You can hear Erkan Özgen’s Wonderland from the next room over in the Phillips Gallery.
In the adjacent space, the sounds of the video draw exhibition-goers out of reveries evoked by art along the themes of exploitation and slavery. I found it impossible not to be drawn to it, disturbed by the viscerality and urgency of noises made apparently by a child.
Upon approach, viewers find a boy named Muhammed sitting on his knees in front of a deep green wall. Though deaf and mute, Muhammed communicates to the camera the horrors of the war in Syria, the violence perpe- trated by ISIS, and the attacks that led him and his family to flee to Turkey. He may or may not bear a striking resemblance to a viewer’s little brother, cousin, nephew.
The need to tell his story and the force of his experiences nearly explode from his small body. At some moments of the clip, his sharp, jerking movements narrate to the viewer indecipherable specifics. But at other times, the trauma could not be more clear—Muhammed conveys a lack of water for refugees, explosions in the sky. Acts of brutality so terrible as to be conveyed in a child’s painfully detailed visual rendering. With his thumb and fore- finger he traces the path of a bullet from the back of his skull in profile through his forehead, mimes the ripping open of an unknown chest, moans as he demonstrates on his own body the beheading of some poor soul.
Wonderland, made in 2016, is a universally intelligible account of terror and a portrait of the reality of war, as voiced by the voiceless.
Whereas the volume and frequency of the news of war numbs me to its specifics, to the faces and bodies and lives of the individuals it tramples, Wonderland opened a wound that would not heal. I winced, hearing it from another room in the gallery. It ate at me, long after I left.
And just as it circumvents the constraints of conventional language, so it escapes and exceeds the boundaries of mainstream media.
Individuals’ stories are so often overlooked, or picked up by news sources to provide digestible portraits of war before ebbing away amidst a constant flow of information. Muhammed’s account of the last 8 of his 13 years and his flight from Syria to Turkey is just one tale of horror among roughly 3 million refugees fleeing catastrophic destruction and violence.
Özgen’s rendering of a transnational experience of terror through the deeply human language of this small boy makes Wonderland an exercise in soft power and a cultural reckoning with how war media is typically produced and consumed.
But nearby, Phil Collins’ how to make a refugee (1999) can be interpreted as a subversion of Özgen’s piece. Collins’ (British, b. 1970) video pictures a Kosovon-Albanian family interviewed by a string of journalists quite obviously attempting, through questions steering towards traumatic events and directives such as show me your scars, to incite sympathy in a public audience to the point of the documentarians’ unfeeling exploitation. Beside Wonderland, how to make a refugee is a critique of the methods of historical extraction and the manipulation of subjects based on attempts towards advocacy.
The incompatibility of the two pieces raised a question of emotional propaganda and the gaping black whole of artist’s intent. Can Wonderland at once disrupt mainstream narratives and stand in for the masses of Syrian refu- gees? Or is the video an emotionally provocative exercise in empathy for one documented reality of war?
These questions plague the work that fills the rest of the gallery. Wonderland is on display in the Phillips Col- lection’s current exhibit The Warmth of Other Suns, a title which draws from a Richard Wright poem (1942) on migration:
“I was leaving the South
to fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
to see if it could grow differently,
if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds,
respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom.”
The exhibition’s range of work encompasses the multitudinous experiences of displaced people past and present. Displacement is a theme especially poignant in the Arab world today, where the title also evokes Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun (1962), a novella wherein Palestinian refugees perish while traveling in search of refuge on alien soils, where they die from exposure.
The gallery houses Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series (1941) and John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea (2015), which sing to the perils, alienation, and exploitation inherent to migration. In The Warmth of Other Suns, the portrait of
the inexpressible hardships of emigration and the maligned welcome upon arrival was overwhelming. I walked around Zoe Leonard’s suitcases on the floor. I listened to the oral ethnographies of migrant workers outside the Rothko chapel. I watched Wonderland. And I wondered: what hope is there?
Dorothy Kosinski, Chief Executive Director of the Phillips Collection, described the exhibit as “a multiplicity of voices from around the globe; rather than a sense of cacophony that multiplicity raises up a sense of shared humanity.” Viewers are left with the sense, then, that if hope exists it must perhaps issue from the unity of that multiplicity of voices, even if they are unified only in suffering.
Özgen’s own answer to the question of intent in a time of global crises is as romantically full and pragmatically empty as one can expect of an artist drawn to suffering. “He always says: ‘I want to give voice to the people,’” remarks Hilde Teerlinck, the curator of Giving Voices in Barcelona, where Özgen’s work was featured earlier this year. “He wants to create a space where people can speak.”
His life provides a more resounding answer to whether the trauma Wonderland speaks into the world leaves space for hope. Özgen was born in 1971 to a violence-ridden district in Turkey, where, like Muhammed, he witnessed chaos and conflict as a child.
Yet Özgen remains in the area today in spite of the global acclaim for his work that would enable him to live in any city. “I want to live here, and I want to construct a life here,” he says. “Even if it’s difficult. We need freedom, we need a space where we can talk about this, and art can offer this space.”
We need the fragile grace of Wonderland to disrupt us from our nightmare knowledge of global crises and wars. In the words of the poet Ntozake Shange, the artist’s job is “to keep our sensibilities alive so we aren’t numbed by our struggles to survive. To keep people alive so they know they can feel what is happening as opposed to simply trying to fend it off.” We derive hope from Özgen’s work only as it blossoms from seemingly endless destruction. Wonderland is a lived dream of constructing something new from the ashes of violence, once one reality is spoken into our own.