When museums become sites of political struggle, it is usually because they have been criticized from outside. Lately, activists and artists have cast these institutions as storehouses of capital and monuments to colonial power, challenging them on everything from the looting of Indigenous artifacts to the influence of opioid profiteers. But the global far-right resurgence over the last few years has also given museums an opportunity to act politically in ways they rarely imagined. Xenophobic nationalism seems to stand in every way against the cosmopolitan, multicultural image that museums present to the world. In the United States, institutions now have an opening to articulate an alternative vision, one that not only confronts Trumpism but understands its links to the neoliberal consensus that came before, that not only showcases the work of artists who reject nationalism but identifies culprits and underlying structures. Yet, they find themselves torn between the radical vision of an open world and the temptation to flatter and reassure.
This is the dilemma that confronted three recent exhibitions about borders and migration. Presented at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., from June to September this past year, “The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement,” curated by Massimiliano Gioni and Natalie Bell of the New Museum, was the largest of the three, with seventy-five artists and collectives; “When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Migration through Contemporary Art,” a show of twenty artists curated by Ruth Erickson and Eva Respini, opened in October and closed last month at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (though it continues to travel through January 2021); and “Crossing Lines, Constructing Home,” curated by Mary Schneider Enriquez and Makeda Best, was at the Harvard Art Museums from September through January, with more than forty works, all but one from the collection. All three exhibitions were conceived in response to what their curators see as an increasing sense of global urgency regarding migration. While the Phillips survey was the most potentially engagé of the three—a guide proudly described how the D.C. Metro system initially rejected ads for the show as too partisan—all were clearly linked to the contemporary political context. And all three, unfortunately, conveyed a political message that is neither the one they intended nor the one the contemporary situation demands. Each of them misfired in a different way, but none because the artists included were insufficiently radical. The Phillips exhibition used the history of migration to evade the specificity of the present; the ICA exhibition sidestepped the human agency of border violence; and the Harvard exhibition took refuge in a narrative of hybridity that blurs the distinction between goods and people.
First, some basic facts. The “migrant crisis” we hear about today is no such thing: according to UN estimates, the share of migrants in the population of the US and Northern Europe has grown gradually since 1990 to about 15 percent in both places, and refugees and asylum seekers make up a smaller percentage of that group today than they did in 1995.¹ What we have is a crisis of escalating militarization at borders. Deportations in the United States are up 1,000 percent since the Clinton administration implemented a new border security apparatus in the 1990s; in Europe, almost 600 miles of anti-migrant border walls and thousands of miles of naval patrols have been instituted since the signing of the Schengen Agreement, which opened intra-European borders in 1985.² Abroad, restrictions on migration have become tightly intertwined with imperialism. Under economic, political, and military pressure, the governments of countries like Mexico, Guatemala, Nauru, Libya, and Niger have become enforcers of the immigration policies of the richer states of the Global North.
Very little about this process has had anything to do with whether people or politicians think migration, in the abstract, is good or bad. In both Europe and the US, far-right parties have risen to power with nativist and racist slogans, but none of them produced the militarized border machinery they now deploy. The center-left and center-right technocrats who created it did so while mouthing words of openness and welcome—like Bill Clinton, who presented his immigration crackdown in 1995 by arguing that “it is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit . . . abuse of our immigration laws.”³ For these politicians, the specter of an economically dependent migrant population or an immigrant workforce that can’t be disciplined by the threat of deportation always takes precedence over generalized commitments to openness, which thus usually end up benefiting affluent and well-educated migrants. The climate of moral crisis that led to these museum exhibitions originated partly with recent reports about concentration camps on the US-Mexico border, but the structure within which these camps were created dates back to the end of the twentieth century.
By focusing on migration itself, instead of border enforcement, each of these exhibitions has taken a crime and turned it into an act of God—and thus reduced its own historical urgency to a bland thematic statement. “The works recognize passage as an opportunity for transformation as well as the cause of trauma,” the wall text introducing the Harvard exhibition announced brightly. “Migration,” explained the ICA, “is a story of who we are and how we got here over time. Millions of people move for myriad reasons, from fleeing war and religious persecution to seeking better education or financial security.” More forthrightly, the Phillips asserted “the civic and social imperative of art, and the responsibility of artists and viewers alike.” To do what?
The historical mode works particularly well to defuse the suggestion that there may be something unusual about the present moment in the history of the border. At the Phillips, Arshile Gorky’s The Artist and His Mother (ca. 1926–42) hung alongside Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photographs of Oklahoma farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl and early twentieth-century images from Ellis Island. The dark, schematic panels of Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” (1940–41) were a few rooms away. Gorky’s experience as an Armenian immigrant—like the experiences of Lange’s Okies and Lawrence’s African Americans moving from the South to the North—was undoubtedly a difficult one. But the effect of this juxtaposition in the context of an exhibition that claimed to make a political point was to inscribe both stories in Clinton’s patriotic nation-of-immigrants narrative. The migrants who are suffering now, the show seemed to say, will eventually become part of the great melting pot, as American as you or me.
