A small white boat navigates forceful swells and choppy waves. No land in sight, this lone vessel presses forth. Fortunately, the lightly clouded sky forms a hopeful horizon for its unseen passengers. Viewers encounter this Turneresque seascape with its subtle narrative connotations on a large projection screen set out from the far wall of the main gallery at Nils Staerk, in Copenhagen. A mystery compels us: why one would brave this tempest in just a dinghy?
The backstory to this initially enigmatic two-part video installation, European Union Mayotte (2015), begins with SUPERFLEX, the instrumental Danish activist artists’ group whose members, Jakob Fenger, Rasmus Nielsen, and Bjørnstjerne Christiansen, have collaborated since 1993. They received a commission for a hospital in Mayotte, a French island state located in the Indian Ocean between northwestern Madagascar and northeastern Mozambique, with the resulting installation originally shot as film footage on Anjouan, part of the independent island country of Comoros, located 70 kilometers away from Mayotte. What makes this commission unusual is its critical tack, focusing on Mayotte’s notoriety as a destination for human trafficking where boats arrive regularly from Anjouan.
When the EU acknowledged Mayotte as a member state in 2014, it became the union’s outermost region and an entry point to France and other EU member states. Extreme inclement weather has made the short journey from Anjouan so deadly that more than 50,000 would-be migrants have not survived, leading the BBC to deem it “France’s migrant cemetery.” Undaunted, streams of refugees continue to make the trek in fishing boats built in Anjouan.
A persistent, displaced hammering urges one to find its source: the installation’s second video behind the first projection. This subsequent piece documents the monotonous workaday labor of building the small fiberglass fishing boats. The hammering holds a sinister beat foreshadowing a dangerous passage.
SUPERFLEX’s icon of a little boat battling tremendous odds astutely captures the zeitgeist of 2015, which could be named the year of the migrant. From Superflex’s inception, the collective has effectively synched its art to the socio-economic global. It has borrowed from the politics of the anti-globalization movement and logo-busting culture of the 1990s, as in their critiques of multinationals such as McDonald’s, which they lampooned in the eponymous Flooded McDonald’s (2009). Additionally, Superflex has shared the Occupy Movement’s outrage over the banking industry’s perpetration of the 2008 financial crisis.
Through ideological engagement with these activist movements, SUPERFLEX has spurred the political turn in Danish art over the last decade. Artists including Søren Thilo Funder, Maj Hasager, and Tina Helen deal with migration and transcultural politics, while the collective has retained its contemporaneity by addressing the plight of migrant African refugees.
While Superflex performs in the global macro-space, its strongest recent work has avoided over-generalization because it originated from the research of specific sites. Consider, for instance, its public commission Oil Fountain (2012), a gold-hued oil barrel designed to create the illusion of endlessly flowing oil. Analogously, the economic survival of the city for which it was commissioned, Haugesund, Norway, depends on the illusion of oil as an infinite resource, an illusion shared by much of the world economy. European Union Mayotte shares this expansion of site-specificity.
In contrast, the exhibition’s second section addresses immigration without regional anchoring. Considering the universal concern of identity loss through assimilation, seven text paintings, a series bearing the same collective title as the exhibition, each read, “You can’t eat identity.” The bright Pop art-reminiscent hues of the paintings’ monochrome backgrounds are, in fact, the seven colors comprising Euro notes. This back-room installation serves a bleak, pithy warning that one risks one’s life to migrate to countries where survival can lead to invisibility.
The message still falls short. You Can’t Eat Identity highlights a significant pitfall of immigration but not one directly applicable to the dire situation of today’s migrant tide. Many of these migrants are not in the position to ponder selling out their heritage because they can’t find a job. More pressing concerns for asylum claimants begin with the hostility directed towards them in some EU countries (including SUPERFLEX’s home country of Denmark, whose government placed ads in a Lebanese newspaper discouraging Syrian refugees from entering).
Compounding the paintings’ off-timing is their harkening back to SUPERFLEX’s post-financial crisis pieces via depictions of currency. Ultimately, as end punctuation for this exhibition, You Can’t Eat Identity drifts back rather than makes a full stop.
Discretely, though, European Union Mayotte stands as one of the most memorable artworks of 2015. It marks the ordeal of the millions of refugees now seeking asylum in the EU and elsewhere. Of course, with the treacherous passage itself and the xenophobia awaiting its survivors, this installation bears ominous connotations. Simultaneously, the bright sky beyond the fishing boat symbolizes the possibility of transcending the worst fears of calamity, an optimism that serves as a panacea for You Can’t Eat Identity’s nihilism. Indeed, the optimism that there must be a better life abroad is not only the driving force behind the risk-taking underlying European Union Mayotte, but also the wider frame of the nomadic era that this seascape emdodies.