One For Sorrow
Nest is a new video work by Anita Groener that is visually simple and symbolically complex. Groener was born and educated in the Netherlands but has lived and worked in Ireland for many years. The nest of the title had fallen from a tree in her mother's garden at home in the Netherlands. She brought it back to her studio in Ireland not knowing how it might be transformed in the future. Ten years later, and two years after her mother had died, she returned to it as it contained so many resonances – both personal and universal. In the video we see a close shot of the nest, sharply lit against a black background as two hands, calmly and systematically, over a period of thirty minutes, take apart the bird’s nest twig by twig until there is nothing left but detritus and dust. The action and the subject are the entire focus of the work; there is no other visual information; however the introduction to the exhibition announces that the context in which these works are made are the ongoing refugee crises worldwide.
The slow pace of the video belies the inherent violence in the act of the destruction of this shelter, but then as this exhibition demonstrates, that is how refugees are created – gradually, slowly, and imperceptibly. Media news reports are drawn to the dramatic and explosive not nuanced arguments. The six o’clock news correlates the bombing of cities and shuddering change with images of thousands of people attempting border crossings. But it is not the destruction of cities that creates refugees, it is the collapse of civil society, and that collapse is also incremental, a tabloid newspaper headline here, a referendum there, until the process of ‘othering’ different groups of people leads to conflict that makes their physical presence in their home place untenable.
The hands picking through the twigs of Nest did not consider the individual bird that once lived in it. The style of nest is recognisably that of a crow, but any identification beyond that would be impractical. Indeed the bird is entirely ‘other’, a creature that in our value system has neither thoughts nor feelings. It is denied any rights or agency. If as a species it is pushed to the brink of extinction it can be designated as ‘protected and endangered’, but these distinctions are only drawn in some countries, in others they remain fair game. The crow that built this nest comes from a species that has long been persecuted for their supposed impact on livestock and game. They are also birds of ill-omen, the English language tells of the portents that surround them in their collectives: a murder of crows, a scold of jays, a tiding of magpies, an unkindness of ravens. They are treated as vermin by farmers and historically subject to ‘bad-press’, ignorance and prejudice. Our crows are like the migrants and refugees who are persecuted by the tabloid press and right-wing politicians. Blamed for the ills of society which logical proportionality would establish they are not capable of causing.
As viewers of this video we understand the nest as a symbolic representation of a home, but it is also deeply uncanny unheimlich. A bird’s nest is a primal architecture of a home. The bird isn’t taught how to build it, it is done by instinct. Like in ancient human cultures, every species of bird has its own style of architecture, some showing remarkable engineering ingenuity. For the indigenous population of a country, the notion of home, will always be bound up with a sense of the past and a shared history and culture, often to the exclusion of outsiders. Home is deeply connected to ideas of history and no matter how integrated a refugee might become, they will never share in that. For the refugee, migrant, immigrant or ex-pat, cultural integration is an intense form of adaptation as mores and customs must be learned and unlearned.
History doesn’t repeat itself … but it often rhymes. (Mark Twain)
Nest is displayed in a large space adjacent to a new site-specific installation entitled The Past is a Foreign Country. The gallery is darkened and spotlights pick out the forms of a copse of young birch trees whose bark shines brightly in the dim light. The trees are arranged in a grid with their branches touching. A closer look at the trees show that they have been stripped of their leaves and their branches bound and straightened in regular and unnatural patterns. The root-balls of the trees have been washed of soil leaving them tangled and contorted like the ‘Golden Lily’ of Chinese foot binding, that cultural practice where torture and aesthetics co-mingle, making it painful to walk. The branches interlock to form a closed grid, the viewer can’t enter this enclosure, but faintly one can discern the silhouette of tiny human figures hidden in the growth.
The title of the piece ‘The Past is a Foreign Country’ is drawn from L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between which is variously a study of English class difference, requited and unrequited love, and most importantly the loss of innocence of a young boy. Hartley’s novel expresses how we cannot remember the past or find the correct language to describe it. It is the account of a specific experience of trauma and loss and the failure of words to capture it in memory. Groener’s installation begins where Hartley ends. She builds a visual and symbolic language for collective experiences of trauma and displacement and situates it within the context of the ongoing international refugee crisis. We cannot return to the past. For refugees this is literal as they physically cannot go back to their homes, but it is also a psychological state as they are repeatedly and ineluctably debased and degraded. In Groener’s installation these young trees have been subject to brutal and violent treatment. They have been uprooted and suspended from the ceiling, they cannot touch the soil which will allow them to grow and flourish. They are trapped in a perpetual winter without leaves to catch the sunlight that nourishes them. They are like the goddess Persephone cursed to live in the dark underworld, or the giant Antaeus who when he touched his mother earth Gaia was rejuvenated but died when separated from her.
