23 Nov Anita Groener: The Past is a Foreign Country
Limerick City Gallery until 6th of January 2019
When an artist attempts to tell the story of others, of whose lives they seemingly have no direct experience, I’m always wary of the objectification of hardship and a misappropriation of voice. And I couldn’t help wondering as I climbed the stairs in Limerick City Gallery; what a Dutch-born Aosdána artist, former NCAD academician residing in suburban Dublin, could have to say about the plight of refugees in Syria. However, the artist, as I discovered, is not preoccupied with current affairs or prevailing notions of ‘crisis’ nor does she attempt to know or express the personal suffering of individual refugees. It is rather the existential exploration of exile and displacement to which the artist relates with truth and authenticity.
The small darkened room off the main gallery mezzanine sets the tone of this show. In the piece entitled, Moments, the artist collaborates with Syrian Journalist, Razan Ibraheem using sounds with HD animated drawings. These illustrated poems become the exhibition’s touchstone. In Ibraheem’s words, “We Syrians, when we lose our loved ones, we don’t only wail and cry, we spontaneously speak in poetic words, words that live and die in that same moment. Our agony, our despair and frailty along with our dignity, pride and decency during the brutal war, haunts me wherever I go”. The soundtrack of voices and street noise resonate beyond earshot, throughout the architecture of work on display, giving voice to those faced with the everyday horrors of war.
The small darkened room off the main gallery mezzanine sets the tone of this show. In the piece entitled, Moments, the artist collaborates with Syrian Journalist, Razan Ibraheem using sounds with HD animated drawings. These illustrated poems become the exhibition’s touchstone.
The work is timeless and universal and as much about migration broadly as it is about the search for refuge in the aftermath of war. Afterall people have always moved around the world. Early humans were nomadic, traveling in search of food, shelter, and safety. Today, we move for many reasons, including economic, political, cultural, religious, and environmental. Sometimes, events beyond people’s control, like war or natural disaster, leave them displaced and forced to migrate but often people migrate voluntarily, in search of better opportunities or alternative lifestyles. And for many artists their own migrations and those of their ancestors shape their identities and the art they produce.
The Past is a Foreign Country looks at the lives of the dispossessed, the process of migration and notions of sanctuary. Through large scale drawings, installations, animations and film Groener’s show is conceptually and visually transfixing. The artist invokes an intimate, empathic engagement with the subject matter, while underscoring, without judgement, the gallery visitor’s (as well as her own) comfortable vantage point.
Historically artists sought to shake ‘polite society’ out of complacency by presenting gore and bloody suffering. The most famous artworks to do with war and social injustice – from Peter Paul Rubens’ Horrors of War, to Dali’s premonition of Civil War, and most famously Picasso’s Guernica – all illustrate the distressing terrors of war. But in an image-saturated era where brutality is often mainstream fare and the everyday depiction of violence voyeuristic to the point of pornographic, perhaps it is sometimes the job of art to subdue rather than to shock.
The most famous artworks to do with war and social injustice - from Peter Paul Rubens’ Horrors of War, to Dali’s premonition of Civil War, and most famously Picasso’s Guernica - all illustrate the distressing terrors of war.
In the installation that gives the show its title Groener has created a closed-circuit grid from young birch trees that have been wrenched from the earth, their muddied root balls intact and suspended from the ceiling, hovering inches above the floor. Their amputated offshoots have been replaced by brittle twigs, attached with assorted colourful threads at right angles to the birch shafts, and facing inward. Throughout the structure placed on the fine twigs are black paper laser-cut figures attempting the unnavigable cubic lattice whose cage-like form is further reinforced by the cross-battened beams from which the entire installation is suspended; their choice shadow play on the gallery floor a further gentle reverberation.
The piece offers an exquisite visceral experience that is at once poignant and entirely absorbing. It is monumental in scale and architectural in form but unlike the many male artists who’ve sought immortality through their wartime masterpieces Groener defies that need for permanence. This nuanced, interdisciplinary exhibition for me also marked the importance of impermanence in contemporary art and the inimitable magic of seeing great art in the flesh. The organic materials, while archivally preserved, and professionally handled are naturally certain in time to decompose. This use of organic materials is appropriate to the expression of transience inherent in the work. In fact, it is vital.
The black human figures creep into many of the works in this show and populate another installation on the gallery ground floor. The artist has drawn these figures from an extensive photographic repository of contemporary media coverage of the ‘refugee crisis’. The all too familiar onslaught of media imagery depicting the plight of migrants has arguably had a desensitizing effect on Westerners. The findings of a recent study at the University of Lithuania showed that most media narratives in contemporary press coverage both delegitimize and stigmatize the status of a migrant by deeper entrenching the ‘outsider’ stereotype and, therefore, creating the general feelings of instability and intolerance. Through the stories chosen and the imagery used in them, the media creates the perception of a migration ‘crisis’ that promotes fear, pity, and dehumanization of migrants.
Groener’s reaction to this is evident even in the show’s title which references the immortal first line of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. It is significant that the human beings in the work are silhouetted. The artist isn’t interested in portraying race or creed. Laid bare is solely their humanity. She challenges jaded eyes not to glaze over refugees or to consign them, wittingly or unwittingly, to some faraway battle-scarred boondocks. All we know is that they are human, and this simple fact makes apathy impossible, manifesting Steinbeck’s belief that, ‘you can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.’ Echoed too by Razan Ibraheem who has set out in his illustrated poems to, ‘remember the words of the distressed mother, fathers and children, to understand the human suffering and to feel their pain.’
The all too familiar onslaught of media imagery depicting the plight of migrants has arguably had a desensitizing effect on Westerners.
Two black-and-white videos project on opposite walls in a blacked-out annex next door. In Fugue someone is journeying by foot through an empty forest. It seems that they are alone and that we can see what they see. At times the four-and-a-half-minute film could almost convey a leisurely jaunt though picturesque woodland, sunlit and crisp, were it not for the ominous heartbeat which accompanies the video. And as the pace quickens and the forest flies by, we feel the palpitating pace of both hunter and hunted.
Downstairs a wall-mounted hemispherical protrusion of twigs, spot-lit in a dark room makes for a compelling installation which works on many narrative levels and which creates extraordinary atmosphere. The installation (Prolonged by A Hundred Shadows), densely populated with the paper cut pilgrims, is a sculpture-performance hybrid of a type. Shadows activate beautifully and as you circle the piece it positively hums. In this delicate handling of modest monochromatic materials, the artist renders the tenderness and nobility of human suffering and the triumph of hope and love. It is a timeless homage to the universally dispossessed which honours above all their strength, and does so with sensitivity and reverence, devoid of all sentimentality.
The understated curation and polished presentation in warm, well-maintained rooms strengthened my awareness of the lives of the dispossessed, whose population size, en masse, is greater than that of any nation in the world.
Limerick City Gallery provides the optimal venue for this contemplative show. The understated curation and polished presentation in warm, well-maintained rooms strengthened my awareness of the lives of the dispossessed, whose population size, en masse, is greater than that of any nation in the world. It was a quiet awakening that gave me pause to consider people about whose hardship I can’t normally bare to think. It left me quiet and reflective. It left me, too, with an awareness of Anita Groener as the most important nationless artist working in Ireland today.
Claremorris Gallery Director/Curator