Utopia: Final Project



Some pages from my final project art zine, as requested…



And here is some blah blah blah about the symbolism and such: 

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall. Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.”                                                               -Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

                According toHarsha Walia (2013), The United States, India and Israel alone have built over 3500 miles of walls on their borders “under the guise of fighting ‘illegal immigration’ and ‘terrorism’” (p.30). There is so much tied up in this figure, so many sorely needed resources, such violence, such fear. As Le Guin writes, it is the idea that built those 3500 miles that is important. It is the idea that is perhaps more real, more important than the concrete and the barbed wire. The preceding quote from The Dispossessed was an important jumping off point for this project in thinking about how walls are inherited as ideas before they become physical structures and how such borders are always differently permeable, depending on which side of the wall one comes from.

               While walls are the major theme of the work, the choice of white lilies as a recurring motif is also significant. White lilies, traditionally used as a symbol of purity throughout art history, are also the symbol of racist groups such as the Lily-white Movement in the southern United States. The constant rhetoric around ‘illegal’ immigration is invariably one of maintaining a national or racial purity and racism continues to serve as a justification for wars and state building activities abroad which push thousands from their homes and into perilous waters.

               The boat imagery in the book are all images of real boats used by refugees attempting one of the most dangerous forms of ‘illegal’ immigration. The Red Cross conservatively estimates that “fifteen hundred migrants died trying to reach the Canary Islands in just a five-month period in 2005” (Walia, 2013, p. 33) and the voyage to Australia or other parts of Europe via the Mediterranean is similarly treacherous. The three wooden boats are images taken by photographer Heiko Schafer of vessels used by African refugees trying to enter the European Union (Jobson, 2011); echoing the form of the three ‘lily white guardians’, they stand like coffins on the waves. In keeping with Walia’s (2013) attempt to disrupt “the myth of Western benevolence towards migrants” (p.16), the text that accompanies the refugee’s ghost-boats on the preceding page is a critical rewriting of three lines of Emma Lazarus’ famous sonnet ‘The New Colossus’, which is inscribed in bronze on the Statue of Liberty in New York.

                The deer in the book reference the real case of the deer of Sumava National Park, site of the former Czechoslovakian border, where 500 people were killed along the iron curtain. Deer who never encountered the electrified fences and barbed wire still keep to their side of the borderline.


Final Project Proposal

For my final project I will be using the contemporary architecture of ‘illegal’ migration- the walls, checkpoints, detention centres and armoured boundaries that carve the world into more and less privileged fragments- to explore the concept of refuge. I hope to interrogate these borders that exist in both physical and mental space from a critical perspective of subversion and resistance; as the migrant in search of an unbuilt city of refuge. This project will take the form of an artist’s book, incorporating both text and visual elements in critical dialogue with these themes.

Visual and conceptual inspirations: 

Heiko Schaefer, Maritime Incidents 

Shannon Jensen, Long Walk 

Christo and Jeanne Claude, Running Fence

Finishing School, We will show you fear in a handful of dust 

The Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency Project 

Marion von Osten and the Moneynations Project. ‘Euroland and the economy of the borderline’ 

Mapping Europe’s War on Immigration 

No One is Illegal Campaign 

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed 

Franz Kafka, The Castle


Proposal in visual form/ Some early sketches: 


Migration and Performance

Reading Shailja Patel’s Migritude was a powerful experience for me, despite our very different backgrounds. I believe the power of art, and of this amazing piece of work, is in such moments when a glimpse into another’s world resonates across what would seem to divide us. The fact that, as Patel notes at the end of the book, her work would speak powerfully to someone as seemingly different from her as a male Italian scientist, I think is testament to the depth of the themes she tackles and the clarity and eloquence of her vision in expressing them. This work does remind me of Arundhati Roy, who Patel says writes everything like a love song, but I think this piece is also a love song- to her parents, her history and the oppressed whatever time or place they might reside in. The thing that moved me most about this work is its obvious genuine humanity. Patel’s outrage and her pain and her tenderness are deep and sincere. She is unflinching in her interrogation of injustice, whether it be perpetrated by others in past atrocities, by a current society against her racialized, gendered body, or even by herself in her conflicted relationship with her parents. Her combination of historical context, current events and personal narrative weave into one another seamlessly.

