Tactile Images and the Experience of Refugees

The number of people crossing the Mediterranean is spiralling: in flight from war and famine, trying to protect their lives and the lives of their loved ones. And as this number grows, so too does the number of those who are losing their lives along this route. In 2016, between January and October, 3 940 individuals perished. The statistics published by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) classify meticulously those making the crossing by the sea route that they follow: east, west or central. From the Polish, Central European perspective – Europe’s southern coast, the cradle of its civilisation, has proved sufficiently remote for these numbers to be regarded as an abstraction; we can push these experiences of others into a distant sphere of spectral, digital images. The flat, superficial representations circulating on the Internet can easily be refashioned into cautionary memes, providing us with an effective alibi for not ‘seeing’.

Not so long ago, in 2009, albeit at a time when a different reality prevailed, Paweł Althamer’s project A Common Task showed the ‘golden people’ coming to Brussels to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the ‘liberation’ of Central Europe, which had enabled its peoples to become citizens of the European Union. The project’s participants looked like aliens from space – an impression that was deliberately encouraged. The refugees seen in photographs are similarly attired, wrapped in gold and silver thermal rescue blankets. These, too, conjure up associations with aliens – but rather those with an unlikely otherness and accompanied by a sense of an uncontrolled invasion. Their motivation, experiences and suffering remain beyond our field of vision; in this dimension, many Europeans suffer from a ‘lazy eye’ – to borrow the metaphorical phrase from Gianfranco Rosi’s film Fuocoammare:Fire at Sea (2016), whichdepicts life on Lampedusa, one of the many havens for refugees.

‘The field of vision always seemed to me akin to an archaeological site,’1 writes Paul Virilio, pointing to the composite, multi-layered function of eyesight, as well as to its capacity for discovering reality (‘what is silent will speak, what is closed will open’2). At the same time, however, the philosopher raises at least two disturbing questions. The first concerns materiality, which even if imperfect, fragmentary and subject to the flow of time, is the basis of archaeology, although not necessarily the archaeology of images. The second issue concerns the alleged origins and originality of the object of actual archaeological excavation, and which is very clearly a product of reconstruction. It is manufactured in the process of research or as a result of being seen. The outcome of the archaeologist’s work is not a reconstruction of what was, but rather an image of what might have been. In Who Where, Margot Sputo’s in-depth work on images revolves precisely around these issues. Her approach is hands-on; her aim is to rediscover the material nature of the image and its capacity for affective action, energised by the desire to recreate the experience of the Other.

The beginning is hidden – as today the beginning of everything is – on the Internet, an environment in which innumerable images are dispersed and diffused. They are weighed down by the unbearable lightness of representation. They are as light as a feather, fragile mobile fragments, easy to shift or transform. And yet, paradoxically, they are invisible, submerged in a dense swarm of other images and at the same time unencumbered either by captions or context and spared too much attention – the scarcity and diffusion of which is symptomatic of our contact with the Internet. Hence the first question posed by Margot Sputo concerns what we do not see when we look at images on the web. We find it especially easy not to see images of suffering. Indeed, we wilfully ignore them. Our refusal to accept refugees in Poland begins with our refusal to accept images of refugees or even with our desire to hijack such images out of hostile motives, for instance, in the form of memes depicting the alleged threat posed by ‘young male Muslims equipped with the latest smartphones’.

At stake in the artistic act is thus the need to restore our ‘sight’ in relation to these images – and this requires manual processing. In reaction to the immateriality and singular imperceptibility of digital images, Margot Sputo sets out to transform these into objects accessible through direct, physical touch rather than via a mouse or touchpad. Her first step is to select and gather together a carefully composed collection of such images; this demands our attention, scrutiny, reflection – learning to see, mobilising the eye. Then comes action proper: restoring the materiality of these images, in effect conferring on them a new visibility, with the eye required to do the work of thinking and touching. The artist has selected images of refugees from which she has edited fragments of fabric and cloth whose purpose is to protect the body from damp, the cold and a sense of danger, but also – in the case of the bodies of those who had died from exhaustion or drowned – from the stares of onlookers, providing shelter on their final journey. The sleeping bags and rugs, thermal blankets and foil, the life jackets make the hazards and perils of the refugee experience tangible and disturbingly real. The artist has printed out and attached these cropped fragments to a photographic canvas, subsequently treating it as fabric – she has washed it, dried it and commissioned tailors from the Krakow district of Kazimierz to hem and sew it together by hand.

