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Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter.

Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter

Museum of Modern Art | New York, New York October 1, 2016-January 22, 2017

Today's global instability has resulted in an unprecedented rise in the number of refugees fleeing untenable and oppressive conditions in Syria and other war-torn nations. According to the United Nation's Refugee Agency's (UNHCR's) statistics-at-a-glance, there are currently 65.3 million "forcibly displaced" people worldwide, with 21.3 million individuals classified as refugees. (1) The UNHCR's "Global Trends" for 2015 noted that the number of forcibly displaced individuals hit a "record high," with "one in every 113 people on earth" a refugee, asylum-seeker, or otherwise displaced individual. (2) But 2015's statistics were only a precursor to the ever-increasing numbers at present. These calculations are staggering, and a fortunate outsider cannot help but feel overwhelmed by impotence, confronted by too many political and logistical roadblocks to aid and ameliorate such situations from afar.

Questioning the role the art museum should play with regard to this global refugee crisis seems quaint at best: an expenditure of time and text on the significance of a rarefied, artistic sanctuary while refugee families seek peaceful sanctuary from war and death. And yet, how the art museum should and does respond to this humanitarian and, increasingly, political crisis, was a query at the heart of the Museum of Modern Art's (MoMA's) recent exhibition Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter. (3) The exhibit tackled both historical and contemporary responses to refugee crises, ranging from the refugee camp formerly known as the "Jungle" in Calais, France, to Australia's off-shore refugee holding centers. Curator Sean Anderson and curatorial assistant Ariele Dionne-Krosnick, both from MoMA's Department of Architecture and Design, displayed artistic responses to mass displacement, such as Reena Saini Kallat's Woven Chronicle (2016), which combined circuit boards, electrical wires, and other non-traditional art materials to create a map tracing migrant, refugee, and immigrant routes, as well as utilitarian objects presently used in camps, like a UNHCR temporary shelter (fig. 1) and a UNICEF "School-in-a-Box" kit for refugee children. Anderson and Dionne-Krosnick divided this intermixture of aesthetic works and objects of use into broad categories, such as "Borders," "Shelter," and "Camp-Cities." Each category was accompanied by wall text which provided art historical and contextual justification of the decision to link art and utilitarian objects under the umbrella term. Notably, with Insecurities, MoMA continued a tradition of linking art to refugee activism discernible almost since its inception, under the tenure of its first director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Juxtaposing Barr's refugee activism to MoMA's recent attempt at the same with this exhibition reveals both the strengths and limitations of an art institution's desire to reach beyond the borders and boundaries of aesthetics and effect change in the real world.

Alfred Barr's tenure as director lasted from 1929 until his demotion in 1943. During this period, he crafted a vision for the museum and for Western Modernism both through his support for avant-garde European artists, and through groundbreaking exhibitions like his 1936 Cubism and Abstract Art. Yet, Barr's legacy at MoMA was also one of political activism, specifically in the face of the rise of National Socialism and fascism abroad. In 1933, Barr and his wife Margaret (Marga) witnessed the first prominent Nazi meeting on art in Stuttgart, Germany, an event which presaged the infamous 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition, (4) Following that experience, Barr became a lifelong crusader for artistic freedom, (5) dedicating, for example, his Cubism and Abstract Art exhibition to "those painters of squares and circles (and the architects influenced by them) who have suffered at the hands of philistines with political power." (6) Barr's political engagement, however, was even more visible behind the scenes. In the words of one of his biographers, Alice Goldfarb Marquis, he turned his MoMA office into a "clearing house for information and aid" to refugees. (7) Barr and Marga worked closely with Varian Fry of the Emergency Action Committee to help artists like Marc Chagall and Jacques Lipchitz obtain visas, and he solicited American employment for art historian Erwin Panofsky and artist Josef Albers. (8) Notably, Barr's refugee activism primarily occurred outside of his official duties at MoMA. As director, he was subjected to the governing oversight of a board, and a sense that the museum was accountable to a public of varying political affiliations. For example, Rose-Carol Washton Long noted in 2009 that Barr's decision to minimize German Expressionism in Cubism and Abstract Art was a decision made in part to distance MoMA from the public's negative associations with Hitler's Germany. (9) Barr's political resistance was thus divided between what was permissible given his role as the face of the institution, and the direct action he was able to conduct as a MoMA-affiliated individual, outside of the institution's public platforms.

