John Akomfrah’s “Vertigo Sea” is at times a meditation on the sublime. The three-channel video installation points to a tradition dating back to the Romantic movement, when painters such as J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich revolted against rationalism and retreated to nature. The 2015 work features gorgeous documentary video of animal migrations. Kaleidoscopic swarms of butterflies. Mesmerizing blooms of jellyfish.
The artist’s psalm of the sea is alternatingly serene and unsettling. Whaling is the nominal subject of “Vertigo Sea,” and Akomfrah pairs rapturous scenes of whales breaching the surface, spraying water into the sky, with grainy footage of whalers flaying blubber from carcasses, raining blood over the ship’s hold. Akomfrah’s work touches on human migrations over the sea, too. Newsreel shows white enslavers forcing shirtless black men overboard in a reenactment of an 18th-century ship massacre.
Akomfrah’s video bricolage is unrelenting, but sometimes a screen will pause on a portrait. One features a black figure, dressed in a colonial jacket and tricorn hat, who stares over a lonely promontory, a reference to Olaudah Equiano, an enslaved man who purchased his freedom and sailed the world. “Vertigo Sea” courts the comparison to Moby-Dick, literally with a reading from the novel, but moreover in its immense scope, symbolic treatment of race and perception, and cool tenor and temperature. Yet “Vertigo Sea” dispenses with any lofty notions about Ahab or his quest. In one arresting sequence, the film lingers on a harpooned whale’s bloody eye, an otherworldly camera lens that gazes back at the viewer.
“Vertigo Sea” sets the pace for The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement, an unprecedented exhibition for the Phillips Collection which runs to Sept. 22. The massive video format alone is something the museum has never tried before, and it appears as a preface to the show. The Warmth of Other Suns assembles work of more than 75 international artists. Photographers, painters, sculptors, and filmmakers—plus workers, children, refugees, academics, politicians, and more non-artists—tell the stories of global migrations, both forced and voluntary, as far back as the 18th century to the present day. It illuminates how conflict shapes migration, and how migration shapes the world. More importantly, the show never tries to bring a false sense of order to what feels like a force of human nature.
The Warmth of Other Suns is achingly prescient. Just this month, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, proposed an edit to the credo of the Statue of Liberty. A reporter asked if America still stands behind Emma Lazarus’ immortal words, and Cuccinelli rephrased them: “Give me your tired and your poor, who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.” Danh Vō’s “We the People: Element #L9 (2011–13)” could be the artist’s response. It’s one of some 300 fragments of a replica of the Statue of Liberty fabricated by Vō and distributed around the world—an exact copy at scale, never to be assembled. Divided, not united. The piece speaks to the fragility of the American dream.
Ellis Island figures prominently in The Warmth of Other Suns, namely in Augustus Sherman and Lewis Wickes Hine photographs. Sherman, who worked as a registry clerk, took administrative photographs of the European immigrants streaming into Ellis Island. While he was untrained, he snapped portraits of people in traditional folk dress that captured their dignity. Anti-immigrant publications nevertheless used these same pictures to stoke fear and hatred.
There’s a lot of photography in the show, and little of it fine art, from Dorothea Lange’s picture of a destitute mother fleeing the Great Depression in California to Guillermo Arias’ photos of a Honduran migrant caravan taken just last October in Mexico. As if to demonstrate that fine art can be journalistic, the Phillips Collection put all 30 of Jacob Lawrence’s tremendous Migration Series paintings (1940–41) in the show. Gorgeous covers from the Italian newsweekly La Domenica del Corriere use illustration to chronicle the great Italian exodus to America. The Warmth of Other Suns could be a thesis exhibition on the exchanges between media and migration.
Massimiliano Giono and Natalie Bell, director and curator for the New Museum, respectively, produced the exhibition at the invitation of Dani Levinas, the museum’s board chair who is himself an immigrant. It’s a show made specifically for the Phillips Collection, although viewers would be forgiven for thinking that Giono and Bell had decided to drop an entire Venice Biennale on Dupont Circle. (Giono did in fact organize the Venice spectacular in 2013; “Vertigo Sea” debuted in the following Biennale.) The exhibition features interventions designed to provoke even the most sympathetic viewer.
Hanging high in the stairwell, there’s a massive 2012 painting by El Anatsui, “Dzesi,” made with crumpled aluminum bottle caps and copper wire, which takes the form of a West African textile and points to the destructive influx of alcohol in Ghana under European colonization. In the Rothko Room, a sacred space for lovers of contemplative postwar Abstract Expressionism, the curators installed a heartbreaking vitrine containing an embroidered doily and pair of shoes recovered near the Arizona-Mexico border. The confrontational display is part of an ongoing University of California-Los Angeles program called the Undocumented Migration Project. The Warmth of Other Suns tests the boundaries of the historically staid Phillips Collection as well as the limits of what people choose to recognize as art.
In one narrow room, it’s tricky to look at the delicate Huong Ngo and Hong- An Truong prints for the Zoe Leonard suitcases in the middle of the hall. A Francis Alÿs installation spans several joined rooms rather uncomfortably. Finding a throughline from the past to the present, or from Syrian war refugees to Northern Triangle asylum seekers, isn’t impossible. It’s just not made easy. This is a strategy to project a mimetic sense of the constant and contradictory narratives that bombard immigrants. It’s also a matter of curatorial style: Bell says that Giono’s motto is “Always leave them wanting less.”
The Phillips Collection has a long record of showing pictures that conform to elite perspectives. Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” might be the museum’s most celebrated product of the haut monde. Recently, the museum has mounted shows by artists who challenge or upend the canon; a first-ever retrospective for the Cuban-born artist Zilia Sánchez is a fine example. No one has called for decolonizing the Phillips Collection, but the New Museum has shown what that project might look like.
One room brings together notions of seas and borders like so many swirling eddies. It includes three Alighiero Boetti embroideries of global maps in which countries take the form of flags, a Wolfgang Tillmans print of an indistinguishable point in the Atlantic Ocean where international borders meet, and a Kader Attia installation of abandoned blue garments strewn across the floor to evoke the sea. There’s no place or people depicted in these artworks. But the room conveys the ineffable feelings of pain and loss and belonging and identity that move whole nations. Melville writes in Moby-Dick: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”
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