Can Art Respond Authentically to the Refugee Crisis? A Critical Overview from Greece

A World Not Ours
Group Exhibition
Art Space Pythagorion
831 03, Pythagoreio, Greece
August 5, 2016 – October 15, 2016
by Anthi Argyriou originally published at Art Slant
The case of Ai Weiwei
(Through haunting images…)

Last February 14,000 used orange life jackets were wrapped around the columns of the Konzerthaus in Berlin, turning the 19th century landmark into an eerie reminder of the ongoing plight of refugees. According to the International Organization for Migration, during the first six months of 2016 more than 3,000 people were drowned crossing the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time nearly 250,000 people arrived in Europe. Produced by the renowned Chinese visual artist Ai Weiwei, this may well have been the most pertinent artistic intervention addressing the refugee crisis. Locating his work in the heart of Europe, timing it to the highly publicized 66th Berlinale International Film Festival, he had every TV channel, newspaper, magazine, and website covering his installation.

On the same occasion, during a Cinema for Peace fundraiser, where he served as honorary president, Ai asked his high-profile guests to wear emergency thermal blankets, donate similar items to refugees, and also take some selfies, an idea which generated provocative, controversial images. A few weeks earlier, he had visited the island of Lesbos, one of the main points of entry for refugees and immigrants who cross the Aegean Sea in their passage from Turkey to Greece. His visit was fully covered by the Greek media creating mixed feelings, ranging from outrage to indifference, about the extent to which the dissident art star’s presence would be of any help to the worn out refugees or poor islanders.

Ai Weiwei’s life vest installation outside Konzerthaus in Berlin, February 2016. Photo via Flickr user mompl

No doubt, the re-creation of the three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi’s tragic photo did not make things better for Ai’s social outreach. The image of the infant’s lifeless body washed up near Bodrum, in Turkey, had become an icon for refugees’ suffering, shocking the world and pointing to crimes justified by EU policies denying safe passage to ravaged refugees; even in Greece, largely considered a receptive EU country, an enormous boder fence has been erected in the Evros region.

In the midst of this tragedy, Ai Weiwei published a picture of himself lying on a Lesbos beach in a pose similar to that of the drowned boy. His gesture of appropriation sparked fierce reactions from people accusing him of making a parody of Alan’s death in a frenzy of opportunism and egotism. Social media overflowed with scathing comments, and many accused the Chinese artist of blatantly cashing in on refugees’ devastation. The dispute over the moral aspect of art engaged with the refugee crisis had reached its peak.

Ethical concerns are often regarded as irrelevant—or even unworthy—to the noble task of art criticism. This essay takes as its underlying assumption that arts practices should be examined and discussed across multiple registers, be they aesthetic or formal; historical, contextual, or cultural; or, in the case of the present analysis, ethical and political. How are artists, curators, and institutions handling the refugee crisis as it arrives at Greek shores? Are there limits to their value and efficacy? Might new models for engagement emerge from this crisis?

Documenta and the Athens Biennale
(Perhaps we could learn…)

The case of Ai Weiwei was not the first incident that brought Greece into the spotlight of international art discourse in recent years. His artistic response to the challenges facing refugees and the Greek nation, as well as some of the critical refrains he’s faced, are predated by similar grappling from prominent arts institutions.

In October 2014, the team of Documenta announced the overarching themes and the location of its 2017 edition at the symposium “documenta 14, Kassel: Learning from Athens,” held at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kassel. The new structure introduced an interesting shift of roles since Documenta would no longer be (just) the host for international art in Kassel, but it would also act as a guest in Athens.

Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk explained this decision, arguing that the ongoing political, financial, and social turmoil registered in this specific geopolitical territory is something which must be re-examined by artists, curators, and visitors alike. In his own words,

If Athens exemplifies the current issues that extend beyond the proverbial notion of the “Greek Crisis,” these problems—which are as much European and global as they are Greek—remain unresolved. Yet they present us with an opportunity to open up a space of imagination, thinking, and action…

In an attempt to forestall critique, Szymczyk rushed to stress the equal position that the two locations will hold, highlighting the dynamic between them and focusing on the mutual exchange of knowledge and cultural production Documenta aims to foster. Leading up to the openings in April 2017 (Athens) and June 2017 (Kassel) is a three-year working period delineated as an ongoing process of learning, involving local communities and cultural producers in both locations.

