When Home Won’t Let You Stay
Some Thoughts on the Poetics of Home
by Brooks Turner
I wrote the first iteration of this review shortly after this exhibition opened, a couple weeks before everything shut down. I have had the privilege to comfortably shelter at home for the last 5 weeks. The walls of my apartment keep me warm and comfortable, my job allows me to telework, my state has issued emergency orders that keep me safe, my basement studio continues to facilitate my artistic production. All aspects of what constitute my home let me stay. The exhibition title, When Home Won’t Let You Stay, taken from a poem by Warsan Shire, framed the exhibition in the context of forced migration. While certainly that frame remains, the current global pandemic lends another context to these six words. Home does not allow essential workers to shelter in place, home will not increase the low pay of laborers in grocery stores, agriculture, and shipping risking their life daily to feed us, home will not protect undocumented immigrants who have lost their source of income, home has yet to prove it will choose to save 2% of the population rather than neo-liberal capitalism…
As we have seen in Minnesota and elsewhere around the country, black, brown, and indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by Covid-19. More unemployment, sicknesses, and deaths are reported per capita by these groups than by white people. The walls of our homes are borders just the same as the lines drawn on maps between countries; they are lines that delineate economic and racial privilege, shapes that exclude people and redirect resources. In thinking back on this exhibition, the narratives of forced migration can find an allegorical relationship to how our homes—the United States, Minnesota, our neighborhoods, and even the walls of our personal shelters—are implicated in the forced movement of peoples victimized, exploited, and/or disenfranchised.
Despite the closure, Ai Wei Wei’s installation of thousands of life jackets wrapping the ionic columns of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is still on view. Each life jacket in Safe Passages was once worn by a refugee making the perilous sea journey from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos, but the institutional ropes, chains, and signs prevent us from getting more than a hundred feet or so from the work. We are forced to engage at a distance, perhaps a poetic meditation on how removed we are both physically and virtually from this migratory crisis.
In looking up at the facade, I can’t help but imagine this building kept afloat by the life jackets around its pillars, an impossibility, obviously, but an image that leads to a more potent thought: what life do we as a society seek to preserve? The clarity and symmetry of neoclassical form was meant to represent the triumph of reason, order, and justice, linking the modern republic to that of the ancient Western world. Empty life jackets wrapped around this architecture suggests that we value our symbols, our institutions, our “republic,” over life, over people; we use the resources that could save people to instead save power. It is no wonder, then, that these aesthetics have been appropriated by white supremacists. Trump’s leaked executive order, “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” is effectively a bill wrapping life jackets around the ideology evoked by neoclassical aesthetics, the ideology of Western power and supremacy. In this context, “beauty” means whiteness. Ultimately, Weiwei’s installation undercuts neoclassical symbolism, rejecting “beauty,” and asking us instead to examine our institutions, our republic, our complacency and complicity in the global refugee crisis. And yet, Weiwei’s installation goes further within our new pandemic reality: the desire to save power rather than people can be heard in the demands that “the cure cannot be worse than the disease,” that individual death would be preferable to economic death. The white men that issue these demands wrap life jackets around their institutions rather than around people drowning in debt and disease.
At the time I wrote this article, Minnesota counties had started to respond to Trump’s executive order on refugee resettlement. Under the order, counties must vote “Yes” to allow refugee resettlement; not voting disallows refugee resettlement by default. In Minnesota, one county has voted “No,” two have decided not to vote, and another has indefinitely tabled the vote. Sixty Minnesota counties have until June 1st to vote before they join these four in disallowing refugee resettlement by default. It is unclear where these considerations stand within the current state of emergency. But undoubtedly, those forced from their homeland are at risk now more than ever, and Covid-19 has the potential to give the far right more reason to enact xenophobic, nativist, and nationalist policies. The idea of home is deeply contested in our present moment. What can we make of the fact that the same population supports exclusionary border politics and protested outside of the Governor’s mansion on April 17th? Their conception of home is one of entitlement and power—do as I say but not as I do—in other words, white supremacy.
I have read a couple articles and seen several memes that declare this period of self-isolation as the time of the artist: “artists were made for this,” “artists are used to working in extreme situations,” “look at how much we rely on art for comfort,” “I can’t wait to see what kind of art shelter-in-place inspires,” etc… I appreciate the optimism, but I caution an accompanying consideration: perhaps those who can engage in this optimistic outlook are those who have been able to grab hold of the life jacket-wrapped institution, whether that institution is the museum, the state, or white-collar work. Who is erased by this optimism? Who is forgotten?
Aesthetics is ethics; the images that we construct in our day to day lives are icons that guide, consciously and unconsciously, our individual moralities. Thus, as we collectively construct a vision of home through stay-at-home, work-from-home, school-from-home structures within this emergency, we also construct an ethical image of home not only for ourselves but for others around us. How can we make home accessible for everyone?
Ai Weiwei’s facade installation, titled Safe Passages, is one of three Minnesota-only contributions made to the traveling exhibition by curator Gabriel Ritter. Through part 2, I will focus on the exhibition as a whole. Even though the museum cannot be visited, I hope that this text can memorialize the exhibition and further the dialogue around art and migration.
