DISPLACEMENT FROM HOME: WHAT TO LEAVE, WHAT TO TAKE
CABINETS, CUPBOARDS, CASES AND CLOSETS BY LINDA STEIN
This work on displacement, with its accompanying educational programming, is a natural progression of my artistic projects since 9/11, in which I focused on themes of protection and victimization, power and vulnerability, most recently during the time of the Holocaust.
A seven-minute documentary film addressing bullying and bigotry – featuring Abigail Disney, Eva Fogelman, Henry Galarza, Raymond Learsy, Pheonix McFee, Menachem Rosensaft, Elizabeth Sackler, Linda Stein and Gloria Steinem – is integral to my Holocaust work, along with educational initiatives by a Curriculum Team of scholars headed by Karen Keifer-Boyd in collaboration with Penn State University, an accompanying book, lecture, and the facilitation of Magic Scarf performances around the country.
As this current series addresses social justice by highlighting global displacement and traumatic memory, I find it even more necessary and exciting to bring to the fore my personal blend of artist, teacher, activist, performer and writer. These identifications buttress each other, making their contributions more meaningful to me and, hopefully, to the viewer and participant.
Starting in 2013 with sculptures about displacement during the time of the Holocaust, I continued in 2015 to also encompass the idea of the wider displacement of some 60 million other peoples around the world, including migrants, refugees, and internally displaced people (IDPs) currently fleeing discrimination and violence, roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Italy being pushed out of their homes. Perhaps more than any other single issue, migration has defined the 20th and 21st centuries with prolonged global flight on a massive scale. The United Nations estimates that the total number of international and internal migrants is approximately 300 million.
I was displaced from my own home for eight months following 9/11. Running from the falling Twin Towers for an entire day, I took refuge for the better part of a year, with a friend at the other end of Manhattan. My downtown home was in turmoil. Everything in my apartment was covered with dust and debris, necessitating disposal: couch, carpet, curtains, books, mattress, fixtures and furniture.
My experience, though traumatic for me, seems inconsequential in comparison to those who were, and are, desperate to leave countries like Rwanda, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Ukraine, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, as well as in our own country during the Great Migration when African Americans left the South, the Japanese in Internment Camps, and the Trail of Tears when the Cherokee Nation was forced to leave their homelands east of the Mississippi to resettlements in Oklahoma.
As an artist, I need to respond visually and viscerally with a body of work that must echo both heartbreak and hope. As I create my art, I feel I am there with the displaced person, picking and choosing what to leave/what to take from the home that I have to vacate.
My process becomes both meditation and reflection, with myriad “voices” from the materials and objects begging to be taken from their precarious positions in a home no longer safe, and placed in one with security. As I become witness, victim, and protector, I replay the roles of the 4 Bs (Bully, Bullied, Bystander and Brave Upstander) that I previously coined and address in my workshops and lectures.
My research draws upon narratives by and about displaced people and trauma. Online sources including articles, statistics, books, poetry, current events, history, pop culture, and religions also inform my work. I consider feminist theories concerning the Other as I connect with people who have been affected by displacement.
The goal of my Displacement from Home project, like all of my art and educational missions, is to open minds, start conversations, and encourage the meaningful exchange of ideas. I want my work to turn Bystander passivity into Upstander activity, to inspire hope through curiosity, awareness and empathy. The components of my art address not only the anxiety that comes with fleeing, but also on the affirmation experienced in a new setting of protection and security.
Anxiety and affirmation can exist simultaneously or separately, and my sculptures are seen as containing fragments that have been flung around and left after running from a threatened household, and/or as including remnants which have been carefully, methodically, patiently recontextualized into new surroundings: the safe home. Departure and abandonment turns to an expression of belonging. Each fragment acquires meaning either as a symbolic extension of home, or as its tragic loss. In this setting, the passage of one bit of fabric, metal or stone to another becomes most significant to me: I want this transition to be a bridge rather than a border, so that two unlike forms can merge and marry into one.
The viewer can peek into each dioramic sculpture in a voyeuristic manner, glimpsing civilization’s traces no longer in their rightful places or original homes. They embody memory and, perhaps, cruelty, with an achingly palpable sense of loss, emptiness, wounding.
Why is it so compelling for the viewer to see the scrambling and disruption of the familiar? Its ambient enigma seeks solution and has a magnetic pull to identify and separate the individual items from the amalgam and abstraction of the whole.
For me as the artist at work, it is a puzzle waiting to find conjoining and complementing pieces: slowly placing shred next to shard, segment over scrap, snippet on splinter, sliver merged with slice, morsel, remnant, wedge, so that concave conforms to convex, texture touches texture, colors and patterns contrast and compare, as all elements inhabit and fill empty space, replacing it with denizens of a newly discovered territory. These varied items, significant and quotidian, adored and abandoned, are recalled as moments from daily life: neighborhood, culture – identity.
The viewer is invited to take a ride through a miniature landscape, requiring very careful observation, close deliberate study, in order to see incongruous juxtapositions, while searching for their possible original settings and meanings, uses and importance. Some areas may give a jolt to the viewer, as do ambiguous, yet provocative, phrases written between some configurations. The words take on precious and prescient meaning as one tries to interpret their significance. What would you write if you were incarcerated in a cell or bound on a life-threatening escape to freedom? On what – wall or tree, floor or sand – would you write your words?
The observer is prompted to complete a narrative, tell a story, fantasize about what is behind these humble-yet-monumental materials. To whom did they belong? Were they used in celebration? What was the fragment’s connection with its owner? Was it intentionally discarded? Was it a favorite object? Did it have sentimental value? Was it bought or found or gifted? This searching for familiarity and affiliation may become hypnotic for the artist and viewer alike.
Within each sculpture, there is a paradoxical combination of menace and serenity. One shelf or drawer holds haunting reminders of life, materials worn and rusted or brand new, lying around in unexpected couplings after one might have been forced to rush out the door. The viewer continues to journey, exploring and excavating the remnants until the “aha moments” of subjective recognition, satisfying discovery, when conjoined fragments are identified in their new family of stability and safety.
The artistic process is labor-intensive, focusing on the minuscule, the almost imperceptible and seemingly inconsequential triviality. Placing a hair-like strand of thread, as the connector to fill in a gap, is time-consuming. For the head of a pin to become a factor in transitioning, for a nail to become a line of demarcation, the artist must be patient, open and receptive to microscopic possibilities. With fingers caressing each fragment, giving it value and respect, and adding it to a chosen family of cherished ones, the process becomes nothing less than a love story weaving together footnotes of life. The landscape of vulnerability – stemming from displacement from home – becomes a collective ideal.
–Linda Stein, 2016