The strange contorting of the branches calls to mind Louise Bourgeois’ series Topiary: The Art of Improving Nature(1998). Bourgeois said that trees were ‘a symbol of a person ... It has a right to exist, to grow and to procreate’. In her images Bourgeois shows trees supported by crutches, with amputated limbs and uncomfortably straightened branches. Humans have arms, trees have branches, both are called limbs, yet trees have the power of regeneration that humans lack. A tree that is pruned can shoot forth new and more vigorous growth. These works make connections between the natural and emotional worlds, if a tree can regenerate then there is also hope for people to heal. Groener’s and Bourgeois’ trees have been bandaged in a way that references medical procedures. These branches have not simply been snapped and broken, they have been surgically removed and then carefully put back in a different configuration. Arborists can graft the branch of one kind of tree onto another in order to change the fruit or flower that it produces. This apparently brutal act can then create a tree that produces many varieties of a fruit – like an individual who constantly reconstructs themselves - or like a wider human culture, one that was once homogenous now speaks many languages and is more richly productive.
Don’t cut my pyjamas, they are new…
Of all people, children are the most adaptable and resilient. Their capacity to absorb new information and blend within a new culture is unsurpassed. Yet the adult they become is affected by the formative experiences of their youth. This is the focus of Moments, a collection of five animated drawings. The source materials for the drawings were news reports from Syria, collected and translated into English by journalist Razan Ibraheem, which featured children telling the stories of their trauma and displacement. Groener’s use of news reports points to their ubiquity in our homes as we have unprecedented access to information through the internet and wider media. The question asked by the artist is how does this affect the viewer? There is the initial pinch of shock and then a gradual desensitisation as over time, ever more horrific images find their way onto our screens. This is part of the brutalisation that occurs of those who come into contact with refugees. When refugees are seen as a large group they become other and an individual response seems impossible. Moments inserts itself into this progression by taking Syrian children and giving them a voice. The language they use and the images they draw are so simple and universal that they transcend any political apathy or compassion fatigue.
The footage of the mass media becomes Groener’s means to process these events in both an ethical and aesthetic way. The ‘moments’ of Groener’s title refers to how, in a second, life can change in a very tragic way. We hear loud street noise in the background and then one of the children speaks. The language is foreign (Arabic), but their small voices are distinctively child like and the sounds are universal: crying, mourning, keening. A little girl is rescued and put in a van. She asks for her mother, father, brother and sister. She is reassured that they are safe, then she says ‘thank you’. Another child cries, ‘Don’t cut my pyjamas, they are new’, a line that Razan Ibrahim related to very strongly - describing how any child, even if covered in blood, would still ask for a lollipop. As previously pointed out, The Go Between’s central theme is the loss of innocence of a young boy. The boy in They Were Smiling is perhaps the most striking of this series. He says, ‘We pulled out my siblings. My cousins, forty of them, died. My grandparents, died. The missile landed on their house. Pregnant woman, died. One week old child, died. They were smiling. How beautiful they were! Smell of musk comes out from their bodies’. This boy’s rationality is compelling, although no more than 12 years old, he recounts what happens into the microphone of the journalist. We see his bandaged head and his facial expressions as he struggles to contain his emotions. His parents are dead. He is the head of his family now – a big boy – and big boys don’t cry. His loss of innocence is total and complete.
Groener identifies how the Syrian’s use of language is incredibly poetic even in times of great distress. In Last Goodbye we see the hands of a mother caress the body of her dead son as she keens, ‘Goodbye my child, My heart is burning. My child, you are now a bird in the sky’.Groener’s work seeks to give a voice to people who have lost their citizen status, to give them agency and visibility. The mass media has effectively forgotten about the millions of displaced people around the world. Seeing images of refugee camps doesn’t sell papers in the way that violent conflict at national borders does. Irish artists like Brian Maguire and Richard Mosse have travelled to sites of conflict in places like Syria, Sudan and the Congo to document and reflect on the devastation there. Groener has taken a different approach by remaining in her studio in Ireland. Only a tiny percentage of people will ever witness the sheer scale of these catastrophes in person, but the vast majority of people will see media coverage of it. In Moments the original video reports were often horrific and graphic. Groener chose to remove all of the background images and focus only on the central child in her line drawing to bring the audience into the story and not repel them with more horror. The refugee crisis is a specific moment of displacement, atrocity and trauma. It brutalises both the refugees and the people they come into contact with as it unfolds before our eyes. The UNHCR says that there are currently 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide – 14.5 times the population of Ireland. Of these the country with the most displaced people is Syria at 6.3 million. Our knowledge of the political background to the conflicts that form the backdrop to the crisis can make us feel powerless as we watch cynical politicians use civilians as pawns in their quest for autocracy. Viewers may want to forget and get on with their lives, forgetting is easy, but it is important to constantly remember how we make history and our place in it. This is not our past, it is very much our present. For all of us, including refugees, the feeling of helplessness is the most potent and crippling. Yet there are many ways to help. Groener’s work suggests that the place to start is at the individual level, one to one, one at a time.