In 2016-17, the museum's Insecurities exhibition clearly grappled with this same divide. For example, the curators were keen to situate non-traditional art objects within narratives of art and design, aestheticizing rather than overtly politicizing the items on display. To be sure, Anderson's equivalent of a catalogue essay, his article "'You Can See Syria From Here': Displacement's Violent Line," pointedly framed Insecurities as a politicization of Modernism's key terms, "line" and "grid." In the exhibit, however, as in the refugee experience, the "porous or rational grid defined centuries ago" became a grid of conspiracy, which "manifest[ed] a series of internal and external borders that enact[ed] the same divisions that contributed to the emergencies ... from which countless citizens still attempt to escape today." (10) Anderson's reinvigoration of previously-silent Modernist tenets to engage with a global crisis continued throughout the exhibition, subsequently muting the politics of each work. Xaviera Simmons's collection of found images of refugee boats at sea (fig. 2), for example, was displayed as a grid of photographs which filled an exhibition wall like multi-colored tiles, the horror and inhumanity of the subject matter subverted through its transformation into an Albers-like study in tonal contrasts. For the wall text "Shelter," Henk Wildschut's photographs of empty or abandoned refugee encampments in Calais were situated within a narrative about architectural doctrines ("The discipline of architecture plays a fundamental role in defining an ethics of space"), with Wildschut's works demonstrating that "impromptu architecture of handmade encampments ... is always provisional and incomplete." (11) Without sufficient contextual gravity, though, the exhibited UNHCR temporary shelter was transformed into a playhouse, allowing visitors to take selfies with a testament to suffering. By relying on the disciplinary significance and relevance of art history, design, and architecture, Insecurities thus cultivated temporary pathos and empathy in the face of a global problem, releasing visitors from focusing too hard or for too long on the crises at hand.

Politics and direct "calls-to-action" did exist here, but, just as Barr had to conceal overt political agendas in his public exhibitions, they were mostly outside of the exhibition itself. Insecurities was sponsored by the museum's "Citizens and Borders" project, described on the website as a "series of discrete projects at MoMA related to works in the collection offering a critical perspective on histories of migration, territory, and displacement," and which also facilitated lectures specifically addressing the current refugee crisis. (12) The exhibition texts underlined the political intentions of the show, but were presented on the public media online platform Medium rather than in a traditional museum catalogue. Whether intentional or a function of financial logistics, reliance on Medium both ensured the texts' broadest possible audience, and isolated Insecurities' most political statements from the institutional sanction implied by use of a MoMA publishing apparatus. In her essay "Elsewhere Starts Here," for example, Sophie Body-Gendrot bluntly states that "Insecurities is important" because it "makes viewers learn and think more deeply about ... the fate of displaced populations, and perhaps it will lead them to take action." (13) Such a divide, between the aestheticized exhibition and its more politicized online counterpart, was particularly pronounced in the first image confronting exhibition visitors: an enlargement of Rasmus Degnbol's 2015 photograph Europe's New Borders (fig. 3), which filled the wall adjacent to the entrance. The image, depicting a mass of discarded life jackets and refugee boats, was presented on its own, without explanatory text. At a distance and without context, this detritus of refugee ocean crossings in Europe's New Borders transformed into a neutral collage of oranges, blues, greys, and abstract shapes. However, in his article for Medium, Degnbol returned Europe's New Borders to a narrative of hope, death, and resilience by adding description, identifying the over 100,000 life jackets and boats as testament to the innumerable refugees attempting to reach Lesbos, Greece in 2015. (14)

Yet, precisely through this failure to productively merge the art museum with refugee activism, this exhibition enacted its most powerful intervention. Insecurities cultivated a fruitful dissonance between aestheticized presentation and the exhibited works' contextual reality which jolted viewers out of complacency through nothing short of a Brechtian shock. (15) The decision to present the UNITED for Intercultural Action List of Deaths 1993-2015 as a digital print mounted directly on the wall (fig. 4) underscored such incongruity both at the heart of the exhibition, and as a particularly potent avenue for activism's entry into the museum sphere.

List of Deaths prominently displayed the first thirteen pages of the September 2016 itemized list of refugees who perished on their journeys to safety and freedom; each entry noted an individual by name, age, country of origin, cause of death, and reporting agency--when such details could be ascertained. The banality of data made the horrors of refugee life graphically acute: "N.N. [No Name] (1, baby) "/country of origin "unknown"/"died from thirst and hunger, boat drifted in Mediterranean for 16 days...." Yet, with List of Deaths, Anderson and Dionne-Krosnick made a fascinating curatorial decision by placing the piece in a small through-space hallway between the Insecurities gallery and the exit to an adjacent exhibit. Outside of the main exhibition space, the list, enlarged for easier viewing and seen at a distance, constituted a thick, black-and-white line, transforming the list into a Modernist graphic easily disregarded by viewers passing through the hallway. The jarring contrast between List of Deaths' unexpected location and seemingly neutralizing aesthetic presentation, and the devastating records described by the work had the potential to subsequently galvanize the viewing audience who paused to look better than any didactic text ever could.

