The Art of Displacement



With 232 million* or 3% of the world’s population now living abroad, this mobile culture gives artists even more flexibility in choosing where in the world to live and work; but relocating is something artists have always been prepared to do, whether for inspiration, career gain or as a consequence of war, politics and economics necessity.

James Mcneill Whistler

Painter James Mcneill Whistler chose to leave the provincial United States to make a name for himself in the cultural centres of Europe. Whistler could hardly be characterised as a political radical but as an outsider taking a position which opposed establishment views, he naturally questioned Victorian values.

Forced displacement is a relevant and passionate issue that contemporary artists such as Ai Weiwei and Francis Alÿs address in their conceptual artworks. We look at the different circumstances around displacement and see how these are expressed in the artists’ work.

James McNeill Whistler, Whistler's Mother, 1871,
oil on canvas, 144.3×162.4cm
image source wikipedia
From 16th October 2013 until January 2014, An American in London: Whistler and the Thames at Dulwich Picture Gallery will be the first major exhibition dedicated to the artist’s time in London between 1859 and 1903.

Like many of his contemporaries in the U.S.A, Whistler felt the attraction of cosmopolitan Europe. Moving to Paris as a young man he met painter Henri Fantin-Latour and was introduced into the artistic circle of Courbet that included Manet and Baudelaire. Whistler studied in Paris and learnt two important artistic principles from his teacher, the painter Gleyre; line is more important than colour and black is the basis of tonal harmony.

Settling in London from 1859 Whistler developed his technique of making tonal paintings with thin washes of a limited range of colours.

Promoting an idea of ‘Art for Art’s sake’ he rejected the sentimental content fashionable in Victorian art, emphasising the abstract by naming his paintings after musical terms such as nocturnes and compositions. Perhaps his most famous painting, commonly known as Whistler’s Mother, is in fact Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1. Co-curator of the exhibition Professor Margaret F. MacDonald explains “…his etchings and paintings mark one of his most successful and profound assaults on the art establishment of his day.’

A renowned wit, garrulous and extremely sociable, Whistler was friends with Oscar Wilde, before falling out, and infamously took the aged critic John Ruskin to court for libel when Ruskin accused Whistler of ‘flinging a paint pot in the face of the public’. Whistler travelled to Europe as a free agent; Paris was a vibrant cultural centre and artists flocked there from all over the world. The Second World War saw a cultural shift to New York as European artists such as Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers and many others moved there to escape persecution.

Despite a more globalised economy encouraging free movement, war, politics and economics still force people to leave home or inhibit them from doing so. Contemporary artists Ai Weiwei and Francis Alÿs choose to address this issue directly in their artistic practice.

Ai WeiWei

Contemporary China’s thriving economy has invited internal and external investment; but whilst embracing some aspects of economic globalisation, total freedom of movement is not one. Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei has been able to exploit his standing as a major international artist to address this theme.

Ai WeiWei, Fairytale, 2007, video still
Click here to watch the video
Addressing the theme of displacement in 2007 with an artwork entitled Fairytale he made for Documenta, the five yearly art event held in Kassel, Germany, Ai Weiwei organised and moved 1001 Chinese citizens from China to Germany. Free to engage in the cultural and political life of a European city, the Chinese were allowed to wander about in Kassel. The artist designed the travellers’ accommodation and luggage but his main interest was their experience as displaced persons, the 1001 participants in Fairytale had never left China and so were experiencing life outside for the first time.

Francis Alÿs

In Fairytale, Ai Weiwei displaces people to make a political and cultural point. Francis Alÿs, born in Belgium but living and working in Mexico City, is equally motivated by the politics of displacement but takes a more allegorical approach.

Walking, in the tradition of Baudelaire’s urban flaneur, is often at the heart of Alys ‘performance events’ which are documented on video and in photographs. Paradox of Praxis 1 (1997) sees Alys pushing a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it has melted away.

For When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), Alÿs recruited 500 volunteers in the Ventanilla District outside of Lima, Peru. Each person moved a shovel full of sand one step at a time from one side of a dune to the other, eventually displacing the entire dune by a few inches.
  Francis Alÿs, Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing, 1997
Public domain video, 4:59 min

Click here to watch the video
Alys’s futile poetic gestures creatively address the serious political issues around displacement.

Whistler’s ethos of ‘Art for art’s sake’ was not politically radical yet as an ‘outsider’ position was still able to undermine, and therefore invigorate Victorian establishment values. European artistic émigrés arrived in New York, enriching the culture and helping to make possible the great movements in art that took place there after the war. Artists can and do use their art to investigate their place in society; and for a mobile generation, this is very much front of mind.

*UN News