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The Restless Earth, curated by Massimiliano Gioni and organized by the Nicola Trussardi Foundation, was an ambitious exhibition that brought together more than sixty artists from over forty countries. It presented an exceptional ensemble of personal and collective works, which describe some of the most critical and debated issues of our society—migration, the current refugee crisis, and the phenomenon of globalization. The exhibition was on display at the Triennale di Milano Foundation, a center that explores the experimental languages of contemporary art, architecture, and design. The Restless Earth was displayed in a series of rooms, galleries, and corridors, which occupied two floors. These spaces took viewers on a journey that reconstructed a range of perspectives on twentieth- and twenty-first-century migration.
The curator chose works that express migrants’ experiences in different media, including video, installation, painting, sculpture, and archival representation. Photography, however, played the central role in addressing one of Gioni’s key curatorial aims, which he describes in the catalogue as presenting “an image that can convey the complexities of a dramatic situation without ending up in the usual forms of trivialisation and cynical sentimentality that we are normally fed by traditional channels of information” (312).
The cross-cultural dialogue and geographic themes that the exhibition developed were expressed by its title, which refers to Édouard Glissant’s collection of poems La Terre Inquiète. In his poems, Glissant analyzes the ways in which different cultures coexist within the constantly changing present. The exhibition opened with two engaging works by Pravdoliub Ivanov and Manaf Halbouni. Pravdoliub’s Territories (1995–2011) consists of ten, mud-covered national flags suspended from a wall. Although each flag represents one of the founding states of the European Union, they all appear identical due to their filthy state. This visual uniformity suggests two opposing interpretations. The first offers a sense of hope by suggesting that the divisions between nations can be erased, while the second suggests destruction, invoking in particular the mass graves of the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s. In so doing, the work reminds the viewer of the tragic consequences of the ethnic cleansing operations that arose from nationalism.
Positioned at the beginning of the first room, Halbouni’s Nowhere Is Home (2015) is part sculpture and part personal testimony. It includes a car packed with the artist’s personal belongings. The installation alludes to both Halbouni’s trip from Syria to Germany in 2008 to escape being conscripted into the Syrian army and his long-term, forced displacement. The discomfort and anxiety that the artist experienced while living in Germany during the rise of the German nationalist group PEGIDA, which organized anti-immigration and anti-Muslim demonstrations, provided the primary inspiration for the work.
The sea was present throughout the exhibition. Xaviera Simmons, Meschac Gaba, and Kader Attia reveal the Mediterranean’s dark side in their works. Once considered the center of civilization and a site of cultural interweaving, it has become both a threatening barrier and a watery gravesite for the thousands who recently died crossing it. Facing each other in a first-floor room, Simmons’s Superunknown (Alive in the) (2010) and Gaba’s Memorial for Drowned Refugees (2016), engaged the viewer in a visual dialogue, which in turn endowed both works with a deeper meaning. Simmons’s mural-size grid of forty-two found photographs from newspapers and magazines shows a series of close-ups of overcrowded migrant boats as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. The photographs’ narrow frame, which almost exclusively emphasizes the passengers, leaves the image of the sea to the viewer’s imagination. In so doing, it reinforces the notion, suggested by the title, that an unknown, foreboding factor is present. Superunknown (Alive in the) also alludes to the precarious status of migrants who have left their homes for life, their fate largely beyond their control. In front of Simmons’s work, Gaba’s Memorial for Drowned Refugees reenacts traditional funerary monuments from a contemporary standpoint. Made from a simple pile of blankets and a few lanterns, the installation symbolizes bereavement according to the funeral ritual that families in Benin perform when a loved one drowns at sea. The lamps provide a guiding light for the deceased’s lost soul, while the blankets keep her spirit warm. The memorial commemorates the seven thousand plus refugees who lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean. It also honors those who survived the crossing, as they too must mourn those they lost.