Individual artworks in the show were made with sharp political messages, but the display often muted them. Šejla Kamerić’s EU/Others (2000) replicates the signs seen at European airport passport checkpoints. Commissioned for Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana, “the border of Fortress Europe” as Manifesta’s curators put it (Slovenia did not join the European Union until 2004),4 the signs were mounted above a pedestrian bridge and cast passersby as objects of the European migration regime, forcing them to consider whether they were, in fact, “EU” or “others.” At the Phillips, the signs hung weightlessly in the passages between galleries; it was hard to discern what message they conveyed, stripped from their original context and plunked down at the heart of US empire.
For radical migrant activists, one of the central paradoxes of the militarized migration policy of the last thirty years is how the movement of goods and money has become increasingly frictionless even as the movement of people is more and more policed. At Harvard, wall text described the modified readymade in Danh Vo’s Dos XX (2015) as a work about how “moving fluidly between markets, consumer goods assume significance beyond their origins, achieving hybrid identities as they cross national and cultural lines.” Vo is a refugee who uses gold leaf—here, as applied to a series of Dos Equis beer boxes found in Mexico City and repainted by artisans in Thailand—to interrogate the asymmetries of global capitalism. The language of hybridity recasts power relations positively as sources of difference, obscuring the inequalities the artist sought to highlight.
All the exhibitions featured artists who, like Vo, use the movement of objects as a metaphor for the movement of people. People’s belongings figured repeatedly as a stand-in for the disruption and trauma of the migration process. Both the Phillips and the ICA showed Kader Attia’s La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea, 2015), a floor installation of strewn secondhand clothes; occupying a large gallery at both venues, it was the most spatially dominant work in each exhibition. Most of the articles included are blue, to evoke the Mediterranean Sea, and they represent the bodies of migrants who perished trying to cross it. At the ICA, the walls around Attia’s installation were hung with works on similar themes: Camilo Ontiveros’s Temporary Storage: The Belongings of Juan Manuel Montes (2017), the left-behind property of a Mexican deportee tied up with rope, and Richard Misrach’s Artifacts found from California to Texas between 2013 and 2015 (2013–15), photographs of objects left by migrants as they cross the desert on the southwest border of the US. In the next room stood Mona Hatoum’s Exodus II (2002), a pair of suitcases connected by strands of hair evoking the persistent attachments that linger after displacement.
At the Phillips, the curators’ juxtaposition of Attia’s installation with a 2012 letter by Giusi Nicolini condemning the EU’s migrant regime effectively conveyed the violence of border enforcement. (Nicolini was then the mayor of Lampedusa, the southernmost island in Italy and the site of numerous shipwrecks and migrant fatalities.) Yet the ICA exhibition placed La Mer Morte alongside a translucent polyester house by Do Ho Suh (another from the same series was displayed at the Harvard exhibition). A large-scale installation like Attia’s, Suh’s work emphasizes the theme of longing and nostalgia for the lost spaces of his South Korean childhood. Both works represent migration as traumatic, but their messages are opposed: the inevitable loss that accompanies a successful migration is a very different experience from the suffering and death that attend an unsuccessful one. In the present context, the latter is immediately political in a way the former is not. Blurring this line deprives Attia’s work of its sting and undermines the existential thrust of Suh’s.
One of the defining references for these exhibitions, especially the one at the ICA, was the wall that has gradually grown in recent decades on the US-Mexico border. In a multiyear project called “Border Cantos” (2004–16), Misrach and Guillermo Galindo, a sculptor-composer, collaborated on an installation that explores the wall as a visual and material space. Galindo uses jagged pieces of the wall and detritus found near it to build musical instruments, displayed as sculptures, while Misrach’s photographs emphasize the wall’s austere, otherworldly presence in the landscape. What is striking about this work is the absence of humans, who appear only though their material traces. But the effect works only because the border is normally seen in public discourse as an assemblage of people, laws, and paperwork, of Border Patrol agents and Tijuana passport checkpoints. At the ICA, however, the perpetrators of the violence and the organizations they represent—notably two federal agencies: US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—were nowhere to be seen. Instead of highlighting the material side of immigration policy, the effect of displaying works from “Border Cantos” thus became to naturalize and depersonalize repression.
The Phillips show did more to highlight the role of men with guns, by displaying photographs of Border Patrol violence by John Moore and Mario Tama, as well as Chantal Akerman’s documentary From the Other Side (2002), which includes interviews with border enforcement agents (although the photos were placed in a side hallway and the interviews are in the middle of a feature-length movie that few visitors are likely to sit through). Far more prominent in this exhibition, however, were works focusing on the sea. The Phillips show centered on not only Attia’s work, but also photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans—The State We’re In (2015), a seascape, and Lampedusa (2008), an image of the eponymous island—and Adel Abdessemed’s ship-shaped, 14½-foot-long metal sculpture Queen Mary II, La Mère (The Mother, 2007), among others. For American audiences, the sea is much less evocative of the contemporary border enforcement paradigm than it is for Europeans, who have recently been treated to the spectacle of immigrant-rescue ship captains (such as the German citizens Pia Klemp, Carola Rackete, and Claus-Peter Reisch) being prosecuted for rescuing drowning people in observance of maritime law but in violation of the EU’s anti-migrant policies. Instead, in American culture the sea is linked to migration through a series of historical references—from the Mayflower to Ellis Island (seen here in the photographs of Lewis Hine and Augustus Sherman)—and the effect becomes a sense that water is a natural hazard, one of many inherent difficulties of migration.
