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Without Walls: From the Frigid Arctic to Ethiopia’s Blistering Afar Triangle, Artists Test Their Muscle and Mettle

Julian Charrière, The Blue Fossil Entropic Stories I, 2013.


Equipped with a blowtorch and propane tank, Julian Charrière stood atop the jagged Icelandic peak, vainly trying to melt the stubborn ice. Accompanied only by an Icelandic rescue team member and a photographer, Charrière, who had trained for a week preparing for the frigid climb, patiently worked at the iceberg for eight hours. Some sort of heroic rescue mission? No, just another extreme trip in the oeuvre of the 29-year-old artist.

Such far-flung exploits are typical of Charrière’s practice and aesthetic; he has traveled the globe, from the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia to the Canadian Arctic Circle, and usually accomplishes his mission. In this case, though, the point wasn’t so much actually to melt the ice, but to document a futile effort of man against nature. The result was a photographic series, titled “Blue Fossil Entropic Stories,” consisting of four pictures—a striking triptych and a majestic single shot. “I never imagined that I’d be able to melt the iceberg. The obvious failure was part of the process, as if I were Sisyphus,” he said. “The work is actually capturing this inherent absurdity.”

Not every artist goes to such lengths to realize his or her vision. But artists of all stripes have always used their work to express their worldview, some more literally than others. While President Trump’s much-contested travel ban, not to mention his ongoing threats to build a wall between Mexico and the United States, have cast a serious pall over the Western world’s assumption of the freedom to roam (a freedom not granted to much of the globe), these serious challenges have sparked a dramatic response to limitations on that freedom, from legal actions to widespread protests to creating art.

Issues of boundaries—and the liberty to cross them—are pervasive in the modern world. Hordes of refugees continue to flee war-torn countries across shifting borders, from the Balkans to Syria. And the growing concern about the impact of global warming on our planet has become an impetus to explore areas undergoing rapid ecological and environmental change—before they disappear and it is too late even to document them.

This urgent situation has not been lost on artists, who also journey in their minds and have always responded creatively to their surroundings, whether far-flung, local, or imagined. Some have focused primarily on the physical tools of travel, like globes and maps, integrating them into their work. Others have used the destination itself as inspiration—or even as a medium. And still others have emulated geographical explorers of old, putting themselves at physical risk by venturing into remote extremes—the Antarctic or the African desert—for both subject matter and inspiration. Then there are those for whom the process of the journey itself is the point of the artwork.

A portrait of Francis Alÿs in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2012.


In the 1990s, long before Donald Trump’s harsh vision of a U.S.-Mexico wall, Francis Alÿs created a piece called The Loop. Having been invited to participate in a show taking place simultaneously in Tijuana and San Diego, he traveled through Chile, Australia, Hong Kong, Anchorage, Vancouver, and Los Angeles to avoid the dangerous border-crossing risked by illegal Mexican immigrants. As Alÿs observes today, “I prefer not to comment on The Loop (1997)—circumnavigating the globe to go from Mexico to the States . . . If anything, I doubt that, in today’s state of things, it would be any easier to cross the northern border to enter the States.”

Alÿs’s practice is essentially nomadic; almost all his work involves travel or geography: pushing an ice block through Mexico City (Sometimes making something leads to nothing, 1997); using an army of laborers to move a sand dune four inches in Lima, Peru (When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002); or, famously, walking from Jerusalem along the so-called Green Line created in armistice talks following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, carrying a can of leaking green paint to retrace this boundary (The Green Line, 2004).

Few artists are as peripatetic, or as “poetic/political, political/poetic” (to crib Alÿs’s own statement regarding The Green Line). The Belgian-born artist has been, literally, all over the map. Starting in 1999, he began an ongoing project taping children’s games in numerous countries, including Mexico, Afghanistan, Jordan, Venezuela, Belgium, France, and Morocco. In Reel/Unreel, made in Kabul, Afghanistan, between 2011 and 2014, two children chase a can of unraveling film through a region still actively engaged in war. Alÿs readily inserts himself into war zones, both historic and current: from Afghanistan in 2013—where he was embedded (officially) with the British Army in Shawqat and (unofficially) with the Taliban in Herat, and videotaped a soldier from each side assembling arms (Sometimes Doing is Undoing and Undoing is Doing)—to the now peaceful Turkish/Armenian border (The Silence of Ani) in 2015.

