Exhibition Review

By Jessica Lynn Fowler

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, defines refugee as ‘[persons] fleeing conflict or persecution.’ (The UN Refugee Agency, 2016) An estimated 65 million individuals within the world today are placed within the classification of asylum-seekers, internally displaced persons, or refugees. (Edwards, UNHCR, 2016) As a part of The Museum of Modern Art’s ongoing displacement series Citizens and Borders, the exhibition Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter , examines the global refugee crisis through the framework of shelter , not solely as physical structure but as the perception of security, permanence, and belonging.

Installation view of Insecurities. The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1 October, 2016-22 January, 2017)

Insecurities envelops as wide an array of media and objects as it does artists, architects, academics, and designers. According to Sean Anderson, Associate Curator of MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design (2016), the aim was to ‘make graphic the experience of living,’ a concept epitomized by the centrepiece of the exhibition, a jointly-designed IKEA Foundation-UNHCR- Better Shelter modular emergency structure. Immediately upon entering the space curiosity coupled with the interactive nature of the physical Better Shelter structure generates allure and invites exploration. Crossing the threshold of the shelter, imagination grabs hold and the viewer places him or herself within the context of the refugee’s plight. This association through visceral experience and the empathy it evokes, constructs the mindset through which to question the surrounding works and objects.

 Refugee Republic (Submarine Channel 2014)

Passing through the UNHCR and IKEA Foundation Better Shelter visitors are lured across the exhibition to a large floor projection and touch screen display of the Submarine Channel’s Refugee Republic, an interactive website in which visitors can view the stories and spaces of the Domiz Refugee Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. The digital platform provides a fully immersive melding of illustration, photography, first-hand accounts, sound and pockets of factual information. The brainchild of artist Jan Rothuizen, journalist Martijn van Tol, photographer Dirk Jan Visser and web developer Aart Jan van der Linden, Refugee Republic provides yet another grounding of the viewer within the physical realities of refugees.

Surrounding the central focus of the IKEA Foundation-UNHCR- Better Shelter and Submarine Channel’s Refugee Republic, are a diverse range of photographic works, architectural structure designs, intricate intaglio prints, and UNICEF artifacts, by artists and designers including Brendan Bannon, Tiffany Chung, Virginia San Fratello, Tobias Hutzler, Dorothea Lange and Ronald Rael among others. Displayed across the walls and arranged on the floors the works collectively pose questions of physical shelter in relation to the plight of the refugee as symbols of security, permanency and stability or lack thereof.

Woven Chronicle (Reena Saini Kallat 2016). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, (1 October, 2016-22 January 2017)

Perhaps most dominant, and positioned as the visual and auditory backbone of Insecurities, is Reena Saini Kallat’s monumental mixed-media installation Woven Chronicle. The piece encompasses the back gallery wall within the exhibition, emitting pulses of ambient noise, electrical static, sirens and ship horns that hover over the gallery space producing an eerie disquiet. Kallat’s tangles of barbed and electrical wires, circuit boards, and speakers provide a tangible insight into the vulnerable flight of displaced persons, tracing migration routes of refugees on a global scale. Standing before the piece the visitor fully appreciates Anderson’s visceral vision, while provoking the final overarching question, ‘is there a solution?’ (Anderson, 2016)

It is through this question that Insecurities: Trading Displacement and Shelter proves not merely a successful collection of visual recordings of the global refugee plight, but most importantly a highly effective avenue through which to bind audiences to an experience outside themselves. Within the space, collectively through accessible physical objects and works displayed, the viewer “walks a mile” in the shoes of another. Another who fled their home, left worldly possessions and at times loved ones, in a desperate flight for the basic human right to safety, to security, to shelter.

Insecurities: Trading Displacement and Shelter is on view at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art from 1st October, 2016 to 22nd January, 2017.

Reference List

Anderson, Sean. 2016. Preview | Insecurities, And How Should We Live – Press Remarks . Presentation, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 30 September, 2016.

Edwards, Adrian. 2016. Global Forced Displacement Hits Record High . Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/uk/news/latest/2016/6/5763b65a4/global-forced-displacement-hits-record-high.html [Accessed on 1/11/2016]

UNHCR, 2016. Figures At A Glance. Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/uk/figures-at-a-glance.html [Accessed on 1/11/2016]