Some of the passages I related most strongly to dealt with the complexities of existing in a female body in the world, and her evolving relationship to her mother:

You must never act as if you owned your body. It’s draped and displayed for the edification of others…As a child, I swore I would never wear clothes I couldn’t run or fight in. My legs would never be hobbled” (p.22)

I can remember thinking something very similar to these lines as a teenager when my mother would admonish me to ‘sit up straight’ or ‘cross your legs, sitting like that isn’t ladylike!’ and attempted to school me in the arts of pantyhose, lacy dresses and women’s work. Throughout the work, Patel’s relationship to her mother evolves from one of bitterness (I never wanted daughters and Shilling love) to appreciation and understanding. Her mother’s gift of the mangal sutra necklace, which Patel writes in the shadow book, “showed me up as the traditionalist” was really powerful for me- as is her response at the end of the work where she invokes the gift again- a final coming to terms with and honouring of their relationship: “This work that filigrees and inlays/all your legacies,/that snakes across borders,/dodges visa controls,/this/is my intention./Declaration./Lifelong execution.” (p.62).

Finally, I feel like The Making (p.122-124) is a mantra for all artists who work to shed light on the world. This is a text I know I will come back to again and I would love the opportunity to see it performed live one day.

(Aside: “No one told me about women who went into battle- in their saris. Worked the fields- in their saris. Why didn’t anyone tell me about women who laboured on construction sites in their saris?”)

More Thoughts on Stories of Immigration…

after reading Amardeep Singh’s Mimicry and Hybridity in Plain English.

I’m really fascinated by language, so that’s what jumped out at me from this text. The fact that Bhabha needs to be ‘translated’ into ‘plain English’ by another academic is also interesting/yucky for me. Why does Bhabha choose to write in the highly specialized academic register he does here to begin with? This seems pretty problematic to me in a subject area like postcolonial studies, where it is most likely that this type of highly academic and jargony work would be completely inaccessible to most of the subjects of his analysis.  Anyway, here are some additional thoughts on Singh’s post in no particular order:

On language preservation in Indigenous societies in general:

“Language is central to the reclamation of Indigenous law because translation fails us — not only because so much is lost in translation, but also because so much is added. It is nearly impossible for me to use the English term law and not have you immediately form images in your head of what law is. Your understanding of this term is probably rooted in a specific Anglo-cultural history. Whether you form pictures in your mind of lawyers in powdered wigs, or monarchs passing judgement, or of weary Crown prosecutors desperately trying to make it through a stack of files three feet high, the term is inextricably linked to an Anglo–common law tradition which stretches back for centuries. Millennia, if we want to really get to the roots of it…”

“Aside from allowing us to communicate with one another, our languages express our laws and sociopolitical principles. When we lose our language, we can no longer tap into those things that make us a whole culture. We must rely on translations that are inescapably influenced by foreign cultural understandings. We cannot help but experience an erosion of our cultural foundations when we cannot access these principles in their pure form, in our languages and in our territories. On the flip side, even when our traditions and cultures have been eroded, we can use the language to reclaim foundational principles that may have been forgotten or erased on purpose by the overlay of colonially imposed governance in our communities.”

On ‘reclaiming’ languages:

Stories of Immigration

I found the articles this week difficult to connect with. I’m not sure if this was due to the writing style or more abstract nature of the content or something else, but I struggled with them this week. So, I decided that I will try to respond to two ideas that I found interesting from these texts using the work of several diaspora artists who I feel engage with the themes in poetic ways.

“The disorientation that arises when familiar categories are left behind becomes the very ground on which critical readers reorient themselves anew.” -Leslie Adelson, ‘Against Between: A Manifesto’

 “To the extent to which discourse is a form of defensive warfare, mimicry marks those moments of civil disobedience within the discipline of civility: signs of spectacular resistance. Then the words of the master become the site of hybridity- the warlike, subaltern sign of the native- then we may not only read between the lines but even seek to change the often coercive reality that they so lucidly contain.” -Homi Bhabha, ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’


Jukhee Kwon (Korea/UK)

Altered book artist Jukhee Kwon’s work has an interesting resonance with Signs Taken for Wonders- the “words of the master” literally becoming a “site of hybridity” through her physical alteration of the text.


Jukhee Kwon, ‘Luminous Book’

“Kwon creates captivating works, quite literally, from the printed page. Using abandoned and disused books, she shreds the pages by hand to create magnificent ‘book sculptures’. These effervescent sculptures, brimming with energy, flow from their spines in the form of cascading waterfalls. Each book, thus deconstructed, attains to a new existence through this transformational creative process. Much of her work plays with ideas of destruction and re-creation…..The act of the book’s expansion alludes to a feeling of freedom and movement, mimicking in a sense, her migratory experience. As she cuts each strand, the process becomes a means to travel the tracks of half-held memories and to retrace those first conscious steps towards the creation of a new life.” via October Gallery

Mona Hatoum (Palestine/Lebanon/UK)

Mona Hatoum is one of my favourite installation artists. Born into a Palestinian family in Lebanon, she has lived in the UK since 1975. Her works are so densely layered and flawlessly executed.