Most recently he was at the epicenter of one of today’s most fraught geopolitical regions: the front line in Mosul, in northern Iraq, documenting the military offensive against Isil. The resulting work, commissioned by the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq, is being shown at the 57th Venice Biennale.

Installation view of “Ai Weiwei: Laundromat,” 2016, at Deitch Projects, New York.


Ai Weiwei, famous for his art as a political dissident, knows the refugee life firsthand. When he was a child, his father, a poet and activist, was exiled along with his family to a labor camp in a remote area of China. “I grew up in a condition similar to that of a refugee. Later in life, I was arrested and secretly detained for 81 days, and then lived under soft detention for years, where I was forbidden from freely traveling,” he wrote in an email.

Ai’s passport was confiscated in 2011. When it was returned in 2015, he traveled to refugee camps in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. In Greece, he camped out with 15,000 Syrian refugees living in temporary tents in Idomeni, and photographed their hand-washed clothes, poignantly hung to dry on the border fence. When the refugees were forced to leave the camp, abandoning most of their belongings, Ai used the clothing itself in an art installation. Exhibited at Jeffrey Deitch Projects in November 2016, “Laundromat” comprised 2,046 items of discarded clothing along with numerous pairs of shoes. Carefully washed and ironed, the ghostly garments, from baby clothes to adult outerwear, were hung on racks; above them, multiple rows of many-size shoes lined a platform. A video loop of a day at the Idomeni camp before it was demolished played on one wall of the gallery.

As Ai observed about the piece, “Art is a way to show people we are the same. Humanity is one whole. We can understand the fear. We share the same desire to find better hope for our own lives and [those] of our children. People can communicate and share these feelings better through art.” He and his team are currently working on a documentary following the stories of different refugees. So far, they have filmed in Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Gaza, and Kenya; trips are planned to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Mexico.

Sometimes it is the earth itself that tells a story. Charrière, based in Berlin, has traveled to several “post-nuclear landscapes”—radioactive testing sites in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan (a region called the “nuclear polygon”), and the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean—to create haunting images of tainted grounds. He used Kazakhstan’s radioactive soil and Bikini’s contaminated sand to expose the photographs in his series “Polygon” and “First Light.”

Julian Charrière, Romeo-First Light, 2016.


“I am really interested in these kinds of landscapes,” Charrière said. “Human beings become very strong geological forces and leave an imprint. In a few hundred thousand years, you will be able to record the actual isotopes, like cesium 137, that have been left behind by nuclear testing and accumulated into the earth’s crust. That’s what motivates me to go to these places. They also have a strange kind of aura, which is very traumatic and bound with tragic stories, but also is phantasmagoric, because they are really remote and really secret.” Sometimes, he continued, he has an idea and is “seeking a place to implant it.” Other times, the strategy is “to find an interesting place without having any ideas—and try to resonate with the place, which can be a coauthor of the work, dictating what I should do.”

To make “First Light” (2016) Charrière spent a month and a half in the Marshall Islands, learning how to deep-sea dive in the lagoon around the Bikini Atoll, which, from 1946 to 1958, was the site of some two dozen of history’s largest atomic explosions. Working with his friend, curator Nadim Samman, Charrière shot photographs and video images of this “lost paradise,” both above and below the sea, from the mutated palm trees now covering Bikini to the rusting “ghost fleet” of ships like the USS Saratoga and the HIJMS Nagato. “They left those carcasses of boats that were the biggest machines ever made to the glory of the military-industrial complex in the middle of nowhere, in a lagoon with coral reefs growing on top of them—kind of an Atlantis,” he explained. One image of the island says it all: a classic postcard picture of two palm trees against a brilliant sunset, punctuated by a constellation of white spots made when the film was exposed to radioactive sand.

