Not a Foreign Country
Joseph R. Wolin
One of the most shocking sights of recent years, a time when shocking sights seem to pile on, was tens of thousands of migrants crossing Europe on foot in the summer and fall of 2015. Men, women, and children with no other recourse, most fleeing the war in Syria, left their homes behind, taking what few possessions remained to them and whatever means of transportation they could. They traveled north and west, often walking under their own power, in the hopes of finding safety, sanctuary, and a better life. The spectacle stunned the world, not only for what it said of the sheer desperation of the migrants, but for the way it brought us up short, face to face with the limitations of the present. For the images and scenes we saw on our screens not only set off alarms for the world around us gone terribly wrong, but also woke deeply slumbering memories of other times and other masses of people moving through a landscape. They recalled refugees in the aftermath of World War II, certainly, but also migrations of the dispossessed before that, and before that, even, echoing back through all of history.
But those journeying into Europe by foot represent a small part of a global refugee crisis, which includes vast numbers of people escaping a multitude of disasters. And however atavistic those visions from the very recent past, they also harbinger worse things to come. As climate change degrades regions and fuels conflicts around the world, it will drive entire populations to migrate for their survival, and we, the fortunate ones, will bear witness to epic disruptions perhaps unprecedented in scale and desolation.
Anita Groener saw the events of 2015 and realized she was obliged to respond. An accomplished painter and draftsman of abstract roads and networks, and of congregations of small marks that formed pelts, crowds, or indeterminate congeries micro and macrocosmic, she had also essayed the image of the forest as a profoundly ingrained place of myth, a setting both solacingly familiar and frighteningly strange. Recently, she had begun creating more figural work: arrangements of silhouettes of people based on photographs and expressive of physical and emotional trauma. She turned to the most immediate representation of the ongoing crisis, photographs of the refugees themselves as they traversed the countryside. She transcribed their likenesses as small black cut-out silhouettes, a gesture that universalizes their images, on the one hand, and inserts them into a graphic tradition outside the constantly refreshing news cycle of photojournalism, but that by virtue of the detailed precision of their outlines, on the other, effected by the mechanical prowess of a laser cutter, retains their hold on the evidentiary charge of the indexical.
In one of the earliest works Groener made with the images of migrants, Witness(2016), a single row of silhouettes spans a wall. Each stands only about two and a half centimeters high, so from even a short distance they appear as a dotted line, bisecting the wall laterally. From closer up, they resolve into separate figures, alone or in small groups, pinned to the wall so that their cast shadows lend them a certain sculptural materiality as they evoke specimens, like collected butterflies, transfixed. All the figures face the viewer frontally as if walking directly towards us from a far horizon in an unbroken chain. Installed in Groener’s exhibition Citizen at the Butler Gallery in the spring of 2016, small mirrors placed on the perpendicular walls at either end of the line of silhouettes multiplied the column of marchers beyond the confines of the room, ostensibly to infinity.
Groener insists not only upon the individuality of her figures, but also their uniqueness; she traces each from an actual person in a found photograph, and she uses each silhouette only once. She makes each a referent to a specific situation, a precise moment in time, a real life. This becomes critical in works such as Citizen(2016), in which hundreds of the tiny silhouettes perch interspersed on some six hundred birch twigs (originally sourced from trees growing outside the artist’s house) planted on three walls of a gallery at the Butler. Evenly spaced in a grid, the twigs suggest a minimalist forest of vast extent, no less daunting for its miniaturization. Here, we see the figures mostly in profile as they walk or sometimes run along the branchy paths offered by the twigs, frieze-like in single file or in groups, carrying burdens on their heads or pushing them in wheelbarrows and carts. A few ride donkeys, unmistakably bringing to mind the Flight into Egypt, and the Biblical proportions of the plight of people in our own time. And a few appear engaged in struggles, fighting, rehearsing both the violence that drove them from their homes and the violence that often met them in Europe. Citizen conjures the unfamiliar European woods through which migrants passed, but also the metaphorical ones they must navigate. Its scale requires looking up close to consider a myriad of incident, and produces repeated small revelations as dried leaves and knobby joints turn out to be human figures, a requirement that echoes the work’s proffered obligation to pay attention to the existence of countless individuals who need our aid. Yet we can’t risk missing the forest for the trees.
