In mid-September, the New York Times and Pro Publica partnered on a data-driven multi-media investigation charting the inevitable world migration patterns expected in the coming decades as a result of climate change. The project's first component focused on Central America, forecasting more than 30 million migrants will head toward the US border over the next three decades. The series' second installation brought the question home and was narratively grounded in a summer of rising temperatures, increasing drought and rampant wildfires. That story estimates at least 28 million Americans will probably confront mega-fires by 2070, and points toward a 2017 Nature study that calculates some of the migratory implications for the 180 million people living in areas at risk from rising sea levels.
The series reified the tension I'd experienced watching, on various screens from my stay-at-home couch, the summer's devastation out in the world: scorched earth, masked evacuees, smoke-choked skies. Visceral and immediate, yet somehow unimaginable at the same time.
As a concept, physical displacement carries particular universal resonance. Whether one finds Maslow's hierarchy of needs particularly useful, grouping shelter under the category of fundamental human exigencies seems inarguable. Yet while human migration may be quantifiable, the toll of individual displacement becomes incalculable when it allows for the full breadth of human experience.
SITE Santa Fe's current exhibition, DISPLACED—which focuses on refugees unsettled by conflict or persecution—provides myriad points of reference into the refugee crisis, and does so in part by reverse-engineering the cataclysm, so the internality of experience cuts through the problematic amalgamation engendered by the soaring figures. Ten international artists working in a variety of media—video, photography, sculpture and more—unspool migration under strife from historical, theoretical and speculative angles.
SITE's Phillips Director and Chief Curator Irene Hofmann and Assistant Curator Brandee Caoba began working on the exhibition in 2018, and it originally was scheduled to open last March. Certainly, the topic has only grown in relevance and the show in its totality captures that vastness, while individual pieces home in on concrete narratives and images. Irish photographer Richard Mosse's stunning and devastating images shot using thermal surveillance camera technology capture encampments across Europe—such as a 2016 image from the Moria Camp in Lesbos, Greece (which caught fire early last month).
At a different end of the spectrum, Reena Saini Kallat's "Woven Chronicle" literally stitches together the narratives of migration using electrical wire overlaid with cables and other colored wires to represent a textured cartography of migration over time. A soundtrack of ambient locomotory tones amplifies the visual piece, mesmerizing in its own right, providing a sense of illusory motion.
Candice Breitz' "Love Story," a seven-channel video installation sharing the stories of six refugees across the world, serves in some ways as the exhibit's center piece. In the installation's first room, actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore perform those six stories on a large screen. The second room shows footage of the refugees themselves on individual monitors, responding to Breitz' interview questions. Breitz, a South African artist, conceived the piece as a way to raise "questions around how and where our attention is focused," by juxtaposing highly visible famous actors relaying stories told by people who might otherwise not be heard.
One of those interviewees, Luis Ernesto Nava Molero, fled Caracas, Venezuela and was granted asylum in New York in 2005. A political scientist and academic in Venezuela, Molero also faced persecution and suffered physical violence because he was gay and openly critical of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.
Today, Molero lives in New York and works as an activist in the LGBTQ+ community. He visited Santa Fe and the SITE show last week with his partner and his two children. He told me had taken his children to see the Rio Grande and Diablo Canyon and talked to them about all the immigrants whose journeys require hard physical passage on foot into the US.
"They are lucky," he said of his children's emigration here. "I was lucky too."
Still, he acknowledged, no matter how one arrives in one's new home, the transition is always hard.
"When I moved to the US, it was a very difficult time for me because I left everything I have," he said. "I became invisible, nobody cares about you; you are just an immigrant…Nobody is an immigrant just for fun."
He believes a show like DISPLACED helps raise consciousness about the issue, which in turn will drive people to work together to solve it.
"It's not about being an activist," he said. "You have to have empathy to the other people around you."
I had been about to ask Molero if he'd read any of the climate-crisis migration stories when he brought up the 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow, in which a climate crisis brings on a new Ice Age and forces Americans to flee and cross the border into Mexico. It's a notable scene in a mostly ridiculous (if entertaining) movie, as it highlights the degree to which Americans take for granted they don't have to flee their own country. At least not yet.
"Why wait until that moment?" Molero asked. "That movie shows that we don't have to wait until something like that happens."
After Molero and I spoke, I returned to the galleries and Cannupa Hanska Luger's "Future Ancestral Technologies." The piece felt to me during all my visits (four and counting) like the show's coda. A van in the wilderness, surrounded by tools enhanced for optimum utility, articulates what the artist has described as a science-fiction-based vision of the future in which migration itself is an act of survival and integrates Indigenous perspectives on land, home and perseverance. Given the rise in camping in response to COVIID-19, the piece also has an eerie prescience.
I visited the show multiple times in part because it's large (and also includes a great deal of supplementary video and other materials one can access online). I also was trying to quell what felt like outsized enjoyment of the exhibit given its subject, which I thought might be attributable to lack of external stimulation over the last six months. My enjoyment of the show, however, did not diminish upon return visits. While some of the work may be hard to see and some of the stories difficult to hear, overall, much of it is alluring: lush, intricate, provocative.
I thought of Lawrence Weschler's 1995 essay, "Inventing Peace," which famously opens with a judge on the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal relaying horrendous abject details from the war criminals on trial before talking about how he escapes from the horrors of the task by going to view the paintings of Johannes Vermeer on display at a nearby museum.
The judge's aesthetic reprieve turns out to be informative to Weschler, who interrogates the notable serenity of Vermeer's work as the war tribunals continue, reinterpreting it as a vision of peace from an artist living in an era of Europe filled with ubiquitous strife ("All Europe was Bosnia," Weschler writes).
DISPLACED does not put a pretty spin on the global refugee crisis by any means, but it also is not staring solely into an abyss of horror and misery. Rather, it provides a window into the story of human resilience and the creativity we will all need to invoke in the face of hard facts and sad figures.
DISPLACED: Contemporary artists confront the global refugee crisis
Through Jan. 24, 2021
SITE Santa Fe, 1606 Paseo de Peralta
Free admission by reservation Thursday-Sunday