From the start, Documenta acknowledges the tension between the North and the South, so prevalent in the political and economic arena, proposing a twist of this proverbial status quo: artists and art collectives will be asked to suggest artworks for both venues, taking into account the respective conditions and stereotypes of the socio-political realities experienced first-hand. This tricky engagement of a well-established opposition could easily relapse into a blunt corroboration of the binary model “Rich North versus Poor South,” enhancing the very concept it strives to counteract. Surely, the elimination of such perilous slips is a hard task when an art show—especially of the scale and influence of Documenta—ventures to intervene in the shifting realities of the current state of (not only Greek but definitely European and perhaps global) crisis.

“Art tourism” or long-term commitment? Appropriation or a unique chance for an under-recognized art scene to attain visibility? Institutional marketing strategy?—the coming months will tell. For now, local artists who have not been in contact with the Athens curatorial team maintain a sceptical stance. Despite their strong interest in the pressing issues of crisis and refugee flows, many artists and curators avoid straightforward references, instead approaching the subjects in a metaphorical or abstract manner. See for instance the forthcoming Thessaloniki Biennale (September 2017) which has just announced “Home” as its central concept, or the Action Field Kodra visual arts festival (of which this author was formerly co-curator), titled “Error” in June 2015, as the debt crisis, the referendum, and the subsequent capital controls stunned the country (and the rest of Europe).

The question of who is telling the story in the name of whom emerges as the core issue at stake.

Another major player in this conversation is the ten-year-old Athens Biennale, the leading contemporary art biennale in Greece. The curatorial team has dedicated its current edition to alternative economies’ models, calling it OMONOIA (concord). At the same time, the Athens Biennale attempts to question the very institution of biennales by extending its activities over a two-year period, bringing its 2015 and 2017 editions into one single project, which will reach its peak in June 2017 “with the opening of Documenta 14.”

The Athens Biennale’s effort to involve collectives and initiatives from the socio-political field met bewilderment instead of enthusiasm, with some accusing the team of taking advantage of a community they have never been in touch before. In other words, they were criticized for using the struggles and hardships of unprivileged subjects from a privileged position. As such responses circulated in private conversation across the insular world of Greek arts professionals, the public at large, with bigger things to worry about, was hardly aware of the controversy—or of any of the Athens Biennale or Documenta’s acclaimed novelties. Once again, the encounter between the art world and the world around it proves to be a contentious matter. The question of who is telling the story in the name of whom emerges as the core issue at stake.

Miwon Kwon’s critique of site-specific art coupled with Hal Foster’s examination of the famous “artist as ethnographer” paradigm, have showcased the manifold controversies of contemporary artistic practices that aspire to keep up with the feverish fluidity of the globalized world. In this already bleak context, pressing issues of our time have pushed the “privileged versus the wretched” paradigm into the heart of Europe in a way that is absolutely unremitting for those who follow the social and political unrest.

By entering this discussion, I hope to tease out those initiatives which focus on raising awareness and empowering the vulnerable subjects, instead of getting “solidarity credits” for their own profit. This remark should not be interpreted as a plea for activist art; giving voice to the voiceless often implies a subtle approach which grants space for their stories and treats them with respect, rather than reproducing cliché representations. No doubt, besides giving space and voice, artistic practices at times also manage to dismantle dominant rhetoric and reveal intrinsic power relations, highlighting the causes of forced displacement and its aftermath. It is precisely in these cases where aesthetic form, content, and socio-political impact finally converge and art reaches its full potential. Whether Documenta 14 and the Athens Biennale, in digging into the institutional critique toolbox, will achieve this potential remains to be seen.

