On Sept. 6, “Crossing Lines, Constructing Home: Displacement and Belonging in Contemporary Art” (“Crossing Lines”) opened at the Harvard Art Museums. Of the 40+ artworks in the exhibition, only one does not belong to the Harvard Art Museums’ permanent collection. Despite the limited institutional origin of its artworks, the exhibition impressively approaches the cause and significance of migration from both the political and personal perspectives, and represents subjects from wide-ranging cultures in diverse artistic media.
Bosco Sodi’s “Muro” (2017) channels compassion through an increasingly divided society. The artwork, as presented at the exhibition, is a brick cube; it records an interactive performance that Sodi launched in New York in September 2017. In Washington Square Park, Sodi built a brick wall and invited passers-by to take it down. The project is a product of international exchange: The bricks were made by Oaxacan craftspeople, assembled and given meaning by Sodi and deconstructed by viewers in New York. The breakdown of the wall suggests that the confluence of global labor and minds should bring unity, not polarization and hatred. This perspective directly counters the populist accusation of international trade as the culprit of domestic unemployment in the U.S., as well as the exploitation of globalization as a platform for nativism.
“Hub, Ground Floor, Union Wharf, 23 Wenlock Road, London N1 7SB” (Do Ho Suh, 2016) upholds the importance of memories, and especially so for migrants. Still, it recognizes them as artificial representations of the past. The sculpture is a recreation of a segment of a basement corridor from Suh’s former home using polyester fabric and stainless steel pipes. The fabric assumes a dusty, nostalgic yellow, augmenting the backstory in the artwork’s title in framing the sculpture as Suh’s memory of his old home. The evanescent and illusory texture of the sculpture alludes to memories’ inauthenticity. The fabric of the sculpture is thin and porous, like a screen, and the two ends of the “corridor” are open.
Therefore, when standing inside the sculpture, viewers are also fully present in the world outside, enveloped in conversations, gallery lights and moving silhouettes. The dislocating experience in the sculpture symbolically suggests that memory is a compromised recreation of the past that is constantly invaded and reshaped by the present. The superficiality of memories is further illustrated by the “mold-like” structure of the sculpture. Suh uses a two-dimensional medium, fabric, to recreate a three-dimensional structure. Therefore, the sculpture’s internal projections are indentations externally, meaning that the sculpture only restores the appearance of the space in Suh’s memory, not its substance, like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s allegorical cave.
Suh’s sculpture speaks to the irrecoverable loss of home upon moving. However, it also endorses maintaining memories, despite their inevitable limitations, as a necessary practice. The artwork stands right in the middle of its gallery space; its architectural structure allows it to claim more space and attention than its photography — or installation-based neighbors. This assertive stature of the sculpture from its inherent anatomy and curatorial organization portrays memories as needing constant attention and revisits from the present. Indeed, as imperfect as they are, memories constitute the most accessible portal to the remnants of the past — the cornerstone of our identities.
As a likely unintended effect, “Crossing Lines” initiates a metafictional contemplation on the limitations and ethics of photography. “Muslim Girl #14” (2009) by Lili Almog shows how photography is a staged performance of selected aspects of reality. “Muslim Girl #14,” the promotional artwork of the exhibition, depicts a young Chinese Muslim woman in front of a green plastic strip curtain. The woman stands upright, with hands joining in front of her body and a faint smile. The young woman’s well-mannered but nervous stature echoes the traditional Chinese impression that one needs to invoke their best decency and formalism in front of the camera.
This belief endures strongly in the country’s rural parts, where photography had been generally reserved for bureaucratic procedures and significant occasions until the last two decades. The subject’s mannerism in front of the camera conceals the authenticity of her mundane life, like how the green strip curtain obscures the everyday objects behind it in Almog’s photograph. With the rising popularity of photoblogs, crediting photographs with William Blake’s power of “[seeing] a World in a Grain of Sand” must be proceeded with caution, for the line between synecdoche and oversimplification is obscure.
Andrea Modica’s subject, on the other end, seems to have assumed little to no control over their photographic representation. “Ron McNeil, Fort Yates, ND” (Andrea Modica, 2002) (“Ron McNeil”) depicts a young Native American man on a motorcycle in front of a warehouse. The young man observes the camera suspiciously, looking perplexed and slightly irritated. “Ron McNeil” reminds its viewers of photographer’s bias and the nature of photography being more artistic than journalistic. Although photography restricts the artist’s creative agency more than traditional artistic mediums, there is still no such thing as a perfectly objective lens.
“Crossing Lines” will stay on view until Jan. 5, 2020. Students may access the Harvard Art Museums for free with valid student IDs.