On ViewMetropolitan Museum Of Art
December 11, 2015 – November 6, 2016
“All memory is individual, unreproducible—it dies with each person. What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened”
–Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
Deep within the labyrinthine halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, tucked within a makeshift darkroom, Phil Collins’s how to make a refugee (1990) asks hurried visitors to pause. Projected on the far wall loops an eleven-minute video depicting an adolescent boy, bored and baffled, in the midst of a hectic news photoshoot. The setting is a refugee camp during the Kosovo War, where the Albanian teenager becomes a prop for rushing journalists. In this look behind the scenes, Collins focuses on the production of images of war frequently transmitted by the media. The Met is rarely this politically bold: how to make a refugee is a raw look inside news media’s treatment of turbulences that challenges the role of both the documentarian and artist.
Phil Collins has long been recognized for causing debates with his critical, ironic large-scale projects. Examining identity—as presented, performed, and constructed—the Turner Prize nominee focuses on centers of conflict around the world. Like a deranged sociologist, he creates perplexing situations in these communities and documents their unfolding. He has conducted dance marathons in Palestine; Karaoke performances of the Strokes songs in Bogota, Istanbul, Jakarta, and Bunbury; hoax Hollywood screen tests in war-stricken Baghdad—and has even dabbled with reality TV in Iraq, Turkey, and Britain. Void of the entertaining controversies that distinguish his later works, how to make a refugee—his first video project—contains the self-conscious core of his practice: examining the polarized nature of image-making, desperately sympathizing and helplessly exploitive.
Seventeen years ago, the young artist, still in college at Belfast, had flown to the refugee camps in Skopje, Macedonia to see the Kosovo War in person. What he witnessed came to be the final stages of a crisis that had shaken the world and challenged the ideals of the New Europe throughout the 1990s. Much like the humanitarian disasters of today, the Balkan conflicts began as shifting political hierarchies unearthed ancient resentments, and evolved into a decade of war, unrest, and horror. It was to be remembered in history for putting in question photojournalism’s ability to cause action. Images of atrocities saturated the daily news for years and yet, the international community—lacking clear economical gain—turned its back. After almost a decade, the world was forced to react facing an undeniable ethnic cleansing of the region. Lacking Security Council approval, the West’s response—the NATO airstrikes in 1999—and its effectiveness remain debated. It was seventy-eight days into these bombings when Collins’s journey began. Facing the unfolding war, he focused on how its portrayal was being established by and for the West.
The artist holds his camera passively in a corner of a room and focuses on a boy—a skinny, bored teenager sitting on a couch and surrounded by mundane elements. It is all too normal. The initial and shocking banality becomes increasingly agitating. The low-angled frame is repeatedly disrupted by hasty photojournalists running around. Their voices, their questions and commands, remain incomprehensible. Objects are moved, added, and subtracted from the room. The boy is directed. He takes off his shirt, turns his cap, shows his scars. He talks briefly, a whole journey told in a matter of moments. He continues by showing his adolescent muscles. Gradually, this image of a refugee becomes more familiar. His family is brought into the scene. Cramped together, the large family are carefully arranged: an injured elderly man, old women with their headscarf, middle-aged working-class couples, and a handful of unkempt teenagers and children. Each element comes together within the frame and the boy, at first identifiably human, vanishes into the image. The cliché—Muslim, rural, peasant, poor—is accomplished. The subject is ready for consumption. The intended photographs are taken and, one by one, the subjects and the authors alike all leave the scene. Only the small room and its Eastern decoration remains. In Collins’s video, the journalist is no longer the much entrusted witness, neither is his subject honest evidence of human tragedies. All has been quietly disrupted and eclipsed by politics.
The video loops and loops in the enclaved room of the museum; the boy appears and fades into the familiar image. Though cynical at their core, Collins’s questions prevail today. The world faces yet another horrendous conflict and submits as the narrative is constructed and dictated. In a modern culture, obsessed with simplification, categorization, and naïve solutions, how to make a refugee mockingly protests that “refugee”—a hard, unfortunate, and temporary status—cannot contain a human’s identity or life.