“I like places loaded with different layers of information,” said the artist, who studied for three-and-a-half years with Olafur Eliasson at the Institute for Spatial Experiments in Berlin. He and other students learned to work collaboratively, and were also plunged into new environments, including Japan, Brazil, Iceland, and Ethiopia. “He is still a major influence,” Charrière said. “Our practice is very different, but I developed an interest in putting myself into strange situations.”

Charrière’s “Future Fossil Spaces” is being shown at the Venice Biennale. These hexagonal towers were made from salt from the world’s largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni, in the southwestern Bolivian Andes, and are filled with a saline and lithium solution that will eventually crystallize.

Janet Biggs, Afar (still), 2016.


Janet Biggs is another artist who uses extreme traveling as an artistic strategy, journeying from the High Arctic (Warning Shot, 2016) to the Afar desert in Ethiopia (Afar, 2016) to create powerful immersive videos. In some cases, she even goes to places that are almost out of this world. She was recently accepted into one of the three Mars simulations run by the Mars Society, with research funding from NASA. “I will be an artist-in-residence crew member at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah,” she said. “My mission starts in May, and I will be in full simulation,” she added. She will also blog from “Mars.”

For Biggs, “travel becomes a means to understand human nature. My real focus is how individuals can create a sense of themselves and then maintain that, especially in difficult or extreme situations,” Biggs observed. “I am drawn to places that are otherworldly. If a satellite phone doesn’t work there, I am that much happier about it.”

One upcoming project involves juxtaposing the “far ends of the spectrum” for a work about human hope and possibility, in which Biggs plans to contrast footage from the Mars simulation with footage from the Horn of Africa, showing Yemeni refugees taking a boat across the Gulf of Aden to Ethiopia, while Ethiopians cross the desert to take the same boat to escape to Yemen.

Although she has gone to such difficult and remote places as a sulfur mine in Indonesia (A Step on the Sun, 2012), the Afar Triangle stands out as one of the harshest environments she has experienced. “I thought I was prepared for what I would witness, but it was so difficult in both locations. I thought in the Arctic I would have a sublime moment with the endless landscape and ice. But you are required by law to have rifles against the polar bears, and I wasn’t prepared for what a group of artists and scientists look like traveling around in the Arctic. That region has no want or desire for human presence.”

Janet Biggs, A Step on the Sun (still), 2012.


As for the Afar Triangle, with its average temperature of 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, Biggs says, “It is the most unlivable place on the planet.” This volatile geographic is located at the intersection of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti. Biggs’s intense three-channel, high-definition, nine-minute video mixes scenes of Afar’s barren landscape with footage of nomads, workers, and militia, intercut with intervals of Elizabeth Streb dancers simulating a young girl Biggs had seen locked up in a police van, repeatedly throwing herself against a metal screen. The children in the van were beaten, and some died. As in all of Biggs’s work, sound and music play a signal part; the soundtrack in this piece was composed by Will Martina.

In 2016 Biggs revisited her earlier Arctic footage to create a short but forceful video, Warning Shot. Just over two minutes long, it shows a solitary Biggs in the frozen landscape and ends with her shooting a flare into the sky. “I wanted it to pack a punch,” she said. “Original responses evolve with time, and are altered by current context. By 2016, I felt an increasingly urgent need to again address climate change, and the knowledge that my physical presence—every footstep, every mark I made—was part of a destruction of the region.”

Contemporary context has also altered her response to the Yemeni footage she filmed a year ago. “I returned to Djibouti in February to film the Yemeni refugees again, but now with a new focus: they are specific targets of Trump’s border closings.”

Guillermo Kuitca, Le Sacre (detail), 1992.