Prolonged by a Hundred Shadows(2018) operates similarly. Its circle of twigs sprouts from the wall in a more tangled web that seems to form a hemisphere, hinting at the global nature of the refugee crisis and our responsibility for it. In The Past Is a Foreign Country(2018), twenty birch saplings hang from the ceiling, dried and stripped of their leaves, all their branches reattached with bits of multicolored and metallic twine at right angles to their trunks. Their configuration in the center of a room at the Limerick City Gallery of Art formed another modernist grid, three-dimensional, boxlike, with all entrance or egress barred by the lattice of cross-branches. The trees form a cage, really, a prison, or an inescapable maze, and the few silhouettes of single figures, isolated and tiny on interior branches as if seen from a great distance, feel trapped and alone in a confounding, carceral world. Like a model for the stage set of an absurdist drama, this work might imply a psychological state or an existential everyman, but for the fact that the figures were stenciled off the real, inscribed from the images of migrant walkers. Suspended, black and gnarled balls of roots not quite touching the floor, The Past Is a Foreign Country describes the situation of the displaced, likewise uprooted, suspended, up in the air, in stasis, unable to land.
Groener’s material metaphors for the subjective experience of the refugees resonate with an ethical sense of shared humanity, as do a parallel body of drawings, linear ink renderings of outstretched arms and knotted legs, prone figures, rows of cots, brick walls, and people trapped in gridded boxes. That some of these date to a year or two before the indelible occurrences of 2015 speaks to the artist’s ongoing concern with the circumstances of people under duress and their claim upon us for help.
A group of black-and-white video works further articulate Groener’s stance. The circular projection Fugue(2016) consists of grainy scenes in a forest. The camera alternates between slow pans and jerky tracking shots as if we sometimes scanned the woods for danger and sometimes ran in a panic. The shift from anxious surveillance to terrorized flight conflates the tunnel vision of border guard and migrant, especially when the camera fleetingly captures shadowy figures of unknown identity. Blink(2016–18) compiles hundreds of photographs of the Syrian refugees, the same types of images from which Groener derived her silhouettes. Each flashes on the screen for a moment, to be replaced by a neutral gray field and then another image, the steady rhythm accompanied by a drumming pulse that sounds like a heartbeat. The shots appear in an order determined by the direction in which the subjects walk, so that over the course of the thirty-nine-minute loop, the walkers seem to circle 360 degrees, spreading out to every point of the compass. Intercut among the photos of the migrants from the Middle East, others appear, people identifiably from elsewhere in Asia, from Africa or Latin America, or people of unknown places of origin, also walking towards an uncertain future. Historical images crop up, too, scenes from World War II and other times, all showing people forced to move, forced to flee, forced to walk in the same direction. The relentless march through history ties the walkers together, condemning those who fail to give succor to the people who have to leave their homes on foot in our time. The past is actually not a foreign country; as Faulkner told us, it’s not even past. Subtle flares of color flash before our eyes, lest the monochrome procession veer too close to the abstract. And every now and then, if we attend closely enough, a family photo coalesces for an instant, a happy family, the artist’s own. Blink and you might miss it. But Groener clearly perceives her own affinities with the refugees—and her distance from them.
Born and raised in the Netherlands, Groener moved to Ireland as a young woman, became an artist, and raised her own family there. Her experience is far removed from those of refugees, but she knows something about making a home in a foreign land. Watching the migrants in 2015 required her to act as an artist, to make art that attempts to share a moral understanding of the fate of others, that attempts to publicly assert our obligation to provide assistance. In the video Nest (2018), we see a pair of hands, the artist’s, slowly take apart a bird’s nest Groener had found in her mother’s yard and saved for years. She removes one twig at a time, deconstructing the nest, which grows smaller and smaller until only a few scattered bits of debris remain. The image of destruction proves surprisingly heartbreaking in the context of the artist’s recent work. Home, once undone, can never be made whole again.