Gimme Shelterby Michelle Standley
Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter
MoMA | October 1, 2016 – January 22, 2017
Standing in the gallery space devoted to Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter, I could hear the persistent, determined whirr of power tools. Where was the sound coming from? Was it part of the show? Hard to discern given the busy phone signals, electrical pulses, and bird calls emitting from Reena Saini Kallat’s Woven Chronicle (2014), a world map constructed from telephone cables and electrical wires. As I discovered, however, the sounds of construction were coming from overhead. MoMA is building an additional 50,000 square feet of gallery space, a project that its publicity department has summed up as “Building for the Future: A Work in Progress.” The soft drones of communication devices intermingled with the angry hum of drills and jackhammers, producing an unsettling cacophony.
Only later did it occur to me that that odd mixture of discordant noises was like the exhibition’s unintentional soundtrack, and spoke more eloquently to the contradictions of our present historical moment than anything on display in the show itself. For Insecurities is not so much an art or design exhibition, or even a proposition, as it is a public service announcement, aimed at drawing attention to the refugee crisis. It fails to recognize how a shared commitment to modernity, as represented by construction projects executed in the name of “progress,” is part of what has led to such unprecedented levels of economic inequality, political instability, and violence. Driven by faith in endless growth and expansion, achieved through science and technology, global elites have shown little regard for the human costs involved, viewing individuals almost as commodities, or entries to include in their statistical analyses and construction of broader categories to be recorded in a ledger. Though well-meaning in its intent to heighten awareness of the refugee crisis, Insecurities, contributes to the problem by objectifying the very people it seeks to help.
The problem begins with the wall-sized photograph of bright orange life vests just outside the entrance. The life vests make an attractive, rather benign, visual representation of the crisis. Not linked to any individual or particular time and place, they are mere objects of aesthetic fascination that, like Ai Weiwei’s similarly facile piece in Berlin, in which he covered the columns of Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 life vests, reducing the lived, harrowing experience of those desperate enough to traverse potentially treacherous waters to easily aestheticized, disembodied objects.
The issues continue inside with the show’s awkward mixture of designed objects produced by non-profit organizations for refugee camps and artworks produced by artists representing the experience of refugees to outsiders. Here, material artifacts, such as a large steel-frame tent in the center of the room—Emergency Temporary Shelter (2010) produced by Better Shelter in cooperation with IKEA—or a nearby plastic jug—Water Container (undated) produced by UNICEF United Nation’s Children’s Fund—float freely, unmoored from any historical, geographic or political context. The decision to present them as art objects, with labels that highlight the maker and year but little else, encourages visitors to focus their attention solely on the objects, as if there were no links between their production and the need for them.
More troubling than the presentation of the material artifacts, is the way that the featured artworks present “the displaced” as one broad category, and as objects either of fascination or of pity. Two representative examples are Xaviera Simmons’s Superunknown (Alive In The) (2010), a series of found photographs of refugees on life rafts and boats, and Tiffany Chung’s finding one’s shadow in ruins and rubble (2014), roughly one dozen light boxes featuring eerily beautiful found photographs of bombed cities—ruin porn—largely void of people. In both of these works, the faces of the refugees are regrettably invisible; they are mere objects of an outsider’s voyeuristic or aestheticizing gaze.
But it is not only the works featuring photography that are problematic; consider Submarine Channel’s Refugee Republic (2014), an interactive web platform and map projected on the floor that gives a tour of a refugee camp in Iraq. It is peppered with comments like “THIS AREA FEELS LONELY IT’S STILL ALL BROKEN UP” or “All 6 Schools Look Identical (Boring).” This might be what struck the Dutch visitors, but might a “lonely” or “boring” space be perceived by someone who lives there as “private” or “reassuring”? It is not possible to know because not one identifiable individual, someone with a name and face who actually lives there, is included. It is instead a guide to an exotic locale, made for and by outsiders, that reinforces the unfortunate anonymity of those living there, and makes it all the easier to conceive of them as part of a mass or mere statistic.
A notable exception is Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan’s The Incomplete Thombu (2011), a book that records the voices of those displaced by the Sri Lankan civil war (1983 – 2009). Shanaathanan asked them to draw from memory a map of their former homes, which he includes in the book alongside short interviews. The results are vivid, highly subjective, accounts that allow the voices of the displaced to emerge. Even if they are not wholly in control—after all Shanaathanan conceived of and organized the project—the Sri Lankan refugees at least participated in the construction of their highly personal narratives, not as mere objects or representatives of “the displaced,” but as individuals.
Insecurities is a show with a big heart and good intentions. While it perhaps succeeds on one level, broadcasting to MoMA’s visitors news of the most massive level of human displacement in history, it neglects to overcome the very boundaries it purports to contest: the gap between “us” and “them.”