Artists Take On Global Migration: 'It's Hard To Watch And It's Hard Not To Watch'

Aug 20, 2019
Originally published on August 20, 2019 9:43 am

A 10-minute drive from the White House — where immigration has a top spot on the President's "to-do" list — a museum has filled three of its floors with artists' reactions to displacement, relocation and flight.

"The Warmth of Other Suns - Stories of Global Displacement" at The Phillips Collection features some 75 paintings, photographs, videos and installations exploring the global refugee crisis. The works were chosen by curators from the New Museum in New York and many of the artists are immigrants themselves.

Every day brings stories about immigration — on radio, TV, social media. What can art say that's different? "Art has a language of its own," says Dorothy Kosinski, director of The Phillips Collection. "It's very direct."

Artists don't necessarily look at suffering in a different way, "but they know how to express it," says Dani Levinas, chairman of the Phillips board.

Albanian artist Adrian Paci explores hope, impatience and frustration in his video Centro di permanenza temporanea (Temporary Detention Center). "What you see in this video is a stairway — the kind that you would use to board an airplane on an empty tarmac," says New Museum curator Natalie Bell. "What's absent in this film is the airplane, so you see a number of men attempting to board, climbing up the stairs, and waiting."

For what? They're on a stairway to nowhere. The plane may never come.

Kader Attia strews second-hand clothing on the floor for the installation La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea).
Lee Stalsworth / The Phillips Collection

French Algerian artist Kader Attia has strewn a gallery's wooden floor with faded blue clothing — T-shirts, jeans, sweatshirts, shoes for the installation La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea).

"It at once evokes an image of clothing that's been washed up on the shore — but also serves as a kind of memorial of the people who have been lost at sea," says Bell.

Sometimes I turn the page on such sights of tragedy — maybe you do, too. Some 71 million souls have been "forcibly displaced" from their homes, according to the U.N. — it's hard to wrap your head around it. But this exhibition, in its persistent, gentle enormity, forces attention.

Many of the objects in the exhibition are specific — everyday items that in this context have a powerful effect.

"Objects can evoke memories or reflections ..." Bell says. "We spend a lot of our time encountering these stories through the news and when we slow down and spend a moment with these objects individually — when we encounter them physically — it can be very different and it can be very powerful."

Children holding toy sailboats disappear into the water in Francis Alÿs' 2008 video Don't Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River (Strait of Gibraltar, Morocco-Spain).
Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner

Children appear in several of the works. In Francis Alÿs' video, Don't Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River, they stand on opposite sides of the Strait of Gibraltar. Holding toy sailboats made with old flip-flops, they start moving toward one another. Alÿs — Belgian born Mexico-based — imagined the children serving as a bridge across the waters. Instead, buffeted by waves, tossed, and thrown — they disappear.

Of the works on display in this immigration show, Erkan Özgen's video Wonderland is one of the most stirring. It depicts a 13-year-old Syrian boy, describing the bombing of his town — the horror of seeing neighbors killed, and going without food and water.

A boy describes the bombing of his village in Erkan Özgen's 2016 video Wonderland.
Courtesy of the artist

"He's not speaking a word – he's deaf and mute," Bell explains. "So he's using hand language to tell the story. And somehow, taking the words out of this story made it all the more powerful. ... It's hard to watch and it's hard not to watch. It's hard to turn away."

Turning away is what we do now — from the terrible realities of this global displacement we're living through. Far from our shores and right on our borders, art like this, on display until September 22, can turn us back.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

A short drive from the White House, where immigration policy is a major focus of the president's agenda, a museum has filled three floors with artists' reactions to displacement, to relocation and to flight. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says the exhibition is pretty intense.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Every day brings the stories on radio, TV, social media - what can art say that's different?

DOROTHY KOSINSKI: Art has a language of its own. It's very direct.

STAMBERG: Dorothy Kosinski is director of The Phillips Collection, where the exhibition "The Warmth Of Other Suns - Stories Of Global Displacement" is on view.

Do the artists look at suffering in a different way?

DANI LEVINAS: I don't think so. I don't think so.

STAMBERG: Dani Levinas, chairman of the museum's board.

LEVINAS: But they know how to express it.

STAMBERG: In paintings, photographs, videos - installations chosen by curators from the New Museum in New York. Many of the artists are immigrants themselves and come from all over - Algeria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Mexico, Syria. Albanian artist Adrian Paci explores hope, impatience, frustration.

NATALIE BELL: What you see in this video is a stairway, the kind that you would use to board an airplane, on an empty tarmac.

STAMBERG: New Museum curator Natalie Bell.

BELL: What's absent in this film is the airplane. So you see a number of men attempting to board, climbing up these stairs and waiting.

STAMBERG: For what? They're on a stairway to nowhere. The plane may never come. French Algerian artist Kader Attia has strewn a gallery's wooden floor with faded blue clothing - T-shirts, jeans, sweatshirts, shoes. The installation is called "The Dead Sea."

BELL: It at once evokes an image of clothing that's been washed up on the shore, but it also serves as a kind of memorial of the people who've been lost at sea.

STAMBERG: Sometimes I turn the page on such sites; maybe you do, too - gotten numb from so much tragedy. Some 71 million souls forcibly displaced from their homes, the U.N. says. Too much - you just can't think about it. But this exhibition, in its persistent, gentle enormity, forces attention.

So many of these various objects in the exhibition are very specific; they're things we know. And yet they have such a powerful emotional impact on us. What's that about?

BELL: Well, I think that there can be a way that objects can evoke memories or reflections, even if they're very everyday objects. Another...

STAMBERG: Not just that but feelings, feelings

BELL: Yeah. You know, we spend a lot of our time encountering these stories through the news. And when we slow down and spend a moment with these objects individually when we encounter them physically, it can be very different, and it can be very powerful.

STAMBERG: Children appear in several of these images. In a video, they stand on opposite sides of the Strait of Gibraltar.

BELL: They're between Spain and Morocco, and you see children walking from the shore from each of those countries.

STAMBERG: Holding toy sailboats they have made with old flip-flops, they start moving toward one another. Francis Alys - Belgian-born, Mexico-based - imagined them serving as a bridge across the waters. Instead, buffeted by waves, tossed, thrown - they disappear.

The most stirring of these 75 or so objects in this immigration show is Erkan Ozgen's video of a 13-year-old Syrian boy describing the bombing of his town, seeing neighbors being killed, going without food, water - the horror of it.

BELL: He's not speaking a word. He's deaf and mute, so he's using hand language to tell the story. And somehow taking the words out of this story made it all the more powerful.

STAMBERG: It's a short video, yet the impact is immense.

BELL: I think it is one of the most powerful pieces because it's hard to watch, and it's hard to not watch. It's hard to turn away.

STAMBERG: I do, before it's over, and realize that's what we do now - turn from the terrible realities of this global displacement we're living through. So far from our shores in so many places, so smack on our borders this very minute, art like this can turn us back.

In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.