Port City

A Foundation, Greenland Street
26th June – 24th August 2008

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson

This is an international cross-artform touring project developed by the Arnolfini Gallery as an ongoing network of cultural exchange between different port cities - including Liverpool, Bristol, Istanbul and Athens. It addresses the issues of global migration, trade and contemporary slavery, and features work by Meschac Gaba, Erik van Lieshout, Melanie Jackson, Zineb Sedira, Ursula Biemann, Mary Evans, William Pope L., Yto Barrada, Doa Aly, Charles Heller, Hala Elkoussy, Raphael Cuomo and Maria Iorio.

The Furnace - one of three former industrial buildings at Greenland Street - is an appropriate venue for this eloquent exhibition, which examines the melting pot of global migration. Relics of past use – a furnace and two cupolas for melting metal, two seriously heavy cast iron safes, a gantry with hooks and chains and frayed rope, a large area with confined spaces within, a narrow staircase, graffiti left by those who passed through: Gilly Silly and Ollie - twice - and Peter and Simmy and Toxteth (horizontal) and Riots (vertical) all reinforce the themes of the exhibits: trade, wealth, economic urgency, the politics of containment, exploitation and slavery past and present.

Within the main area – and it is at first difficult to discern which is exhibit and which is venue – discreet spaces have been chosen or created in order to facilitate the ambience intended for the work. The rectangular room housing Ursula Biemann’s Sahara Chronicle effectively produces a sense of claustrophobic confinement which consolidates the experience. The viewer is assailed by clamouring images and sound from all sides by screens evoking wall to wall 24 hour news, with its sense of immediacy, its looped coverage of events, its voyeuristic intrusiveness and all this, together with the boxed-in feeling of the room, creates a cumulatively emotional experience that soon overtakes the mere assimilation of information. There is much to claim the attention; while you are looking at one screen the one to the left and to the right grabs the sleeve of your attention; there’s stuff happening behind you; there’s a screen that you can’t quite figure out yet; you decide to be systematic and follow the narrative flow of one screen but you are aware of peripheral stories on other screens and you can’t concentrate. And all this is experienced before you take on board the fact that the Chronicle is the result of the artist covering many overlapping and simultaneous stories on her travels to the major gates and nodes of the migrant network in Morocco, Mauritania and Niger, observing the sub-Saharan exodus towards Europe. And it doesn’t matter where you look first and where you look next or whether you are systematic; these things don’t count at all because it is the total experience that is being projected. Out of the individual glimpses of life lived as a migrant, caught in tension between the politics of containment with its hovering unmanned surveillance and their own economic imperatives, emerges the simplicity of facts. There is no water; people drink their own piss. You need twenty people to fill a minibus. It’s 700 Euros to go on the boat. The first year of labour in Europe goes to those who financed the passage. Some people set off but don’t arrive; in order to survive, ‘It’s guns and slyness that matter…slyness most.’ If a man has no job he can’t have a wife. No-one wants to stay in Morocco, ‘They’re as poor as we are.’

Here, in vast deserted areas, the frontier lands that are ‘factories of displacement,’ where mobility is a commodity, people wait and hope and fear. These are not the horror-show starving Africans that the media feeds us; these are the young men and women who feel they can survive. There is an unforgettable moment when two women respond to the rhythm of the approaching train on which they will compete with other commodities for travelling space. It is a moment of challenging affirmation and Ursula Biemann asks us, through these images and without voice-over narration, to consider the idea that migration and all it entails is a force for positivity, a similar plea to that made by Charles Heller [Crossroads at the Edge of Worlds, 2006] whose video questions the stereotypical portrayal of the wretched fugitive, suggesting the more positive role of social and political pioneer.

Erik van Lieshout’s Lariam (2001) is a cross between a shanty hut and a giant facsimile packet of Lariam – an anti-malarial drug widely used in Africa. The installation consists of a space created within the furnace hall from white packaging cardboard and gaffer tape and once inside, the effect is claustrophobic and surreal. There is a large screen with recorder and speakers and two ludicrously incongruous seats made of silver insulating wrap giving a bizarre touch of glamour. It takes a moment to realise that one is sitting on the ‘drugs’. The video shows a somewhat inept cooperative attempt to produce a rap based on the pharmaceutical notes accompanying Lariam – the irony being that this European saviour-product produces side effects like insomnia and suicidal tendencies - which the drug company denies. It’s a zany piece, but the clownishness has serious matters to raise such as exploitative profit-making and the potency of rap as a medium of black protest.