In this context John Akomfrah’s film Vertigo Sea (2015), displayed near the entrance of the Phillips, effectively reinserts human perpetrators into the history of seaborne violence. The 48-minute film is a languid meditation composed of both historical and contemporary footage, intercut with quotations from literary works and haunting staged set pieces encapsulating historical eras. For Akomfrah, whalers, slavers, and those who abandon migrants to die at sea are all part of a Western colonial legacy that legitimizes the use of the sea as a murder weapon. The struggle against nature may be a basic element of human existence, but mass migrant death at sea is a man-made phenomenon.
The viewpoint presented by Akomfrah was otherwise largely missing from the Phillips exhibition, as well as from the ones at Harvard and the ICA. All three shows were careful to avoid or minimize any notion that there may be people with names and addresses who are responsible for making certain kinds of migration violent and traumatic. As the Phillips’s chair of the board, Dani Levinas, argued in the Washington Post, “‘The Warmth of Other Suns’ is not a political show. It recommends no policy response from Washington or the international community. It draws no conclusions about who is to blame or what is to be done.”5 Perhaps it would be unfair to point out that the honorary chairman of the museum’s board, George Vradenburg, served on the Private Sector Advisory Council of the Department of Homeland Security, or that another of its trustees, A. Fenner Milton, was the US military’s leading expert on night vision technology and for fifteen years the head of the Army’s Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate. Milton might appreciate Richard Mosse’s disturbing film Incoming (2014–17) at the ICA, which depicts a series of (mainly European) detention camps and migrant vehicles as seen through thermographic night vision cameras like those he helped develop.
What matters here is not the individual culpability of philanthropists but the manifest impossibility of attempting to make good on “the civic and social imperative of art” without pointing fingers at concrete people and organizations. In displaying the work of Tama, Moore, Akomfrah, and Akerman, the curators have clearly recognized that migration, pace Levinas, is a political question. Yet, like the shows at the ICA and Harvard, the Phillips’s wall texts and advertising ultimately confined themselves to nonthreatening winks about the real targets of the exhibition. (In D.C., after all, there is a reasonable chance that any given visitor might be personally responsible for some of the harm spotlighted by the works on display.) ICA Boston curators Erickson and Respini write in their catalogue essay that “the political agenda of Donald Trump” led them to recognize that “migration is political” and inspired them to feature Moore’s ICE photos in the text. Yet, they warn, “you will not find these kinds of images in the exhibition. Rather, we have selected artworks that lead us to more nuanced understandings of the experiences of migration.”6 What stripping out the perpetrators actually delivers is not nuance but exculpation. Informed by a laudable political impulse but unable to realize it, the exhibitions turned instead to the inoffensive notions that migration is a good thing, and that migrants shouldn’t be mistreated or abused. Trump supporters might disagree, but they presumably don’t go to northeastern museums anyway.
If this is all the solidarity we can squeeze out of a museum exhibition, it is a step backward. The enemies of migrants are not just people like Trump or former Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, who make their hatred explicit. They are also politicians who claim to be sympathetic while presenting border enforcement as a regrettable inevitability, capitalists who profit from militarization and detention while leading ordinary suburban lives among their liberal neighbors, and diplomats who work to avoid bad press by outsourcing repression to foreign partners. All these people benefit from a vision of migration that wrings its hands about trauma but refuses its political implications and gathers together artists while blunting their critical weapons.
Is this asking too much of museums, which can’t afford to be too scrupulous if they want to survive in a world of declining arts funding? Perhaps. But even if we don’t expect them to change, we should still criticize them—in the name of the artists they exhibit, if nothing else. As an immigrant myself, I could identify with the experiences of longing and loss on display, but some wounds are inevitable and others are not. A politics that fails to distinguish between the two can offer only futile gestures.
1 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Population Division, International Migrant Stock 2019, un.org.
2 Mark Akkerman, “The Business of Building Walls,” the Transnational Institute, Nov. 5, 2019, tni.org
3 William J. Clinton, State of the Union address, The American Presidency Project, January 24, 1995, presidency.ucsb.edu.
4 Francesco Bonami et al., “Manifesta 3 Statement,” 2000, m3.manifesta.org
5 Dani Levinas, “When Artists Cry Out about Human Tragedy, It’s Not Politics,” Washington Post, July 12, 2019, washingtonpost.com.
6 Ruth Erickson and Eva Respini, “Curators’ Introduction,” When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Migration through Contemporary Art, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, 2019, pp. 18–19.
This article appears under the title “Blurred Borders” in the February 2020 issue, pp. 48–55.