Exhibition humanises refugee experience

Issue 
Erasure exhibition.

Entering the darkened space of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation that held Vietnamese artist Dinh Q Le’s latest installation, Erasure, which finished on September 10, I imagined myself to be stepping into the psychological space of a disturbed memory.

The brooding political and cultural climate surrounding the issue of refugees in Australia has involved politicians exploiting the sensitive subject in a game of political football.

This, and protests demanding an end to mandatory detention fuelled by the rioting and self harm of detainees in Australia’s detention centres, made Le’s exhibition very timely.

Having experienced the ordeals of being a refugee, escaping from Vietnam to the US in 1979 with his family on a rickety boat, Le was moved by the sinking of a refugee boat that smashed into rocks off Christmas Island in December killing at least 50 refugees.

Feeling a close connection and understanding for those Iraqi and Kurdish people who had suffered such a tragic fate, Le created this installation to, as Erasure curator Zoe Butt explains, “articulate the individual experience of refugees”.

Both general and specific in the voice it gives to those who have managed to flee persecution as a refugee, the work evokes empathy, compassion and a sense of indignation.

The work also poses a challenge to the role of the public archive. Butt says the selective process of historical recording in public chronicles fail to recognise the human experiences of those on the margins of society. Le explains that the title Erasure “reflects what he sees as Australian government policies that seek to wipe boat people from thought”.

The dimmed lighting of the exhibition space, lit by only the soft glow of the projected video, and the crackling background noise of flames and smoke engulfing a tall ship laid out across a sandy beach, created a strong atmosphere of reflection.

The burning of this eerie ship, played on a continuous loop, is telling of the dangers of the journey so many immigrants have made throughout history and the struggles they faced upon arrival.

The image of the tall, 19th century style ship bears resemblance to those of the British first fleet that landed in Australia. Le is making an ironic connection between the colonialist invaders and refugee and immigrant boats today and the regard in which they are held, speaking of the policy of ritual destruction of “illegal” vessels.

Le says: “All the illegal ships that landed on Australian soil are pretty much for quarantine reasons being burned or blown up … but yet at the same time … I saw the Endeavor in the harbour and I thought it was kind of interesting … because in a way that was … the first illegal ship that landed in Australia and here it is being displayed very proudly in the harbour while other ships today that landed are being blown up and sort of erased.”

In the exhibition, two broken halves of an old fishing boat, not unlike those used by refugees today, lie wrecked across rocks, perhaps representative of the careless treatment refugees receive upon arrival in Australia; left to rot away, broken and distressed, in a society that has been taught to divert its gaze.

Rocks, fragments of wood, discarded clothing and other debris lie among this scene, like fragments of memories, and help create a ghostly atmosphere of collective loss and abandonment.

Here patrons are invited to consider and reflect upon the experiences of refugees in a personal way, as though they have stepped into someone’s memory. Being surrounded by the ripped apart refugee boat is confronting and stirs a sense of compassion; ones memory is taken back to the tragic destruction of the refugee boat off the coast of Christmas Island.

Entering the space dedicated to Le’s installation and stepping forth onto the wooden-planked walkway, I was met with a large number of overturned photographs, their off-white backs forming a sandy shore, echoing the lonely strip of sand on the projected screen, or a settled sea of private memories.

I randomly picked up a delicate, ageing photograph and was met with an image of a group of young boys playing in the sea; sifting through these photographs, it appears the scenes and people are almost familiar. It helps establish a sense of connection and empathy for these people, ‘discovered’ among the ruins of a shipwreck.

Le explains about the people in the photographs, who had assumedly fled their country of origin as boat refugees and left these photos behind, that “there’s an estimate, about half a million never made it across the sea … their boat didn’t make it”.

Le “spent years buying in second-hand stores” to create this collection of identity-less souls. It was built “in the hope of finding his own family’s pictures”.

Although Le never uncovered any of his own abandoned family photographs, he found comfort in these ones, saying that ''they've sort of become my surrogate family photos”.

The personal experience Le creates with these abandoned photographs challenges the way the mainstream media treat refugees, as “statistics … catalogued as stereotypes in the archives of social history”. It humanises them as individuals.

Another important element of the exhibition is the artist’s invitation to “collect the photographs and take them to the archive desk to scan, upload on the website (www.erasurearchive.net)”.

The website allows people to search for the lost fragments and traces of their past. The archiving of these images is a political act challenging the lack of acknowledgment for refugees and their contributions to Australian culture.

Le says Erasure is “a memorial to thousands of stories that are forgotten…thousands of lives that probably didn’t make it across the sea”.

Sifting through the mysterious photographs of people whose fate remains unknown was a very moving experience; the atmosphere created by the sounds of the flames, wind and soft glow of the projected film and the surrounding scene of destruction created a tone of loss, compassion and indignation.

Considering the damaging attitudes towards refugees often communicated through the mainstream media, and government policies that vilify and outright deny the legal human rights of refugees in Australia, art that challenges this is a positive gesture towards a more equal and responsible society.