For Mia’s rotunda, Ritter commissioned Postcommodity to create a site-responsive installation. Let Us Pray for the Water Between Us replaced the central Doryphoros, the ideal man, with a massive 2,200 gallon black chemical storage container and removed. A mechanized drum built into the container issues a slow, deep, metronomic beat, which reverberates through the rotunda, filling the niches in the wall once occupied by other classical marble sculptures. The sound demands contemplative silence, leading us to a poetics of absence, to acknowledge the ancient lands of the Dakhóta. Here, Postcommodity highlights not only the legal and political structures that stole this land a couple centuries ago, but also the aesthetic colonization that continues to dominate our institutions. This is at play not only in the architecture of the museum as a whole, but that the neoclassical entrance way is always occupied by the aesthetics of the Roman empire, an aesthetics that has been absorbed into white-supremacist ideology.
It feels critical that both Let Us Pray for the Water Between Us and Safe Passages are not behind the paywall of the special exhibition gallery, accessible to all visitors as a decolonizing gesture. But, it could go farther: leave these works up until every concentration camp at our border is closed, until Minnesota atones for its racial injustices and disparity of opportunity. Aesthetics is ethics; replacing Let Us Pray for the Water Between Us with the Doryphoros, stripping Safe Passages from Mia’s facade, re-enshrines the aesthetics of Westernism and whiteness within the Museum. This kind of postcolonial tourism is poetically potent, but we can’t decolonize our institutions with travel brochures.
Kader Attia La Mer Morte
Despite the critical importance of the context of this exhibition, many pieces fell flat. Do Ho Suh’s extremely impressive installation offers a contemplative space related to memory and aging more than forced migration. Its inclusion strikes me as conservative, a gesture to offset the sustained critique of colonialism and imperialism. Kader Attia’s installation of blue clothes arranged on the floor, titled La mer morte (The Dead Sea), comes off as a stale reworking of a monumental installation by Christian Boltanski and does little to actually invite us into the political reality spoken of in the accompanying wall text. Oddly, Ai Weiwei contributed one of the best and one of the worst pieces in this exhibition. In 5,776 Photos Relating to Refugees, small, square images tile a large wall from floor to ceiling. According to the didactic, the artist wants to bring a personal, human dimension to the otherwise anonymous people displaced. But all images above 6 feet, at least half of the work, are impossible to see. The images we do see are overwhelmingly filled with Weiwei himself. I do not mean to downplay or discredit the amazing activist work Weiwei has done, but rather to question the power structures that operate through representations of vulnerable individuals and identities. Weiwei’s use of the camera echoes its history as a tool of Imperialism, turning people into props for narratives of privilege.
Richard Mosse Incoming
Richard Mosse Incoming
When I first entered Richard Mosse’s Incoming, the black and white imagery of this three channel projection seemed to repeat a similar imperialist perspective. The military-grade thermographic surveillance camera translated the forced migration of peoples between North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe into a high-contrast, silvery, ghost-like value structure. It’s uncanny, disturbing, amplified by the reduced speed and deep undulating soundscape. Capturing these people in the hardest moments of their lives feels exploitative. In the midst of people climbing from overcrowded inflatable rafts, the film cuts to a dark background with a single blurred but reflective object bobbing up and down. As specks of light float through the black frame, I imagine the camera underwater, a subject drowning like the thousands of innocent displaced lost. But after several enigmatic moments, the image solidifies, not underwater but in the sky: a military jet flying overhead. This sequence repeats through a series of brilliant white jets on a deep black background before redirecting its focus to the decks of an aircraft carrier. In this transitory moment, it becomes clear that the lens of Mosse’s camera acknowledges itself as a tool of imperialism and the Military Industrial complex. We are implicated through this lens; our tax dollars, our votes, our luxuries, even our comfort in sinking into a leather couch in this darkened gallery space facilitates this violence.
Guillermo Galindo Angel Exterminador/Exterminating Angel
A room dedicated to the ongoing collaboration between artists Guillermo Galindo and Richard Misrach redefines our border with Mexico as a space of trauma. Galindo’s two sculptures at the center of the exhibition, composed of material fragments of the wreckage of war and border violence, enact a poetics of division through assemblage. Misrach’s photographs depict spaces of trauma—the border wall cutting through a pristine landscape, a barrel labeled “agua” upside down in an expanse of sandy desert, four large x-shaped structures wearing hoodies, pants, and cowboy hats, which read as targets in a make-shift shooting range.
Richard Misrach Effigy #7, near Jacumba, California
Many aspects of this exhibition are directed towards narrating migration. These personal stories are critical means of bearing witness to violence and victims. However, the exhibition is most successful when the storytelling also examines how art and aesthetics function within the structures and forces of violence. The best works call our attention to aesthetic imperialism while the worst unknowing utilize its poetics. I feel fortunate to have seen this exhibition in Minnesota—Ritter’s contributions and curation elevate the exhibition’s engagement with the lingering aesthetic presence of imperialism and colonialism within our institutions.
When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration is on view through May 24th.