades the first world has offered hardware to the countries of West Africa for the purpose of encouraging their entry into the digital era but what was born as an intelligent development project has in most cases become an expedient for dispatching electronic garbage and potentially dangerous rubbish for free. Everything ends up in the containers marked “donation”: tons of antiquated machinery, broken or unusable, that are poured into the Gold Coast every year.

”Watchman, what of the night?” (Isaiah, 21:11), a visitor to the exhibition posts online beside the portrait of a boy, Aissah Salifu, severe and doleful as a biblical prophet amidst the ruins of the dump. Isaiah's appalling prophesy that describes the destruction of Babylon also “photographs” the postmodern bleakness of this “E-Waste Land” (as it was labelled by Newsweek ). Evil continues to act in history, the destroyer continues to destroy. There is an error, a permanent wound – the exhibition's title indicates a form of computer damage that can only be eliminated by reformatting the whole disk – at the heart of the human being whom nothing can cure.

“Sun City” is blazoned across the T-shirt of Yaw Francis, another of the shanty-town boys, with an involuntarily ironical effect; even the most sincerely philanthropic utopias end like this, stabbed by the very evil they had hoped to be able to regulate, to stem and to banish. No perfect juridical, economic or social formulas exist which can prevent an initiative that came into being for good ends from sooner or later, doing the reverse. Human beings, T.S. Eliot writes in Choruses of the Rock, “...Constantly try to escape / From the darkness outside and within / By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good. / But the man that is shall shadow / The man that pretends to be.”

Evil cannot be reformatted by a project, no matter how good and efficient it may seem. The apocalyptic scene in the Agbogbloshie slum makes dramatically clear the difference between philanthropy and charity, between giving something and giving oneself, between an operator who dumps an aid pack and leaves, and a missionary who stays to share everything with the people to whom he has chosen to belong. It would not even suffice to give one's own life and energy – not even to deliver one's “body to be burned”, as Paul writes in Chapter 13 of his First Letter to the Corinthians – if the divine were unable to reach the human heart, to deactivate the human being's original wound, the incurable “permanent error”, at the root.

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