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The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement

[Excerpted below is the major portion of Sheila Wickouski’s discussion of the social and artistic aspects of the exhibition at the Phillips Collection which appears in full on page 5 of the August 2019 issue pdf.]

In a story in Genesis, an angel asks Hagar in the desert, “Where have you come from, and where are you going?” That is a question a visitor might ask of oneself as well as of those whose stories unfold in this especially timely exhibit on view [Ed. Note: emphasis ours] for only a few more weeks.

Not only is this the largest temporary exhibit the Phillips has ever mounted, but like global migrations, complex. Occupying 20 galleries on three floors, featuring 75 artists, the exhibit is crowded with around 250 pieces with variety in media from film, paint, photography, embroidery, sculpted pieces, and material goods from used clothing stores. To watch all the 11 videos would take over five hours.

The objects are the stories, and like stories, some are factual and some fictional. All are connected by the shared theme of migration and their creator’s intent to represent the migratory experience. Personal histories of migration as well as expectations on what art should be will determine your personal journey through this exhibit.

Although loosely organized along thematic and geographical lines, the sea dominates as a symbol of immensity and movement. John Akomfrah’s film Vertigo Sea which explores the possibilities that migration is not only a human experience, but one that is necessary for the life of monarch butterflies, birds, whales, fish, and land animals. Requiring three large screen projections, simultaneously moving back and forth over multiple scenarios, the gorgeous cinematography of surging waves and frozen glaciers is interspersed with strains of operatic melodies softly in the background and reciting of lines from classics like Moby Dick and A View from the Lighthouse.

Vertigo Sea spares nothing to show cruel fate from the hunting of polar bears, to the faces of slaves being emptied into the sea to wash up lifeless on beaches. Actual news films of the Vietnamese boat people and aerial views of mothers thrown to their deaths from planes during the Chilean junta merge decades of tragic history focus viewers to engage in powerful meditation.

Adel Abdessemed’s Queen Mary II, La Mere (The Mother), a model ship constructed from metal objects like sardine cans, renders one not unlike a crowded ship decked with people in Vertigo Sea. It is set appropriately in the center of a gallery surrounded by a selection of 13 photographs by Lewis Wickes Hine taken on Ellis Island between 1905 and 1926. Augustus Sherman’s selection of Ellis Island photographs of the same time period is in another gallery. These photographs along with 14 illustrated front and back covers of La Domenica del Corriere, an Italian weekly from the early 20th century, will remind many of faces they have seen in family albums from generations ago.

In sharp contrast are the contemporary pieces.

One intensely crowded gallery has the most diverse media, leaving no space uncovered. Kader Attia’s La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea) is spread over the floor with used clothing now emptied of the bodies that were lost at sea. The surrounding walls feature photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans. The State We’re In (2015), is of an undesignated area where international time zones and borders intersect and another is of Lampedusa (2008). There is a framed 2014 letter from Giusi Nicolini, Mayor of Lampedusa to the European Union along with embroidered world maps by Alighiero Boetti and 40 C-prints of Xaviera Simmons’s Superunknown (Alive in the ) (2010).

What is not by sea, must be by land. Within the United States these selected works remind of our painful pasts. There is Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series alongside Jack Delano’s photographs which document the transitory migration circa 1940 of a Florida family going to pick potatoes in New Jersey. Benny Andrews, born to a rural Georgia sharecropping family, retraces the forcible displacement of native Americans in the 1830s in his painting Trail of Tears (2005). Another gallery holds Dorethea Lange’s photographs of agricultural workers in California and the Japanese relocation in 1942.

Borders and walls dominate in the daily news from the plight of Syrian refugees to Hondurans moving toward the Mexico-USA border. Unlike the sea, which is in constant forceful motion, the land migrations often come to a standstill. A wall of photographs by Henk Wilschut shows the deserted Ville de Calais (City of Calais) (2015-’16). Called “the jungle,” where the population reached 8,000, before it was closed, the now empty spaces for stores, restaurants and places of worship, are signs of the universal human desire for everyday life in a place like home.

Here, in front of these realistic photographs and videos that focus on specific locales and circumstances, is a good point to pause and consider what is art and when it is a newscast. A video by Phil Collins how to make a refugee, (1999) started with what seemed to be his filming of immigrants. Over the course of 12 minutes, it becomes the story of how the reporters were posing immigrants to create their news by selecting the most injured child to show his scars. Adrian Paci’s video Centro di permanenza temproanea (Temporary Detention Center) (2007) is also staged. The actors, who really are immigrants, are lined up an ascending staircase with no plane in sight, for this film made in San Jose, California. The work is a metaphor for hope that is nothing but air.