In many ways, then, Insecurities was a fitting descendent of MoMA's legacy of refugee activism. As in Barr's time, this exhibition needed to reconcile the institutional boundaries delimiting direct, politicized calls-to-action with the human impulse on the part of MoMA's staff to do something in the face of a crisis, and to use the familiar mediums at hand (art, design, and architecture) as vehicles through which to enact and inspire change. As with the decisions Barr reached under his tenure, Insecurities' most overt political gestures were realized outside of the exhibition itself--through the lecture series and the Medium online publications. Yet, unique to this show was the extent to which, whether by design or by happenstance, the incongruous juxtaposition of the art museum with the realities of the refugee experience cultivated a means through which the frictions between art institution and global politics could reanimate art in the face of aesthetic neutrality, and, hopefully, inspire real-world action.


(1.) UNHCR "Figures at a Glance," http://

(2.) UNHCR "Global Trends 2015," http:// www.unhcnorg/en-us/global-trends-2015.html.

(3.) Following the January 27, 2017 Executive Order "Travel Ban," and subsequent to the closure of Insecurities, MoMA attempted to more directly engage with the refugee crisis. On the evening of February 2, 2017, MoMA replaced European masterworks hanging in their permanent collection with works by artists from countries listed on the "Travel Ban" to both return visibility to those individuals hailing from the restricted countries and protest the xenophobic overtones of the ban. This gesture, while significant and while a reflection of a genuine desire for the art museum to "do something" in the face of callous anti-refugee actions, begs the question: why weren't these artists showcased in the first place? And, if merely a token gesture, does MoMA's action ultimately undermine the effectiveness of their protest?

(4.) Alice Goldfarb Marquis, Alfred H. Barr, Jr.: Missionary for the Modern (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989), 106.

(5.) Irving Sandler, "Introduction," in Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Defining Modern Art: Selected Writings of Alfred H. Barr, 1926-64, ed. Irving Sandler and Amy Newman (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986), 10.

(6.) Alfred H. Barr, Jr., "Cubism and Abstract Art: Introduction (1936)," reprinted in Bari; Jr., Defining Modern Art, 90.

(7.) Marquis, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., 184.

(8.) Ibid., 186 and 109.

(9.) Rose-Carol Washton Long, "Brucke and German Expressionism: Reception Reconsidered," in Brucke: The Birth of Expressionism in Dresden and Berlin, 1905-1913, ed. Reinhold Heller (New York: Neue Galerie, 2009), 89.

(10.) Sean Anderson, '"You Can See Syria From Here': Displacement's Violent Line," Medium (September 28, 2016), https://

(11.) "Shelter" wall text, Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter (October 1, 2016-January 22, 2017), Museum of Modern Art, New York.

(12.) Museum of Modern Art, New York, website, exhibitions/1653?locale=en#installation-images.

(13.) Sophie Body-Gendrot, "Elsewhere Starts Here," Medium (October 19, 2016), elsewhere-starts-here-431605ef9663.

(14.) Rasmus Degnbol, "Introduction: Europe's New Borders," Medium (October 5, 2016), introduction-europes-new-borders-ff18120758e2.

(15.) Playwright and theorist Bertolt Brecht advocated for his "epic theater" through theatrical techniques which, by disrupting narrative linearity and shattering the illusory distance between the audience and onstage, aimed to force his audience to engage with not only the presented material, but also with politics and everyday life. See, for example, his discussion of the "alienation effect" and his writings on "epic theatre" in "The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre" and "Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting" in Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964; 1992 edition), 33-42 and 91-99.

Elizabeth Berkowitz

The Graduate Center, CUNY

Caption: Figure 1. Installation view of Better Shelter, Sweden's Emergency Temporary Shelter (2010), and Reena Saini Kallat, Woven Chronicle (2016), in the exhibition Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 1,2016-January 22,2017. (Photo: Jonathan Muzikar, [C] 2016 The Museum of Modern Art)

Caption: Figure 2. Installation view of Xaviera Simmons, Superunknown (Alive In The) (2010), in the exhibition Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 1,2016-January 22,2017. (Photo: Jonathan Muzikar, [C] 2016 The Museum of Modern Art)

Caption: Figure 3. Wallpaper of Rasmus Degnbol, Europe's New Borders (2015), in the exhibition Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 1, 2016-January 22, 2017. (Photo: Jonathan Muzikar, [C] 2016 The Museum of Modern Art)

Caption: Figure 4. Installation view of UNITED for Intercultural Action, List of Deaths, 1993-2015, in the exhibition Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 1, 2016-January 22, 2017. (Photo: Jonathan Muzikar, [C] 2016 The Museum of Modern Art)
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Author:Berkowitz, Elizabeth
Publication:Art Inquiries
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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