Intelligent art often comes into its own when other social and institutional attempts fail to address political crises. The Mediterranean region, once the cradle of civilisation, has lately become a grave for thousands in flight from collapsed societies, and is the centre of the largest refugee crisis in our time. In Disappearance at Sea – Mare Nostrum, BALTIC (its very building lapped by tidal waters), has assembled a timely exhibition of ten projects by artists and other collaborators (including Amnesty International) which engages authentically, creatively and calmly with a deeply challenging subject.
Djorde Balmazovič, Škart collective and others present friezes of route-map commentaries relayed by asylum-seekers in Serbia, documenting the hardships of night marches, exploitation by traffickers and beatings by police, interspersed with reference to marriages, births and dreams of reaching Scandinavia. Tomo Brody’s video of testimonies in Calais shows only the interviewees’ expressive hand gestures, evoking a universal humanity that implicates us all.
Those who have not survived have an even stronger presence, whether in sculpture (Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen’s undersea film ‘End of Dreams’, 2015) or in forensic investigation (Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani’s ‘Death by Rescue’, 2016, which offers a disturbing account of state refusal to rescue boats as a ‘deterrent’ to further migrants). Other works include a clever ‘compassion index’ calculated from real-time news feeds (James Bridle’s ‘Wayfinding’, 2016), two images from Turner Prize winner Wolfgang Tillmans, and a virtual reality experience by ScanLAB Projects with Embassy for the Displaced (‘Displaced Witness’, 2016).
Metaphors emerge as one of the key ways in which the art can add value. Koraka’s lighthouse is designed to warn of danger but instead draws overloaded rafts to the rocks. Orange life-vests are designed to be visible for rescue but are worn by those desperately evading detection and sold as fake knock-ups as a way of fleecing refugees. A compass needle wavers with data-input, as though seeking an expedient escape route, whilst perhaps also questioning humankind’s sense of direction in these troubled times (the reduction of humanity to surveillance data forms a sub-theme, with echoes of the BALTIC’s recent programming of work by Hajra Waheed and Omer Fast).
Behind these works lies a sustained commitment by these artists to expose and give voice to refugee experience, framed by a sensitive curatorial understanding of the underlying issues. The exhibition has proved appropriate for visiting groups of schoolchildren, many of whom have engaged in deeply thoughtful ways with this ‘mature’ material. The art world plays a fundamental role in orientating society’s sensibilities on issues like these: not by aiming overtly to shift opinion (BALTIC skilfully avoids that trap), but by subtly expanding our moral literacy and simply ‘drawing attention’.
Disappearance at Sea: Mare Nostrum, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 27 January 2017 – 14 May 2017.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.
Image: Djorde Balmazovic and the Skart collective, ‘Maps’ (2013-2015). Courtesy of Mark Pinder/Meta-4.