Flight & Suspended: An Artist’s Response to the “Refugee Crisis”
Based on a talk delivered to St James’s Church Piccadilly, 16th January 2018.
I first went to Lesbos as a war artist in 2015, having worked over the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. Five thousand people were arriving in Northern Lesbos every day. At the time, the danger of the sea crossing was of urgent concern, to which I responded with an installation called Flight, made of a boat that I salvaged from the island and hung above the nave of St James’s Piccadilly over Christmas, 2015.
This boat was found in the Aegean with sixty-two refugees onboard. I installed the boat with the bow plunging down towards the alter. Three lifejackets tumble down from the centre. Installed over Christmas, the three lifejackets were intended to evoke the story of Mary and Joseph, who gave birth in dangerous circumstances to a child who grew up to change the course of world history.
Since the peak of arrivals of 2015, the European response to forced displacement has become an ever-more urgent and complex issue. Although it has fallen from the headlines, thousands of people are still suspended in cities and camps across Europe, waiting to be resettled or reunited with family, waiting for asylum decisions to be made, or, for some, waiting to be deported. Suspended, first installed at the end of 2017, is a testament to the violence of this invisibility.
The clothes in Suspended were gathered from the beaches, roadsides and camps of Lesbos. When I was working there, at the height of what is usually called the “refugee crisis”, I was struck by the discarded garments that were strewn across the beaches, olive groves and roadsides, and by the power invoked through a once worn, now empty item of clothing. The clothes are lit from a central orb that slowly changes in density. As the light brightens we see the forms clearly, as it dims they are lost in shadow: I believe that like all crises, the crisis of forced migration reveals the best and worst of humanity.
No one becomes a refugee by choice. By contemplating this fact, we can change our understanding of what it is to have and to lose a place in the world. Like the wearers of these clothes, however, the refugees in Europe now remain largely unseen. But those with nowhere to go do not just go away. We ignore them at our peril. The reality is that over 200,000 refugees are in limbo across Europe; many of these are children, sleeping rough on the streets, having escaped the unendurable conditions and hopelessness of the camps. Across Europe today thousands of men, women and children are stuck between a past they cannot return to, and a future they cannot enter.
Both Flight & Suspended are calls to resistance against the horrors of war and the individuals and institutions who seek to dehumanize others. My work is also a salute to the volunteers who continue to work tirelessly to help those arriving in, or suspended within, Europe.
Pope Francis has identified a sort of compassion fatigue which he calls ‘the globalisation of indifference’. He believes that this indifference has settled over us, obliterating the sharp edges and the urgent need for change. But I believe that we can see the state of things today as a call to reimagine what we are about, to re-assess who we are today as individuals and as a society. I believe that the challenge presented to us by forced displacement today is just that – one of reappraisal – a relearning of ourselves in relation to each other.