Current events can also change both the artist’s and the viewer’s perceptions of an earlier work. Guillermo Kuitca’s seminal 1992 piece Le Sacre, for instance, consisted of a series of 54 mattresses onto which he sewed maps chosen purely for their names or shapes, rather than for any political intention, with randomly spaced mattress buttons representing cities. Over time, however, as global events unfolded, many of these maps took on specific meanings.

“There is a piece that is quite important to me, a very large mattress-map painting plan of Afghanistan done in 1989. At the time, Afghanistan was not the name of a super-conflicted area,” Kuitca explained. “But in the future it became the center of innumerable conflicts. I like to see how history works. We tend to think art changes history, but actually history changes art. It kind of pleases me—not of course the human drama—but . . . to see how a work can be transformed by events.”

Kuitca’s Trauerspiel (2001), a minimalist image of an empty baggage carousel, also took on a dark new meaning in light of current events. “I remember I opened a show in Zurich on September 13, 2001—two days after 9/11. The central subject of that show was a baggage-claim conveyor belt. Up until that day, conveyors were nonreferential to any catastrophic event,” he said. “A conveyor belt was not a terror attack. Oddly, I had given the piece the title Trauerspiel, or tragedy.”

Guillermo Kuitca, Trauerspiel, 2001.


The work takes on an entirely new interpretation following Trump’s executive order, as luggage belonging to people suddenly detained or threatened with deportation spins uselessly. “A luggage conveyor belt is really a stage in a way,” Kuitca said. “In the way that it has such a theatrical appearance and such a level of expectation.” While maps have more or less disappeared from Kuitca’s work, he recently showed a large-scale Retablo (2016) that depicted an empty highway disappearing into the distance. “It’s a representational road, when for many years, it was always a nonrepresentational road,” he said.

Michelle Stuart, whose work uses indigenous materials culled from her travels, from soil to clay to seeds, worked as a cartographer for an architecture firm while putting herself through art school. “I always loved maps,” she said. “There is something about a map that is so inviting in terms of time and space.”

Stuart is known for her unique Land Art–based work, in which she makes a ghostly imprint, or frottage, of a site, using the earth itself as her drafting tool. A onetime globe-trotter, Stuart tells vivid tales of sailing on a tiny boat in the Finnish sea, bathing with a group of “wild blue Berber women” in Morocco, or crossing the border in Guatemala with scary car-mates—armed soldiers who, instead of the usual bribe, had hitched a ride. “I always kept little travel diaries,” she said. (Some of these can be found in her book Sculptural Objects: Journeys In & Out of the Studio.)

These days, when traveling has “become more of a trial than an adventure,” Stuart creates photomontages, which she calls “Palimpsests,” assembled from the “thousands of pictures taken on my trips. Eventually, you become your own source material,” she said.

Michelle Stuart, Baltic Boat Book, 1985.


About a dozen of Stuart’s works are being shown at the Venice Biennale. “The pieces are from places where I’ve either lived, or stayed or traveled to,” the artist explained. Particularly beautiful are the “books” she has made from indigenous materials found in places ranging from Peru to New Mexico to England. Baltic Boat Book, for instance, “comes from . . . the experience I had sailing from the archipelago off Finland to Helsinki in this infinitesimal boat, and being passed by huge container ships and Russian warships. The Beginning, Islas Encantadas is really about the beginning of the world, because that was what struck me there. I was in a place for the first time where it seemed to me that it resembled how the world looked when we first came out of the water and engaged with the land.”

Travel will always ignite the imagination of artists, and for some, travel bans just present a further challenge. In a sense, artists are ardent adventurers and explorers. Even during a time fraught with hyper-consciousness of the vulnerability of the planet, both geopolitically and geophysically, the globe still provides a crucible for creativity, from its geologic minerals to its roving refugees, from its prehistoric fossils to its simulations of future planetary travel.

Phoebe Hoban has written about culture and the arts for such publications as the New York Times, New York magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and ARTnews.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 66 under the title “Without Walls.”

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