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Making things visible at Tate Exchange

What is the role of the gallery or museum in responding to the most urgent and pressing social and political crises of our time? 

Chrissie Tiller
20 November 2017
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‘Refugees Welcome’. Photo: Marcia Chandra. All rights reserved.What is the role of the gallery or museum in responding to the most urgent and pressing social and political crises of our time? Is it, as Okwui Enwezor, Director of Haus der Kunst suggests, about the power to ‘make things visible’ or does it have an even more active and critical role to play? In the digital exhibition ‘Crossing Borders’ – created in response to the blocking of certain immigrant groups into the US – MOMA presents the work of refugee artists who have migrated to the US over the past 100 years. The history of modern art, the museum proposes, is itself a "history of global turmoil, migration and transnational exchange". Yet the curator’s notes on the pieces selected says little about these artists as the displaced other than to tell us where they came from and the kind of art they make. 

One visitor, a proud Brexiteer, tells Mripa it is not ‘cultured and intelligent’ migrants like her who concern him.

In selecting artists who deliberately engage with issues of migration and the uprooted and displaced, 'Who Are We?' invites a more active and critical dialogue. In placing itself in Tate Modern, albeit on the 5th Floor of the new Tate Exchange space it also opens up the possibility of challenging the institution itself and the impossibility of remaining ‘neutral’ in these troubled times.

The invitation ‘Who Are We?’ makes to its audience is clear before we even enter the gallery. Alketa Xhafa-Mripa’s Refugees Welcome Luton truck, placed on Tate Modern’s forecourt, asks us to re-assess one of the iconic images of Europe today. Whilst Mripa’s truck is convivial and inviting, it is difficult for viewers not to be reminded of those others that crowd our media. Or what has changed since Mripa was welcomed when she arrived from Kosovo 20 years ago. What does it mean, now, to be invited to a direct encounter with "the other"? Climbing inside the van creates "a new perspective" for many. It’s "much smaller", "more claustrophobic", than expected. "Difficult to think it could be filled with people – or even bodies". One visitor, a proud Brexiteer, tells Mripa it is not "cultured and intelligent" migrants like her who concern him, but "those who have come since": "less well educated" and "more problematic". 

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Dead Reckoning. Photo: Marcia Chandra. All rights reserved.Entering the gallery itself, it is almost impossible not to be overwhelmed by Bern O’ Donoghue’s growing circle of paper boats, each bearing witness to those who have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean, although there have been visitors, she notes, who have "walked right through them". Her response to a question about responsibility is that it lies, "with all of us," discomforts some of her audience. Art and artists rarely answer back. But the capacity for this group of artists to challenge us and refuse to let us off the hook is one of ‘Who Are We?’s strengths. Not only are we prompted to ask questions; we are confronted with difficult answers. The boats as artefacts are inseparable from the reasons for their existence. 

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From a Distance. Photo: Marcia Chandra. All rights reserved.Our journey through the space is carefully but not prescriptively curated. Turning away from the boats, we are caught in the ‘corridor’ of oversized images – of a sleeping child and a black sea that make up Behjat Omer Abdulla’s From a Distance. Taking a terrible mistake on a refugee boat as its starting point, the piece asks us to question the resulting death of twin babies. Myth or fact, its metaphorical power is unquestionable: "sometimes these things are too massive to comprehend." Like a Greek tragedy, it resonates with each of us, making it difficult to respond simply as viewers. Under the sheet of black paint obscuring the names of those who have died in the artist’s family, we find our own.

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From a Distance. Photo: Marcia Chandra. All rights reserved.Asked to imagine questions for the perpetrators, we are invited to take part in an act of co-creation. Our post-it notes, written in Arabic as well as English, shift meanings. Implicated, as well as affected, ID style photos show people of different ages, genders and ethnicity: now as much part of the installation as the drawings of Behjat’s daughter sleeping, or the faded image of his father and uncles playing as boys in a river in Iraq.

The desk of computers, projection screens, flip charts and people with headphones, that makes up the Citizen Sense project, seems to announce itself as a space where art and science collide. We arrive at a Powerpoint presentation: the first slide presents a statement, a question and a suggested solution.

  • We have a crisis
  • What are we going to do about it?
  • Collaboration is the only way forward

It takes me a moment to realise the presenter is speaking not about humans, but European eels. Yet, as we are told how the sea claims most of their lives, 99.8% dying on the journey, the parallels become unnerving. Like humans, the eels are also being trafficked: hidden in the hold of ships, crammed into suitcases. There is big money to be made and they are at the mercy of human greed. The ‘unintended’ metaphor is a powerful one.

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There There. Photo: Marcia Chandra. All rights reserved.Placed beside this ‘laboratory’, There There's witty seaside amusement arcade appears to offer a more light-hearted approach:  children drawn immediately to its playfulness. But, if they are the ones ‘hooking the ducks’, trying to win a passport in a bucket or Spinning the Wheel of Benefit Rights, it is their parents who stop to note the list of jobs migrants have supposedly ‘stolen’. Mualem-Doron’s re-working of the Union Jack is equally political. An ironic echo of the flag in Mripa’s truck, this flag includes textiles and designs from former UK colonies – as well as the ethnic groups that make up the UK today. 