An insightful index in this complicated analysis might be the “talking” subject—that is, the artist or curator’s—position and no doubt his or her association with the actual story’s subjects—be they refugees, victims of the economic meltdown, or any other kind of vulnerable Other. At this juncture, it seems to me that the only prerequisite one should rightfully demand, is for an artist, curator, or institution to abstain from glaring piggy-backing onto human tragedy by contributing to media overexposure and provocative imagery that could insult rather than commemorate the victims.

Fortress Europe, 2016, Short film, Cinematographic Team of Evening High School of Kos, Directed by Sotiris Palaskas

But, as in any complex conversation, there aren’t always clear answers with regards to what is respectful and successful, and what is not. Personal or familial history with subject matter can enhance one’s engagement, but an insistence on it can result in discounting artists who do not share the migrant or refugee experience. A long-term interest and commitment is a clear indication of honest intentions, but there have been respectful and affective responses to the refugee crisis from multiple distances and time periods. Close to home, there is the acclaimed Fortress Europe, an arresting short film by the Cinematography Team of the Evening High School in Kos. Further afield we find Georgia Lale’s performance project #OrangeVest carried out in numerous landmarks in the United States. Be it too close or too far from the turmoil, in both cases there is proof one can make a strong statement.

Towards a different paradigm?
(That this is a world not ours)

The exhibition A World Not Ours opened at the start of this month in another landing point for refugees, the Greek island of Samos. Curated by the internationally celebrated Katerina Gregos and organized in Art Space Pythagorion by the Schwarz Foundation, this is probably the first largely known case of an exhibition which looks at the migrant crisis in such a clear yet multifaceted way. Balancing between the local and the global, A World Not Ours is also an exhibition about diaspora, identity, and the existential limbo of the displaced. Gregos introduces the exhibition thusly:

Given the highly charged location, it is vital that an art exhibition here should address this situation, which has been an unremitting reality on the island, and a pressing, unresolved issue for the whole of Europe. The exhibition focuses on the issue of the refugee crisis and forced migration by bringing together a group of artists, photographers, filmmakers and activists who offer different reactions, reflections, and analyses on the subject. Bringing together diverse practices from installation, performance, photography, film, video and photojournalism, the participants in the exhibition largely transcend one-sided and standardised media representations of the crisis (mostly consisting of rickety boats and images related to the perilous sea crossing) and look into the before and after [of] this dramatic moment.

There follows a meticulous and insightful analysis of the media coverage, the geopolitical shifts, and the finances and politics associated with the war in Syria and the forced migration of millions of people. Europe’s role is thoroughly examined with no indulgence granted to the newly sensitized audiences.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan, and Ben Rubin, in collaboration with Stewart Smith and Robert Gerard Pietrusko, Exit, 2008–2015

A central piece in the exhibition structure is an immersive video and audio installation titled Exit. It was created by American artists and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with architect-artist Laura Kurgan, statistician-artist Mark Hansen, and media artist Ben Rubin. Based on a question by Paul Virilio—“What is left of our native land?”—the installation visualizes the current migration flows as well as their causes and consequences on a global scale. Informed by data from over 100 sources, Exit showcases huge population displacements, either for political and financial reasons or environmental ones.

Perhaps most interesting is that a number of participating artists have themselves experienced similar traumatic events. Their practices are juxtaposed with the exploitative paradigm, which Gregos denounces from the start:

In the contemporary art world, the refugee crisis has unfortunately engendered opportunism, with some rushing in to profess their engagement by producing facile one-liners and generating publicity for their own sake. This exhibition, rather, includes artists who opt for a nuanced way of working with these highly sensitive issues, who stay under the radar, working with discretion, thoughtfulness and beneficence. Many of the participants come from the Middle East or south-eastern Europe, from countries that have experienced war, trauma, exodus and perilousness first hand.

Courtesy Yanni Behrakis/Reuters

Yannis Behrakis’ photographs offer a documentary strategy in representing the refugee crisis. A Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who has worked for Reuters since 1987, Behrakis moved back to Athens in 2010 in order to cover the financial crisis, only to find out that in 2015 the migration flows would flood the Greek coastline. Striking images of high aesthetic value register world-shaking events and moments of extreme emotional tension, inciting effortless, spontaneous feelings of empathy. Behrakis’ photographs are projected on a large screen. Reflecting their intended context, newspaper headlines and printed-out webpages featuring his work are presented in an adjacent vitrine.

