Placing the Displaced (An Exhibition Review)

A projection work by Shimon Attie, from his Writing on the Wall project in Berlin, Germany from 1991-2.

One positive about this pandemic situation is how easy it is to see far-away exhibitions that I would never have been able to see during normal, pre-pandemic times. A great example is Dis/placements: Revisitations of Home, presented by The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston School of the Arts in Charleston, South Carolina.

The online exhibition highlights works from a variety of projects throughout the careers of ten different artists. Accompanying essays draw incisive connections between the personal history of each artist and the stories featured in their work.

Shimon Attie’s public works are exceptionally poignant, featuring a range of experiences of displaced persons, from Holocaust victims to immigrants and refugees in New York City. In his project The Writing on the Wall from 1991-92, he projects old photographs of everyday Jewish people onto building exteriors. He carefully frames them within doorways and windows as if they were still there, reminding us of a more peaceful time before their communities were violently obliterated. This creates a ghostly effect, reminding us of their absence while also honoring their lives.

Shimon Attie, Shimon Attie, Untitled Memory (projection of Armand V.), 1998, Ektacolor photograph.

Also included are works from Attie’s more personal project, Untitled Memory from 1998. One particularly compelling image is Untitled Memory (projection of Armand V.), an image of a man projected over his former kitchen nook, perfectly arranged so it looks as if he is really sitting there, leaning against the wall with his foot up on the bench and his elbow on the table. When captured in a snapshot, the photo-realistic projection of the man’s casual, natural posture re-creates an vivid, intimate memory. The colorlessness of his form grimly reminds us of his absence.

Another highlight is the work of Hung Liu, who was born in China in 1948, one year before the People’s Republic of China was established. The essay reveals that Liu was born a refugee, “displaced since birth.” She takes vintage photos of women in China and gives them a contemporary update with printmaking techniques and expressive, drippy strokes of paint, revealing differences in the lifestyles of women before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution. She also explores her own displacement and loss of identity as a Chinese-born person in the U.S.

One issue I have with the online format of the exhibition is the lack of information (title, date, medium, size) of each work, which makes it difficult to reference or search for more information about the artists’ individual works. However, the quality of the work and the essays more than make up for this oversight.

A work by Hung Liu.

A particularly potent but nameless work by Liu depicts a small child crouched on the ground, crying and holding an empty white bowl. Laying in the grass next to her is a woman, presumably her mother, possibly dead. Chaotic drips and hazy gray washes of paint encroach, covering the mother’s body possibly in reference to her imminent return to the earth. Overlaying everything are decoratively-painted images of birds and fish. The overall effect is one of overwhelm and despair, which certainly tugs at my empathy receptors.

Relevant especially to American current events are the sculptures of Renée Stout, which explore the history of her African heritage and the pain of the African diaspora through her use of found objects and other materials. Also notable are the works of Tanja Softić, who uses art to sort through her experience living through the violent break up of the former country of Yugoslavia. She juxtaposes photographic images of current-day Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina with images of mushrooms and fungi, a pioneer species symbolizing rebirth and growth.


Tanja Softić, Night Blooms: Kindergarten, 2019. Photogravure, aquatint, chine-collé, digital print, 12 x 24 inches.  

Showing a range of perspectives from across the European, Asian, African, and American continents, the exhibition does a good job of highlighting the similar stories of physical plight and psychological damage that all displaced people seem to suffer, regardless of where they come from or where they end up.

You can see more of the exhibition at http://displacements.org/.

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