The sea as a site of disappearance is also the theme of Kader Attia’s monumental installation La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea) (2015), which greeted the visitor at the second floor entrance. Like Gaba, Attia relies on objects to symbolize the disappearance of people who died crossing the Mediterranean. The installation presented blue sweatshirts, jeans, T-shirts, and shoes. Strewn across the gallery’s floor, their various blue hues and contrasting textures formed a fabric sea. This evocative scene of empty garments alluded to the drowned bodies of vanished migrants. It also reminds the viewer of those absent migrants whose fate remains unknown, because their bodies were never found.
Gioni’s choice of Phil Collins’s How to Make a Refugee (1999), which was displayed on the first floor, clearly reflects the curator’s intent to insert a degree of criticism into the traditional iconography of the refugee. The video shows Collins filming a group of journalists photographing a family of refugees from Kosovo in their house. The journalists frequently interrupt the seemingly quotidian scene with constant adjustments to both the lighting and the family members’ poses. They devote particular attention to a young boy by encouraging him to reveal a scar on his abdomen. By highlighting the mass media’s common practice of constructing sensational images, Collins’s How to Make a Refugee warns the viewer against passively trusting media images. The provocative title also points to the media’s creation of a refugee stereotype, designed to provoke an emotional response.
In keeping with the question, “How does a refugee look?” another room on the first floor displayed a series of photographs and archival documents about early twentieth-century Italian migration. This display included Lewis Hine’s photographs of Italian immigrants waiting to be processed at Ellis Island as well as Augustus Sherman’s Ellis Island portraits of Italian women in traditional dress. The curator interestingly juxtaposes Adrian Paci’s video projection Centro di permanenza temporanea (temporary detention center) (2007) with Hine’s and Sherman’s photographs. Here Gioni creates a parallel between the sense of displacement and discomfort experienced by Italian migrants in the United States at the beginning of the century and the foreign migrants to Italy today. In so doing, he reminds the audience of the similarities between the challenges that today’s migrants in Italy face and those that migrant Italians once had to overcome. Paci’s video shows a group of men standing on a staircase on an airport runway, waiting to board a plane. When the camera zooms out, however, the viewer discovers that there is no plane, just a staircase to nowhere. The work reflects the uncertainty felt by the thousands of migrants being held in detention camps who are forced to comply with debasing bureaucratic processes while their legal status is being determined.
The second floor also hosted impressive installations related to this theme, including works by Alighiero Boetti and Mona Hatoum. Their works primarily investigate the influence of global geopolitics, with its fluctuating national boundaries, both in cartography and in people’s lives. While Boetti’s Mappa (1989–93)—a large embroidered world map created by refugee Afghan craftswomen in Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan war—connects an abstract form to a specific historical moment, Hatoum’s installation Map (1998) embodies the fragility and danger inherent to the borders between nations. Comprised of transparent glass marbles arranged across the floor in the shape of the seven continents, the composition is at once vulnerable and dangerous. Visitors could easily have crushed it with their feet; it could also cause them to slip and fall. As such, the installation acts as a metaphor for both the geopolitical consequences of migration and the precarious lives of refugees.
The bilingual English/Italian catalogue contains essays by curator Gioni, art historian T. J. Demos, and the sociologist Alessandro Dal Lago. Both Gioni and Demos address issues of national and cultural identity as well as questions about how contemporary art responds to the issues about social and political inequity that migration raises in contemporary society. Both essays attempt to shift the common perception of migration as a threat to host countries toward a new approach, which, following from Giorgio Agamben’s recent philosophical proposition, views migrants as historical and political agents. The Restless Earth marks an important step in contemporary curatorial work by raising some fundamental questions for our time: In the era of mass migration, does art still have a civil and social responsibility? What legitimizes its perspective when it exposes, documents, and interprets the historical fractures that are at the root of migration? Should the viewer step out from the space of mere aesthetic contemplation and move toward action? How might she do so?
Dodge Fellow and PhD candidate, Department of Art History, Rutgers University
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