Mona Hatoum, ‘Suspended’

“In Suspended (2011), Hatoum hangs 35 fibreboard swings from steel chains attached to the ceiling. Each is covered in red laminate, into which is etched the street plan of a city from across the globe. Hatoum aims to make a point about urban migration with these hanging islands, which are dislocated and impersonal, coldly hostile.” via YaLibnan


Mona Hatoum, ‘Paravent’ and ‘Dormiente’

Paravent and Dormiente (both 2008) are enlarged kitchen graters whose enormity transforms them into a room partition and a bed, respectively, but their sharp edges threaten to harm those who would dare to touch them. Made of steel they become a barrier that isolates visitors and impedes their passage in a threatening manner.”


Mona Hatoum, ‘Impenetrable’

Impenetrable (2008) hangs from the ceiling, forming a dense, impenetrable cube that seems to float in the air. Though delicate in its execution, the work is highly evocative of feelings of danger and captivity as closer inspection reveals its composition to be barbed-wire. Notions of magic, wonder, and fragility are juxtaposed with danger and fear. The barbed wire is a deadly encumbrance but at the same time an ethereal and astonishing structure of minimal form.”


Mona Hatoum, ‘Natura morta’

 “Natura morta: Designed to disperse shrapnel upon exploding, the first Byzantine hand grenades had a body made of stone, ceramic, and later of glass. The small explosive shell took its name from the French grenade for “pomegranate,” because it looked and behaved like the many-seeded fruit that explodes once it is overripe, disseminating its seeds over a wide perimeter. The pomegranate is native to the region of Persia and the western Himalayan range. Knowing no borders it has been cultivated for several millennia in Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Northern India, Russia, and also in South China, Southeast Asia, and the Mediterranean region. In Hatoum’s still life Natura Morta, the grenade appears as both vital fruit and deadly fire.” all via 5centsapound

 Nida Sinnokrot (Palestine/Algeria/USA)

 Sinnokrot is better known as a video and documentary artist, but I love these two pieces of his and think they respond eloquently to Bhabha’s discussion of mimicry, resistance and hybridity. More on these works via Nadour and Sharjah Art Foundation.


Nida Sinnokrot, ‘KA (JCB JCB)


Nida Sinnokrot, ‘Rubber Coated Rocks’

Lida Abdul (Afghanistan/Germany/USA)

Lida Abdul discusses her migratory experience and her piece White House:

“AM: As a child, you were forced to leave Afghanistan after the Soviet Invasion and sought refuge in India, Germany and USA…You have talked about being in a state of ‘post-identity’, ‘post-nation’… How does your personal history inform your work?

LA: I feel that I can easily cross cultural borders. I think that is what is wonderful about not having a fixed notion of identity or nationhood. There is really nothing I have a duty to do. It bothers people, this refusal to choose between us and them because I guess when you announce your identity publicly people know what to expect. If I were to identify with anything, it would be Afghanistan because it’s a country that needs so much attention.

AM: In White House (2005), in a landscape strewn with ruins, you painstakingly paint the rubble of a destroyed building white. It is at once an absurdist gesture and a cathartic, determined act of political resistance. You have said that the most difficult thing is to move beyond the memory of an event, and your works are the forms of failed attempts to ‘transcend’. Could you say more about this?

LA: I wanted to turn the ruins into sculptures because they carry for me the memory of something lost, yet at the same time they are reminders of what is no longer there. A fragment. Yet complete in its own way because any attempt to fix it, will erase its uniqueness. It teaches nothing, except that what was once is gone and the only way to approach it is through art without direct reference to an event.” via ArtVehicle


Lida Abdul, ‘White House’

Dear White People

The potential of the internet to allow marginalized communities to crowd fund representational media created by, for, and about themselves in a way not seen in mainstream media on or offline is something else I was thinking about…

‘Dear White People’ was crowd funded through IndieGogo and showed at Sundance this January. The film “follows the stories of four black students at an Ivy League college where a riot breaks out over a popular “African American” themed party thrown by white students. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the film will explore racial identity in “post-racial” America while weaving a universal story of forging one’s unique path in the world.”

Check it out here.