The process describes in detail no more than a part of this work – as complex as the very process of seeing, yet some aspects of it, above all, the transformation of a photograph into fabric and the sewing of it, provide a constant. The sewing of the fabric in Kazimierz conjures up a whole range of sensory impressions: the feel of the fabric, the sound of the machines, the bulge of the stitch. More than that: it conveys a message from the past – an inconvenient chore, accompanied by the refusal to accept that a Singer sewing machine should be no more than a mere prop in a nostalgic trip to a beautiful Jewish past. A distinct after-image of the Holocaust is evoked: fabrics and their artistic transformation – among others in the work of Christian Boltanski, which also references the archaeology of memory – function as metonyms of extermination, with the help of clothes piled up and spread out in interiors that evoke associations with concentration camp store houses, in which the possessions of prisoners and the murdered were kept. Our imagination is guided in the direction of history.

With its mechanical rhythm and the texture of the cloth, sewing invests the images with material weight, evoking not only the past – intended as a menacing memento and a warning against repeating history – but also today’s world. It brings to mind suture, the surgical stitch, the classic cinematic montage technique. From this perspective, its aim would be to conceal the stitches between scenes: thanks to the seamless passage between shots, the camera conceals its privileged, omniscient position as the narrator, pretending that at all times it is placed in a spot that is subjective, seeing what the given character sees. The action of Margot Sputo aims precisely in the opposite direction – by showing us the stiches, that is to say the complex, composite character of the situation ‘sewn together’, the artist provokes us to take up a stance, one based, however, on reflection rather than on prejudices that only seek confirmation in the image.

Here, the emptiness of digital representations has been filled in two dimensions simultaneously: in practice and in metaphor. Everything is played out both at the level of the concrete – the fabric, the washing, the folding and the stitching, which recall the corporeality and weight of experience – and the abstract. The transience of Internet images, loaded with the weight of the material, has, by the same token, become enriched by references to loftier ideas. The washed fabric photographed in a plastic bowl, mirroring this basic possession of the refugee, serves to evoke symbols that regulate humanity’s idea of itself, one that lies somewhere between a very humanist longing for the community and harmony of our ‘blue planet’ – its beauty highlighted in the well-known photograph taken by the American astronaut in 1972 and called forth in Sputo’s photographs – and the abstractness of bureaucracy and the infrastructure of the state, which does, however, operate on a very real level, for example, by issuing passports.

The artist summons up the idea of Leibniz’s Baroque folds, transcribed philosophically by Gilles Deleuze and applied in the paintings of Simon Hantaï, who writes, ‘What conceals itself at the same time reveals itself – coiled up in secrecy. The canvas ceases to be a projection screen. It becomes something material, cut off from itself, etc. – concave, convex – a flattened mountain – painted and concealed – coiled and uncoiled – empty, dividing and binding – beyond this there is nothing’.3 Margot Sputo creates thus her own scrolls of photographic material around absent meanings, which, thanks to this approach– thanks, that is to photographs that reflect the texture of what they represent, the folds of the fabric, its coarseness – gain a presence.

By asking the question posed in the title, ‘Who Where’, the artist materialises space and locates in it images of fleeing people. She bestows on them the weight of materiality and at the same time makes an appeal to us, here. She creates a tactile, palpable image and simultaneously one that affects us in a subtle way, without being shrill. Such an image turns out to be necessary, so that we can be touched by the reality hidden behind it. By touching it, the image stimulates the imagination and only the imagination allows us to perceive the Other and its suffering; only through the imagination can we rebuild the current project that we today call ‘Europe’ and ‘Poland’.

The essay was written and translated (by Jason Lowther) for the catalogue of the exhibition of Margot Sputo’s ‘Who Where’ in the Seweryn Udziela Etnographic Museum in Cracow (17 December, 2016 – 23 April, 2017). We would like to thank Mr Antoni Bartosz, the Museum’s Director for his kind permission to reprint the text.

1 Paul Virilio, Negative Horizon: An Essay in Dromoscopy, transl. M. Degener, Continuum, London–New York, p. 29.

2 Ibidem.

3 Simon Hantaï, Werke von 1960 bis 1995, catalogue, Westfälische Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Münster 1999. Quoted after: Jean-Luc Nancy, Visitation (de la peinture chrétienne), Lignes fictives, Galilée, Paris 2001.