Meschac Gaba’s Sweetness (2006) is in the open space and confronts you with its expansive dazzling whiteness, inviting a recognition that isn’t quite happening until you realize that this model city incorporates famous buildings from cities around the world. It is Everycity and painstakingly made out of sugar with its obvious reference to world trade, the commodities market and the triangular trade that involved slaves as well as sugar.

While Gaba’s city is very solid and brightly lit Melanie Jackson [The Undesirables, 2007] creates a paper diorama of the shadowy world of the container business. Her two-dimensional figures and artefacts displayed in a dimly-lit room with grey-painted floor require a degree of investigative effort to establish what is happening. MSC Napoli was wrecked off the coast of Devon, exposing the contents of a container bound for Africa on Branscombe beach. Media interest - represented by a group of figures in silhouette - was almost entirely confined to the activities of those who went scavenging on the beach when the crucial point of interest to the artist is the scale and variety of European export to Africa and the issue of corporate culpability. Raphael Cuomo and Maria Iorio’s Sudeuropa (2006) also questions the role of the media, this time in spectacularising migration, of lining up with the police in their attitude towards ‘clandestine’ immigrants.

The sense of the individual as part of the vast and complex process of global migration is everywhere upheld in this compassionate exhibition: the Chinese saleswomen, at the human end of the Chinese industrial miracle, selling lingerie in a foreign land in Doa Aly’s Chinese Sweet, Chinese Pretty (2006) for example; or people tricked and abandoned in the desert as depicted in Hala Elkoussy’s touching animation: From Rome to Rome (2006). Yto Barrada moves us with individual portraits of human vulnerability [Sleepers, 2006] and William Pope L.’s witty installation in room 207: The Polis or the Garden or Human Nature in Action (2006) challenges the superficiality of categorisation. For me, one of the most eloquent images was the photograph showing how people waiting to cross the sea have delineated a part of the formless desert with stones to claim territory, ‘as if the deadly expanse was a place too vast to comprehend’ – Ursula Biemann.

Although the exhibits are current [mostly 2006 and 2007], there is also a strong sense of the past resonating with the contemporary as in the work of Mary Evans [Blighty, Guinea, Dixie, 2007] – which combines locations evocative of the slave trade and fragmented contemporary images – a sense also addressed in Zineb Sedira’s two screen video projection: Saphir (2006). This beautiful poetic work contains what I feel is one of the key images of the exhibition: ceaseless effort without issue in a situation of alienated waiting. The male character walks up and down steps as if in an Escher drawing, finding no destination. He looks out to sea – a medium that separates and unites - towards a land that offers opportunity. The female character inhabits a building redolent of the colonial past. She too walks about without resolution, in restless boredom. The implication is that she is part of the past French settlement in Algiers and the man part of the present migration to Europe. The feeling of two time zones and the alienation of the characters – they never meet – is reinforced by the use of the diptych form which enables the viewer to see images juxtaposed but separated. There is a narrative in the sense that eventually the tension of waiting is resolved by the excruciating noise of the ship’s arrival, punctuated by the clamouring cries of the sea birds, and the buzz of commerce. However, the main impact of Saphir is its effective examination of the psychology of waiting and not knowing, of pointless activity – often to fulfil hostile bureaucratic requirements - and the effect of the port on the human psyche.

Port City is an exhibition that requires effort from the viewer, both in the interactive sense and in terms of time. Sudeuropa is thirty-eight minutes long; Crossroad at the Edge of Worlds is thirty-seven minutes long, for example. But it addresses an event of global importance and as such demands attention. The African Diaspora of the colonial era was involuntary and involved nightmare, not dream. The present-day Diaspora is voluntary – though often the result of little option - and does involve some hope and the dream of a better life though the crossing is still hazardous and the outcome unknown.

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