Powerful art accounts for nuance and variance

Powerful art accounts for nuance and variance
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Immigration and the United States are not a new duo. According to the Migration Policy Institute, immigrants made up between 13 and 15 percent of the U.S. population from around 1860 to 1915. 

Things changed in 1924 with the passing of the Immigration Act. This resulted in the percentage of immigrants to steadily decline with a nadir of around 5 percent. We saw change once again in 1965 with a new act that reversed that decline — the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Immigration rates began to rise once again bringing us to the current day claim that this rise is now becoming historic. Technically we have not yet superseded the immigration population percentage of 1890. Americans are not living in unprecedented times in relation to immigrants.

This concept does not marry well with our national leaders’ stance on immigration. Blaring headlines calling for the building of a Mexico-U.S. border wall are only one facet of the president’s approach noted for harsh language and extreme policies triggering sentiments of crisis.

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So what happens when an exhibition about displacement in the nation’s capital during this time is shown? Can it be anything other than an agenda for the furthering of a specific political position in relation to its topic? Absolutely. But, not easily. 

Such an exhibition, “The Warmth of Other Suns Stories of Global Displacement,” is currently on view at the Phillips Collection and takes on the issue of displacement with a refreshingly wide lens. 

While the co-curators of this exhibition — Natalie Bell and Massimiliano Gioni of the New Museum — were asked to curate an exhibition about displacement in conversation with the Phillips’ well known holding of American artist Jacob Lawrence’s "Migration Series," the exhibition was not to be a deep dive on one specific occurrence of U.S.-Mexico border tensions. 

This exhibition was meant to be a panoramic representation of global sentiments towards forced movement.

“The Warmth of Other Suns” is one of the most ambitious exhibitions to date for the institution, showing the works of 75 artists from across the globe. 

Merging the contemporary and the historical the exhibition reveals displacement in conceptual and literal ways, focusing on the journeys of reshaping cultural identities in foreign lands. 

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Yet, “The Warmth of Other Suns” did not go unscathed in its political ripple effects. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) initially rejected the ad campaign for the exhibition. In WMATA’s opinion, the exhibition and its associated campaign “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions” as well as the fact that it “intended to influence public policy.” That kind of campaign is prohibited by their rules.

varying opinions” as well as the fact that it “intended to influence public policy.” That kind of campaign is prohibited by their rules.* 

Perhaps WMATA was not far off. Titling his Washington Post review of the exhibition “This D.C. exhibition should be seen by everyone concerned about the migrant crisis”, Sebastian Smee dove headfirst into propping up his commentary along activist lines. Phillips Collection Director Dorothy Krosinski also said, “We are proud to be at the forefront of dialogue around these important and timely issues in the U.S.” Words like “concerned”, “crisis”, “important”, and “timely” synergize to feel fully political. 

However, seeing an exhibition out of concern for a social fact, or being at the helm of a public conversation is not equivalent to being a champion for specific policies. 

WMATA’s choice reveals a one-dimensional understanding about what exactly art can do at any one time and place. An understanding that actively delegitimizes arts ability to deepen societal consciousnesses in relation to timely challenges

WMATA’s perspective is founded in an important, and flawed, baseline assumption: The collective context in which an exhibition is held trumps the messages in an individual piece of art.

Powerful art accounts for nuance and variance. Powerful art is not didactic and straightforward. The manifestation of an entire exhibition immediately becomes more than a topical byline. It becomes an occasion for holistic learning that when done expertly naturally crosses any and all kinds of isles. 

Both the context of the exhibition and the artworks in the exhibition exert equal agency in shaping a space for learning.  The Warmth of Other Suns is a perfect example.

Decision-making based on a sloppy conflation of the individual art object and the context in which it is seen will rob society of experiences for empathy building. 

For example, take the video installation piece Don't Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River (Strait of Gibraltar, Morocco-Spain) by Francis Alÿs. To view the work, one must walk underneath a wooden structure with bluish-green lighting that houses two large screens, placed across from one other. 

Playing on the two screens is a film showing a line of children holding boats made of shoes and other recycled materials. The children — of varying skin tones — are walking, single file, into the Strait of Gibraltar. Things seem odd, but fun and innocuous nonetheless. Perhaps a group of schoolchildren are testing out a project they made in school. The water is shallow and the children are all tall enough to safely enjoy themselves.

The film begins at a bird’s eye view to appreciate the singularity of the entire line of children amongst the limitless teal undulations of the sea. The sleek minimalist composition is gorgeous. As the children continue to walk into the sea, the film switches to eye level. The water soon becomes the dominating force. We can hear the chattering of the children as they continue onwards. The water is rising beyond hip-height and the splashes of the water hit the camera lens. The scene goes in and out of clarity and at this point we can no longer see entire bodies but instead bits and pieces, only as the water allows. 

The screens are not synchronized and it becomes chaotic to try and keep up with the images on both. As a viewer, we have to choose where to give our attention. The camera then moves underwater. Silence. 

The voices and splashing are gone. It’s an eerie sense of peace because while the lack of sound is relaxing and the color of the clear water hypnotic, we know we are underwater where we can’t breath. Is this a calming respite, or the end? The camera then reemerges and the chaos returns. We don’t know where the children are, or if they are in fact still in a line. Some boats have lost their owners. The film continues on like this — rising and falling, loud and soft, left and right. 

Through an expert manipulation of time, sound, size, and composition Alys brings us from a place of controllable peace to a place of chaotic helplessness. Through the innocence of a line of children at sea, Alys showcases this sea as a double-faced entity. Tapping into the universal sentiment of beachside relaxation he upends that calm with a surrealist scenes that disintegrates into confusion and loss. 

He leaves us to sit in our discomfort, forcing us to embrace it as our new normal. We of course can walk away from this when we want.  Perhaps the thought that not everyone can crosses our mind.

Now, these observations are not made to insinuate that critiques of artworks regarding a global crisis fall simply according to creativity points. Many could argue that we should not care so much about the creativity of the piece if it brings awareness to large audiences about a social issue plaguing our time. 

It is this nature, as shaped by artistic quality evident in so many of the works shown in “The Warmth of other Suns,” which will ultimately determine the making of a measurable impact. 

Juliana Biondo is the assistant curator of the World Bank Group Art Program. With an MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art and a BA from Yale. She also lead the development of the Vatican Museums first ever app to combine instant chat technology with art historical learning. She has researched cultural diplomacy for the U.S. Department of State ART in Embassies, and consulted on communications strategies for the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM).