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Extended Essay – ‘Here Not There: Why Are We Framing the Global Refugee Crisis as Something So Distant?’

February 14, 2019

War under existing conditions compels all nations, even those professedly the most democratic, to turn authoritarian and totalitarian”

– John Dewey



Anita Groener’s current solo exhibition at The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon (19 January – 9 March 2019) offers a timely opportunity to consider a range of responses by Irish and international artists to the global refugee crisis. In spatial terms, these artistic inquiries often draw on the tensions that exist between the European ‘here’ – the geographical and cultural location of the spectator – and the alien ‘there’, the distant site of the original trauma[i]. Many of these inquiries attempt to make visible our responsibilities (as privileged westerners) to ‘them’ – a multitude in flux, who are engaged in a traumatic and profound remaking of home. Unfortunately, as will be discussed, several high-profile international artistic propositions have merely served to extend a western-centric belief that these displaced people are only deemed in ‘crisis’ when they hit European shores. In certain cases, this has resulted in the “helplessness of the refugee” being “doubled in the helplessness of the artist”, with these artworks generating a “globalised nowhere” that can be full of contradictions[ii].

This brief survey will show some of the nuanced and valuable contributions being made to the wider conversation by several Irish artists. Many of the more effective artworks seek to grapple with these spatial disorientations, making visible the homelands and journeys of migrants by drawing on the capacity of art to map our predicament. However, in engaging with the tension that exists between ‘there’ and ‘here’, certain issues in the Irish context so far remain largely unspoken. We are failing to sufficiently address how asylum seekers are currently being treated, when their often-harrowing journeys conclude in Irish territory. There has also so far been a lack of (visible) collective action to challenge the political decision-making that permits a continuation of the Direct Provision model in Ireland. As a result, asylum seekers are troublingly hidden in plain sight in Irish towns, rendered objects of the arbitrary violence of Irish legislation and a profit-driven ‘integration’ system. The crisis is there, but it is also here.


Irish Art Practice – Responding to the Refugee Crisis

As a touring exhibition, ‘The Past is a Foreign Country’ will be subject to several configurations in the coming year[iii]. At The Dock, Groener presents a combination of sculptural installation, drawing and moving image works that collectively aim to explore themes of displacement and alienation, while probing the public consciousness about the refugee crisis. Having previously worked with Syrian war journalists, the artist seeks to “fill in the gaps left by reportage”, while addressing the “imaginative deficit” and “collective alienation” of people “whose lives have not yet been displaced”[iv]. The overall aesthetic is purposefully minimal – featuring rudimentary materials and trees that have been stripped of their leaves – while the use of line, both regimental and sprawling, is a recurring motif. In Gallery Two, 20 birch tree saplings are suspended from the ceiling in a grid-like formation, their bulbous roots hovering just above the floor, as if simulating the systematic uprooting of those fleeing political or climatic atrocity. Further conveying these fraught and complex journeys, Prolonged by a Hundred Shadows is a nebulous form, constructed from dozens of bare branches that appear to sprout from the gallery wall. When viewed from the side, tiny figurative silhouettes become visible, creating a maze-like cartography that is populated with anonymous, transient people.

As described by British theorist, Irit Rogoff, prior to globalisation, “geography” was a “cartographic system of knowledge” that located and represented people and identities in relation to bounded territories of place[v]. Rogoff proposes that this “epistemic map” is being unsettled by artists whose “unhomed geographies” – spaces defined neither by physicality nor nation state – offer an alternative set of relations between subjects and places[vi]. Several Irish artists have set out to document the transitory mass-migration routes of refugees, most vividly in the photographs of Richard Mosse, who has spent a number of years recording the dystopian ‘non-places’ of refugee encampments in the borderlands of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Mosse’s largescale photographic series, ‘Heat Maps’ – as well as his film, Incoming (2017) – were shot using a thermographic camera, which is classified as a weapon under international law. Typically deployed at sentry points for the purposes of insurgent detection and border enforcement, this surveillance device captures heat signatures in black, white and shades of grey. Rather than making the refugees his subjects – they remain anonymous, so as not to jeopardise their future applications for asylum – Mosse turns this military-grade surveillance technology back towards the state, surveying the responses of various countries to the refugee crisis. Viewers are also prompted to question their own complicity, as passive consumers of the ‘spectacle’ of crisis, amid a gradual erosion of human rights in Western liberal democracies.

As stated by philosophers Hardt and Negri, “imperial sovereignty creates order, not by putting an end to war, but by proposing a regime of disciplinary administration and political control directly based on continuous war action”. To that end, they assert that war is becoming the “primary organising principle of society” and the “foundation of politics itself.” [vii] Acting with the urgency of a war correspondent who is trying to get the message out, Irish artist Brian Maguire’s poignant body of work, titled ‘The Aleppo Paintings’, documents the remains of the war-torn Syrian city, thus making visible the physical consequences of war. These paintings expand upon the artist’s previous work, made in response to the refugee crisis, by providing a stark visual account of the places being fled, while also castigating the international arms trade that fuels perpetual war across the globe. Further shrinking the conceptual distance between ‘here’ and ‘there’, Maguire highlights the repercussions of western geopolitical decision-making, such as: the decision to produce and sell arms, thus accelerating war in these regions; the decision to militarise borders, erect walls and enforce harsh anti-immigration policies; and the decision to withdraw search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean Sea, thus unleashing a “brutal necropolitics” that leaves people to drown, on the basis that our ‘security’ is predicated on someone else’s death[viii].

As the site of transit for the free-flow of global commodities – and the first world privilege of movement denied to migrants – the Mediterranean Sea is subject to an asymmetrical balance of power, characterised by an unequal exchange of resources and capital between diverging political and economic spheres. Elaine Hoey’s virtual-reality installation, The Weight of Water (2016) invites viewers to experience a boat crossing at night. As described by the artist, our experience of the refugee crisis is largely mediated onscreen, via global news reportage, however virtual reality has the capacity to collapse this distance, by immersing the viewer in visceral environments. As both spectator and performer, the viewer is enclosed in a claustrophobic compound, comprising a metal cage topped with razor wire. VR headsets place us onboard a tightly packed boat, as we feel the effects of the churning waves and observe our fellow passengers, their faces partially illuminated by torch-light. A helicopter scans the water from above, in search of unauthorised vessels, just as the boat arrives on dry land. These maritime horizons promote dreams of a better life for so many refugees, however the Mediterranean Sea is a troubled archive, containing the sedimentary histories of Europe’s colonial past, of which the migrant seems to be an unwelcome reminder.


Performance of Empathy – The Limitations of Global Art

While many of these examples attest to the potent new methodologies being devised by Irish artists in response to the refugee crisis, several high-profile international projects have highlighted the limitations of the global art world, in generating meaningful traction on this issue. At worst, this has involved the reproduction of neoliberal capitalist logic through impotent rhetoric – often taking the form of theoretical or dialogical platforms, that speak of ‘radical democracy’, yet fail to mobilise the global art market’s plentiful resources, in building a coherent countermovement. Such power imbalances were brought into sharp focus in 2017, when part of Documenta 14 was staged in Athens. The multi-million-euro arts festival was widely accused of displaying a ‘festivalisation of refugees’, while thousands languished invisibly across the continent[ix]. In failing to engage in the social realities it claimed to witness, Documenta displayed a speculative form of self-serving elitism – defined by ‘crisis tourism’, cultural essentialism and neo-colonialism – thus extending a ‘white saviour complex’, while failing to hold to account the forces of oppression. Displaying a similar lack of criticality, Ai Weiwei recreated the tragic image of drowned infant Alan Kurdi, by lying face-down on a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos[x]. As a well-worn cultural trope, Ai Weiwei’s ‘performance of empathy’ merely served to displace the subject of his empathy from the visual field. Another distinct omission was the political decision-making that continues to allow thousands of refugees like Alan Kurdi to perish along the shores of Fortress Europe. By vaguely aiming to “embody the suffering of humanity”, Ai Weiwei’s enterprise failed to attribute political responsibility or to ask hard questions of our political leaders[xi].

At the other end of the spectrum are the many authentic projects that have, for whatever reason, been negatively received by the general public. Among these are The List, by Turkish artist Banu Cennetoğlu, which was installed in the public realm as part of the 2018 Liverpool Biennial. Cennetoğlu’s long-running project – which documents the names of the 34,361 people who are so far known to have died trying to reach Europe since 1993 – was installed along a 280-metre-long hoarding on Liverpool’s Great George Street. Despite the fact that the piece had been shown widely in other countries, it was shamefully vandalised and torn down on at least three occasions during its first showing in Britain. That an activist art project – intended to highlight the plight of refugees – should find itself at the frontline of politics, is a sincere indicator of the dangerously fraught times we are living in.


Direct Provision: The Architecture of Confinement

 Just ten days before the opening of ‘The Past Is A Foreign Country’ at The Dock, a former hotel in the neighbouring town of Rooskey, County Leitrim, was set on fire. The Shannon Key West Hotel was one of three hotels due to be reopened as Direct Provision centres by the dubiously titled Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), a body of the Department of Justice and Equality[xii]. One of the other planned centres – the Caiseal Mara Hotel in Moville, County Donegal – was also severely damaged in a fire last November. At the time of writing, firefighters are attending the scene of a second fire in Rooskey. These arson attacks have been condemned as “hate crimes” by Fiona Finn, CEO of NASC: The Irish Immigrant Support Centre, who stated that while the vast majority of Irish people have empathy towards those seeking asylum in Ireland, there is a widely-held belief that the privatised model of direct provision is not fit for purpose. It is worth noting that, while seven Direct Provision centres are State-owned, the vast majority are managed on a for-profit basis by private contractors who receive about €50 million in State funding annually. Not only is the current model failing to protect the human rights of residents, but the Government’s procurement methods for establishing new centres foster little or no consultation with local communities, thus creating fertile grounds for the emergence of right-wing groups. As demonstrated by the devastating fire that tragically consumed London’s Grenfell Tower in 2017, profit-driven outsourcing creates a dangerous and troubling lack of accountability when things go wrong.

Despite the fact that a number of human rights organisations have been campaigning since the inception of the Direct Provision system in 2000, a wider understanding of the human rights breaches occurring in these centres has only just begun to permeate the wider public realm. There has been a modest shift recently, in discussions about Direct Provision among the arts community in Ireland, largely foregrounded by the work of photographer Vukašin Nedeljković, who was born in Belgrade, former Yugoslavia, and has first-hand experience of the system, having sought asylum in Ireland in 2007. Nedeljković’s ongoing project, the ‘Asylum Archive’, is an art, activist and academic platform that is “directly concerned with the realities and traumatic lives of asylum seekers”[xiii]. Within this “repository of asylum in Ireland”, most striking is Nedeljković’s photographic documentation of Direct Provision centres. Where the photographic image can run the risk of distancing the viewer – due, in part, to an aestheticisation of the subject – Nedeljković’s images rupture that viewing dynamic, by documenting familiar buildings that people will recognise within their own towns[xiv]. These seemingly innocuous buildings do not disclose an architecture of confinement; unlike prisons, there are no high walls, security gates or razor wire. The residents are confined solely through Irish legislation, which has been subject to sluggish governmental reform, since a raft of recommendations were outlined in the 2015 McMahon Report[xv]. The ‘Asylum Archive’ also features rare documentation inside the centres, showing traces of human habitation through depiction of places, objects and structures but not people, thus further alluding to the invisibility of asylum seekers in Irish society.

While the many varied artistic responses to the refugee crisis have been innovative and profound, as time goes by, this spatial ambivalence – between the traumas occurring far away (at the fringes of Europe or the Middle East) and the re-traumatisation that is happening in Irish neighbourhoods – needs urgent critical attention. In a country whose modern history includes famine, mass migration, civil war and the militarisation of national borders – as well as the dark veil of secrecy that permitted the mass-incarceration of generations of Irish citizens – we are slowly beginning to heal the injustices of the past. As Ireland continues to progress through the national Decade of Centenaries (2012 – 2022)[xvi], a backward-glancing impulse to deal with the grand narratives of history has permeated the cultural psyche. Artistic responses to the Decade of Centenaries has so far mediated some fascinating ground, particularly around labour history and women’s rights, while activating urgent dialogue linked to issues of equality, social justice and citizenship. With these commemorative landscapes as backdrop, there is a need for brave new methodologies that will activate further dialogue around the very pressing issue of Direct Provision, to ask hard questions of our political representatives, while prompting reflection on our own complicity. Such methods will resist a ‘performance of empathy’ by making space for unforeseen testimonies, thus generating a new set of coordinates for registering our feelings.


Joanne Laws is an art writer based in Leitrim and Features Editor of The Visual Artists’ News Sheet (IRL).



[i] Joseph R. Wolin, Anita Groener, catalogue text published on the occasion of the ‘Citizen’ exhibition, shown as part of ‘Dialogues’, Art Projects, London Art Fair (18 – 22 January 2017) and ‘Witness and Flag’, Art on Paper, New York (2 – 5 March 2017).

[ii] See: Jerome Phelps, ‘Why is so much art about the refugee crisis so bad?’ Open Democracy, 11 May 2017.

[iii] ‘The Past Is A Foreign Country’: Limerick City Gallery of Art (30 September 2018 – 6 January 2019); The Dock, Carrick-on Shannon (19 January – 9 March 2019); The Lab, Dublin (2019); and Uilinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen (2019).

[iv] Exhibition Press release, ‘The Past Is A Foreign Country’, The Dock, Carrick-on Shannon.

[v] Irit Rogoff, Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture, (New York: Routledge Publishing, 2000) p. 4-7.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, (Penguin Press: New York, 2004) p.13.

[viii] See: Iain Chambers, ‘Art and the Refugee ‘Crisis’: Mediterranean Blues’, Open Democracy, 10 July 2017.

[ix] See: Zoe Holman, ‘What could a multi-million-euro arts festival offer struggling communities in Greece?’ Open Democracy, 22 June 2017.

[x] The original image depicted three-year-old Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, lying face down on a Turkish beach near Bodrum, having drowned along with 12 others – including his mother Rehan and his five-year-old brother Galip – while trying to reach the Greek island of Kos on 2 September 2015.

[xi] See: Jerome Phelps, ‘Why is so much art about the refugee crisis so bad?’ Open Democracy, 11 May 2017.

[xii] The Direct Provision system was introduced in 2000 to house asylum seekers who enter Ireland in search of international protection. Direct provision is a means of directly meeting the basic needs of asylum seekers, such as food and shelter, while their applications for asylum are processed. It was originally designed as an ‘interim’ system, to provide accommodation in residential institutions for a six-month period, however many applicants experience lengthy stays. The average length of stay in Direct Provision is 2 years, with some residents spending up to 12 years. According to responses to parliamentary debates and the RIA, the majority of initial asylum applications by adults in Direct Provision are rejected and must be appealed or resubmitted under different criteria. The system has been heavily criticised by the United Nations and international human rights organisations as inhuman, degrading and illegal, under both the Irish Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

[xiii] See:

[xiv] It was while looking through the Asylum Archive that I noticed a photograph of Globe House in Sligo – formerly the Mercy Convent and later the building that housed Sligo IT’s Fine Art department. I was an art student there in the late 1990s but hadn’t realised that the building has since been reopened as a Direct Provision centre.

[xv] In October 2014, the Government announced the establishment of a Working Group, which was directed to review the Direct Provision and protection system. In June 2015, the Working Group published a report (known as the McMahon Report), which outlined 173 recommendations for reform. This was the first comprehensive assessment of the Direct Provision system since it was introduced in 2000.

 [xvi] The Decade of Centenaries variously includes: Ulster Covenant (2012); The Dublin Lockout (2013); Easter Rising (2016); Battle of the Somme (2016); Belfast Strike and the Rise of the Labour Movement (2017); Universal Male and limited Women’s Suffrage (2018); Irish War of Independence (2019-21); Government of Ireland Act (2020); Civil War and Partition (2022).


Featured Image: Vukašin Nedeljković, Globe House, Sligo, ‘Asylum Archive’; Image courtesy the artist.



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