George Barber’s exhibition ‘Fences Make Senses’, on the subject of migration, presents relatively new work that is altogether more timely than it may have been intended to be. Whilst the wider media presents us with ‘waves’ (to use their own, clumsy term) of imagery and reportage on the stalled fates of people crossing borders and seas into Europe, there are obvious risks of sensitivity in showing work that addresses the issue in hypothetical or ‘played’ form, as takes place here. Or, perhaps it is more truthful to say, the viewer of the work is more alert to their own experience being an aesthetic one. This is a complicated state, somewhere between half-thought assumptions of the veracity and polemical value of documentary, and between the fear of finding beauty in the distress of those ‘regarded only as someone to be seen, not someone (like us) who also sees’, as Susan Sontag describes the othering of photographic subjects.
In reality, the work presented here is something more like a form of poetic documentary. The main installation, also titled ‘Fences Make Senses’, is centred around a video projection. The video combines and overlays several sets of footage; images of migrant ships seemingly taken from television news, newly shot sequences of rather liminal spaces such as train-lines that seem like the ports of southern England, and ‘dramatic’ or ‘re-enacted’ scenes. These scenes are played by actors (Barber describes them in a recent interview as ‘experienced improvisors’, which in another light might describe the vicissitudes of migrants’ travels), who are certainly non-migrants, and show situations such as the purchase of a flimsy inflatable boat. It is this dramatised approach, which quite naturally brings out the absurd, dangerous and futile nature of their voyages, that might risk a great insensitivity. But in fact the imagining and replaying of the scenes makes very clear the fact that such discourse almost always addresses the non-migrant, and an audience made up of those that receive immigrants.
There is, nonetheless, a close overlap between the ‘us’ and ‘them’ that the work describes, as we use the same waters and occupy the same landmasses. One sequence points out the frequency of aeroplanes arriving at the Mediterranean coast bringing tourists. Yet the immigrating figure is severally othered; from their place of origin and their destination. A voiceover by Barber appeals sadly to the viewer to understand this state, asking them to ‘imagine swimming to a place you weren’t wanted’, and to try to understand this in terms of how voluntarily tiring swimming is as a leisure activity. This, especially, draws the viewer into a dark empathy.
The installation surrounding the video (and the benches from which to view it) is made up of a series of metal fences, partially covered in tarpaulin, and various pieces of wood, rope and other objects that appear as if washed up. Another, untitled video showing blurred images of water is projected at an angle against further such material casting a dramatic silhouette. The assembly as a whole closely resembles a stage-set that one can easily imagine might be the setting for a (very) contemporary production of ‘The Tempest’. One thinks of another clumsy term used by the press, the ‘plight’ (as if more could not be done to help) of migrants, and, as Trinculo says upon encountering Caliban, that ‘misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows’. In one of the dramatised scenes the seller of the inflatable boat suggests darkly that the experience of migration might draw the party of travellers closer together. In the play Prospero fashions a world out of his shipwreck, imposing it upon future travellers washed up on his shores, and into his magic and narratives. Contemporary immigrants simply arrive washed up into other people’s stories, as untreated symptoms of an illness that is never truly addressed.
There would be many formal questions and observations to make about the work were it not for its poignancy at this moment in time.
A further work, ‘Basement Pool’, is a video shown on an iPad mounted on an exercise machine (that can be used by the viewer). The video overlays images as in ‘Fences Make Senses’, showing the motion of a train and images of a swimming pool. The monologue soundtrack, again spoken by Barber, describes the anxiety of knowing that one’s neighbours are excavating to build a swimming pool beneath their house, and which will therefore intervene on the space beneath the house of the speaker. This installation is in an alcove of the main gallery space, which has been partly tiled and decorated to resemble a spa-like setting. The voice is uneasy at the thought of rarified leisure taking place beneath him, of its inhabitants swimming and looking at their own bodies. This work shares many reference points with the piece it accompanies; inequalities of wealth and agency, the incongruence of bodies floating in water and into our consciousness, and the complex question of who owns and who intervenes upon spaces.