Burning Sage

September 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

NB This is a blog post which was first published on Barcelona in a Bag, my art blog about the Spanish Civil War. 

The refugee crisis is now fully in the public mind. Last week proved decisive in a process of galvanising compassion and propelling large numbers of citizens into action. We marched, made banners, donated clothes, listened to speeches and cried.

People in the UK, Europe and across the world demonstrated against government policies. I personally have not felt this way since Greenham Common. On some level I felt connected to my 20 year old self. But I am now middle aged – I am a mother, and my children are becoming young adults.

Probably it is as a mother and a daughter that I most reacted to the events that have created this international forcefield of empathy.

I’m a refugee’s daughter and I CAN’T stand by while refugees perish in camps, at sea or at closed borders. BUT I am a mother and like so many others the image of Aylan Kurdi’s tiny body washed up on a beach proved a tipping point. This has been an image whose potency has proved to be that of other seminal captures in the context of war, such as Robert Capa’s falling solider for the Spanish Civil War and the image of the napalmed child in Vietnam. I include none of these images to illustrate my blog.

The power of the Aylan image is extraordinary. The eye at first appears to register a sleeping infant – how many times did I check my beautiful little boy in his cot to find him in this pose. There are some who claim the image has been manipulated, this child victim moved and rearranged to pull our heart strings. I can’t go there.

When the content of the image reaches the decoding centres of the brain it dawns that this child is dead, washed up like so much flotsam and jetsam yet the wholly innocent victim of a war he did not start, did not ask to be part of and could not conceive of, other than to be a member of a family in flight, in terror, and in mortal danger. That would be enough, but not enough. Aylan would both know but not know about war.

I have been stimulated by Dr Fiona Noble to think most carefully about this image, to try to understand in more depth the complex moral questions about it’s capture and dissemination. You can read her thoughtful blog on the link below:

The Politics of (the Image of) the Dead Child

I am torn in two about this image, knowing that without it we would not know what we know. Reams of footage and newsprint have rolled over our eyes without the same power to ignite us. They didn’t bring the same kind of knowing as the photograph of Aylan. And if this is happening in our world we should know it – we should know it in ways that matter and register in our guts and lead to action. Yet I feel appalled at the way this image has been used and gained currency being disseminated endlessly and even worked upon in sand sculptures and cartoons. From the moment I saw it I knew I would write and respond creatively – but NOT replicate the image. I knew I would make an art piece – a mediated image, or in this case an iPhone video capture.

My piece for Aylan remains undedicated, a choice I made paradoxically as a mark of respect. The only hint at my subject is that #refugeeswelcome appears as the final credit. I chose to make a cleansing ritual in my studio – a ritual cleansing of a space with burning sage. In this case the space I work with is the internet – space of the endless repeat of images, a space where a dead boy’s body can become a meme.

Probably I’ve written enough about such a paradox – such a should and shouldn’t have situation, where we struggle with ethics and fears of exploitation yet the message is one we need to hear. How can an image be both so crucial and yet the thing we wish never to have seen. I reflect that it can never be unseen – this is also it’s power. But the truth is that this image is not Aylan. I don’t come form a place of answers – only questions. My work seeks to separate my understanding of Aylan as a soul from the image of him I can now never un-see. My ritual does not attempt to undo the image, or wash it away. My ritual is one of purification of a space – wordless, symbolic and open. It is in the end all I can do.

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