Where Do We Migrate To

New York

at Sheila C. Johnson Design Center


Elevating transience to the status of universal, this touring exhibition, curated by Niels Van Tomme and organized by the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, presented work from an international array of artists and art groups variously concerned with the problem of migration.

Anchoring the exhibition were two large video projections offering synoptic takes on the migrant experience. Kimsooja’s A Needle Woman-Paris documents a 2009 performance undertaken on a crowded Parisian sidewalk. Embodying cultural disjunction, the video depicts the Korean-born artist standing statuesque, her back to the viewer, as a stream of predominantly European faces sweeps past her.

In Julika Rudelius’s Adrift (2007), mid-range and close-up shots capture a racially diverse group of men and women asleep in plastic chairs. The continuous jostling of the sleepers’ bodies suggests transit, but they appear to be seated in an ordinary institutional setting. For the figures in Rudelius’s video, as for many real world émigrés, the migratory journey begins and ends in the waiting room.

Unsurprisingly, a number of works deal explicitly with the theme of geopolitical boundaries. In Blane de St. Croix’s Landscape Sections: Borders: North Korea/South Korea (2007-10) and United States/Mexico (2010), areas of the two eponymous borderlands are meticulously re-created out of model-railroad-scale components and displayed on large rocklike pedestals. Seeing the border fences of the two regions reduced to a tiny ribbon of hand-cut mesh wire, one is reminded that the actual boundaries separating North from South, “us” from “them,” are themselves mere constructs.

Nicole Franchy’s video Ruricancho (2009) presents viewers with digitized aerial views of San Juan de Lurigancho, a region of the artist’s native Peru that has undergone surging population growth in recent years. As an ominous soundtrack plays through headphones, a superimposed animation traces the perimeters of individual plots of land. At the video’s conclusion, the landscape fades, leaving only the outlined borders-the map has replaced the terrain.

Many of the exhibition’s artworks benefited from the dialogues opened by their placement within the gallery. Adrian Piper’s Everything #4 (2004) is a memento mori in the form of a mirror engraved with the words “Everything will be taken away.” The poignancy of this simple statement was augmented as one caught
sight of the work of Xaviera Simmons reflected from the facing wall. Simmons’s Superunknown (Alive In The), 2010, is a grid of 42 photographic prints depicting makeshift seafaring vessels perilously overcrowded with migrant passengers, many of whom, one suspects, had nothing left to lose.

Intelligent curatorial decisions transformed what might have been a straightforward thematic survey into a thought-provoking examination of the discontinuities that persist in our steadily globalizing world. A neon sign in Arabic (Foreigners Everywhere, 2005) by the French collective Claire Fontaine was hung street-facing in the gallery’s ceiling-to-floor window, and a soundtrack of bustling traffic by New Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective was piped throughout the space. The suggestion was that the boundaries between inside and outside had collapsed: an optimistic gesture honoring those who seek to defy their sociogeographic fate.

[The exhibition travels to the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, June 30-Oct. 7, and the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts, El Paso, dates TBA.]

Photo: Xaviera Simmons: Superunknown (Alive In The), 2010, 42 C-prints on Sintra with brace, each 20 by 30 inches; in “Where Do We Migrate To?” at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center.