Crossing Borders: Power and Violence in New York City Galleries

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 10:45
Oral Presentation
Susan BELL, Drexel University, USA
This paper considers two recent exhibitions that used artifacts and other tracings left by refugees when they crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa to Northern Greece and undocumented migrants when they crossed the Sonoran Desert from Mexico into Southwestern United States. Both combine objects (e.g., backpacks, clothing, prayer cards, boots and shoes, water bottles) with documentary films, stories, photographs, text, and other media to explore state violence, suffering and resistance.

“Laundromat” (2016) focuses on clothing, shoes and boots left behind when Idomeni refugee camp was closed and residents were forced to leave. Ai Weiwei and his team documented the camp’s closure and laundered the objects and displayed them at the Deitch gallery. The exhibition reflects the artist’s long-standing commitment to art and activism: to make art that speaks truth to power and hold states accountable for their violence, negligence, and authoritarianism. “State of Exception/ Estado de Excepción” (Amanda Krugliak and Richard Barnes, with Jason De Leon, at Parsons School of Design, 2017) focuses on a wall of more than 700 backpacks. Each was retrieved by anthropologist Jason De Leon after 2009, when he began a study of the border crossings in response to the US immigration enforcement strategy known as “Prevention through Deterrence."

This paper takes a comparative focus to look critically at how these contemporary artists and social scientists depict experiences, situations and social contexts of displaced people in contexts of power and violence. What stories and identities are carried in/by the exhibitions’ images of walls, water, and documentation practices? What relevance and responsibility do they have to contemporary politics in the Americas, Europe and Northern Africa? What risks do they take in reclaiming and transforming objects and stories in their efforts to understand and resist violence and suffering in crossing borders?