Outside the exhibition space visitors find the Hungarian-Syrian artist Róza El-Hassan’s Adobe House. This type of mud brick house was common in villages of northern Syria and according to the artist, the simple, high-dome “adobe” was also how her ancestors used to live. El-Hassan contemplates the rebuilding of Syria, proposing an elementary type of eco-architecture derived from thousands of years of local craftsmanship. For the construction of her Samos installation she used local materials and collaborated with local builders, passing on the Syrian craft to a new region and generation—speaking to the movement of knowledge that parallels the movement of bodies across the globe.

Ninar Esber, Torso II, 2016, Installation view of A World Not Ours, Schwartz Foundation. Photo: Panos Kokkinias

Ninar Esber, born in Beirut, shows an outsized shiny necklace in the text-based work Torso II; the sculpture, made of polished-brass mirror, reports the names given by US, Israeli, French, and British militaries to their operations in the Middle East since 1948: “Infinite Justice,” “Grapes of Wrath,” and “Peace for Galilee” are just a few examples. Playing on the stark contradiction between form, signifier, and signified, Esber highlights powerful countries’ sanguinary interventions in sensitive geographical areas and thus points to their often under-recognized share of responsibility.

The exhibition dares to take a straightforward look and at the same time make a subtle statement about the highly sensitive issue of the refugee crisis. Other artworks illustrate family stories related to Greek refugee flows during the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922, such as Marina Giwti’s Saint Marina, or comprise interviews of present-day refugees, as in the case of work by Sallie Latch, a self-taught American artist, activist, and volunteer in Samos. The show thinks deeply about the optics and ethics of representing and responding artistically to trauma and crisis. And with public screenings, guided tours, and educational programs, A World Not Ours makes it clear that it means to become a part of locals’ everyday life. Nevertheless, it is unable to answer whether it is those islanders on Samos who need to be engaged, policy makers in Brussels and across Europe, or the eyeballs of social media users around the world.

In this essay I have outlined prominent artworks and exhibitions on the refugee and political crises in Greece in order to open up some space for discussion, while omitting exploitative visual representations (e.g., Ai Weiwei as a dead child or Charlize Theron donning an emergency blanket). These examples can hopefully help us formulate and better understand some criteria of artistic, social, and political evaluation for artistic and curatorial practices developed in this growing corner of the art world. As the problem persists, viewpoints and positions shift: solidarity rises among common people who are fully aware that their own ancestors may have come from far away fleeing some untold calamity; at the same time, far right xenophobic rhetoric seeks to exploit fears and tensions intensified by crisis.

In such circumstances, it no doubt takes a great deal of sensitivity, modesty, and self-reflection to touch upon human tragedy without leaving yet another terrible imprint on it. And while many artists and cultural practitioners genuinely strive to come to grips with harsh reality, some can only make an aesthetics of horror from it. Art is unlikely to change the world, but it can definitely reflect our ideals of making it a more humane place to live in. Instead of drawing conclusions about a phenomenon that is very much ongoing and evolving, I quote here the final lines from an episode of Juice Rap News:

“Some day, historians will look back and
label this
The age of mass displacements, and
assess how we handled it.
Will they condemn our blindness;
or celebrate our vision and humanity?
That’s up to us in the present, where
History is Happening.”

—Immigrants! Featuring Donald Trump and Tony Abbott, 2015,
Juice Rap News #34, presented in A World Not Ours

—Anthi Argyriou

Anthi Argyriou is a curator and art theorist based in Thessaloniki, Greece. She has curated exhibitions in museums, visual art festivals and art galleries, while she has also coordinated educational programs and international conferences in Amsterdam and Thessaloniki on issues of cultural theory and contemporary artistic practices.

(Image at top: Courtesy Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

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