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New Union Flag. Photo: Gil Mualem-Doron. All rights reserved.Asking participants to create their own version in response to a series of questions, Doron is clear what matters most is the conversations that take place around the making. Two older women, agreeing in principle to a rejection of the Union Flag, still decide to have their photograph taken alongside it because "we’ve grown up with it and it feels more comfortable".

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Outside the Box. Photo: Marcia Chandra. All rights reserved.Work such as Sorvala’s Outside the Box and Nele Vos’ Citizenshop challenge our ideas in other ways. Sorvala undercuts prevailing stereotypes through a structure built from cardboard boxes where colourful graphic comic stories highlight small acts of kindness or solidarity. Audiences are "quietly moved" by, "the little personal details". "It gives you hope" a young woman in hijab notes. "It’s so easy to dismiss people and think the worst of them." Vos’ piece resonates with two young activists, "…because the state is the subject of the work and not refugees as such". Exploring citizenship as a commodity, her installation confronts our prejudices. Transforming us from consumers to co-producers, it takes our personal definitions of, ‘a good citizen’ and offers them up for inspection to those who come after. 

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Citizenshop. Photo. Marcia Chandra. All rights reserved.

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Weight. Photo: Marcia Chandra. All rights reserved.Ania Bas wonders whether her part of the gallery might have become ‘therapy corner’. Bas and Butler’s installation of the iconic brands that divide and unite a nation provokes questions of ‘national identity’ in a time when we seem most divided. The fact one of the brands equally respected is NSPCC surprises Brexiteers and Remainers equally. 

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Beyond the Babble. Photo: Marcia Chandra. All rights reserved.Scazzochio’s Beyond the Babble and DeDomenici’s Shed Your Fears build on this invitation to self-reflection. Both offer a certain amount of anonymity, asking us to consider what we are afraid of as well as what makes us who we are. In the first the questioner is out of view. Scazzochio prompts, pushes, gently encourages us to reveal a little more. We learn nothing of her but this is the contract. We share. She parks her assumptions. And we are allowed to speak without judgement, without interruption. It has a certain clarity and honesty. Both participants are invisible in DeDomenici’s ‘confessional’. A mother and sons are able to share things they haven’t done in ‘real life’. A child explains his fear of monsters with 16 eyes to an unseen listener. An artist finds a connection, through football, with her fellow confessee. A Brexiter who has come to ‘look around’ while his wife is at the theatre and now admits he is questioning his decision.

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Shed your Fears. Photo. Cathrin Walczk. All rights reserved.It is this constant interplay between the work, from the ironic to the moving, from works that are data-based to those that mingle myth and personal story that makes ‘Who Are We?’ so effective. As is the possibility to contextualise the debate. Whether through looking at the role of the gallery in Culture, Identity and the Contemporary Art Museum or asking How Are Arts Involved in Enacting Civil Rights?, there is an agreement from the three museum directors that their relationship with the contemporary world is always complex, especially when exhibitions have to be curated years ahead.

But Marta Gili, Director of the Jeu de Paume, wonders if museums can continue to ignore their social, economic and political contexts. Do they always need to search for consensus? Or is there space to engage with the antagonistic or disruptive? Okwe Enwezor, Director of Haus der Kunst in Munich, suggests one of the powerful roles they can play is in making things visible: highlighting the decision of Wellesley College to take away all the works made by migrant artists in response to Trump’s embargo on migrants, the gallery’s blank walls making the point more forcefully than anything else. 

The question of the role of the arts within civil rights brings up the increasing pressure artists sense of needing to compromise their politics. Partly as an act of self-censorship in response to an increasing need for private funding. Wondering whether this means artists giving up on their criticality, people speak of the increasing need for a more deep-rooted collaboration between artists, activists and institutions. The crucial role of initiatives like Tate Exchange in being able to invite people in and create space to continue to ask those difficult questions is highlighted. Which prompts me to wonder what might have happened if works like those in 'Who Are We?' had been curated alongside Wolfgang Tillmans’ critique of Blair, or Rauschenberg’s images of late 20th century political turmoil?  Juxtaposing both cause and effect and asking us, as O’Donoghue’s questioner does, where and with whom the responsibility lies. 

The feedback board captures the intensity of people’s reactions to the work. Testimony to the power art has to provoke us, raise difficult questions, to make us feel uncomfortable. And yet leave us sensing this has been a ‘positive’ as well as ‘important’ and ‘moving’ experience.  

Read here for a longer version of Tiller’s participant-observation review of Who Are We

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Who are We? Feedback Board. Photo. Cathrin Walczk. All rights reserved.

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy, The Open University and Counterpoints Arts to reanimate the Tate Exchange project in which academics and artists together ask who – during a time when the lines marking out citizens, borders and nations are being redrawn, or drawn more starkly – 'we' are, and who gets to decide.

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