The art of displacement

Today’s culture of mobility gives artists great 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 economic necessity.

Forced displacement is an 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 artists’ work.

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.

James McNeill Whistler
James McNeill Whistler, Whistler’s Mother, 1871, oil on canvas, 144.3×162.4cm
Image source: Wikipedia

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

After settling in London in 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, was actually named Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1. Art historian Margaret F. MacDonald, who in 2013 co-curated a major exhibition at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery exploring Whistler’s time in the capital, has described his etchings and paintings as marking “one of his most successful and profound assaults on the art establishment of his day”.

A renowned wit who was garrulous and extremely sociable, Whistler was friends with Oscar Wilde until the pair fell 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.

Ai Weiwei

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

Ai WeiWei
Ai Weiwei, Fairytale, 2007, video still

Addressing the theme of displacement in 2007 with Fairytale, an artwork he made for Documenta, the contemporary art exhibition held every five years  in Kassel, Germany, Ai Weiwei organised and moved 1,001 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 1,001 participants had never left China, and 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, who was born in Belgium but lives and works 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 flâneur, is often at the heart of Alÿs’s performance events, which are documented on video and in photographs. Paradox of Praxis 1 (1997) sees him 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 from the Ventanilla district outside 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 Als
Francis Alÿs


Alÿs’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” he was still able to undermine, and therefore invigorate, Victorian establishment values. European artistic migrants 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.