Home Truths

On exits and exiles

‘Exile is strangely compelling to think about, but terrible to experience’ begins Edward Said’s essay Reflections on Exile (1984). Said, himself displaced, identifies exile as the ‘motif of modern culture’, citing the enriching bodies of history and literature this condition has produced while stressing its existential melancholy. When he talks 31 years ago of the ‘age of the refugee, the displaced person, mass immigration’, with the tragic fate of refugees in the Mediterranean and the Andaman seas, how true those words still ring.

It’s summer at last, and irrevocably, thoughts turn elsewhere. Yet talk of travel – of trips to far-flung places – seems almost obscene at the present time. How can we, in good faith, swim in the clear Aegean, given the desperate plight of thousands of refugees fleeing for their lives across those same waters? It makes the gap between art and life all the more absurd to see in the Giardini of the Venice Biennale (not in Okwui Enwezor’s main show itself which albeit clumsily at least tried to tackle issues of identity, migration and labour) the inequality and vagaries of nation statehood, trussed up with the fanfare and pageantry of a medieval jousting tournament. (When will we be rid of the national pavilion model? Those ludicrous shrines to jingoistic posturing.)

The fates of the exile, the refugee, the émigré and expatriate are distinct, Said is at pains to point out. The banished exile has no way of return, whereas ‘home’ for the expat is merely a plane ticket away. Living in Berlin, a city long marked by both exile and expats, makes this reality all the more vivid. Many of us here in that loosely fitting collegiate sweater that we call the art world are foreign nationals who benefit from the relatively liberal German and EU immigration policies afforded to freelance workers in the ‘creative’ industries. That we – the lucky we – are able to live in Berlin with considerable ease only throws into harsher light the plight of those who find it much harder to cross borders due to overbearing visa restrictions or have no such choice in the matter – who literally have no place of return.

Said writes that nationalism and exile are, like Hegel’s master and slave dialectic, ‘oppositions informing and constituting each other’. Writing on his own ‘softer‘ self-imposed exile in his 2015 book The Nearest Thing to Life, writer and critic James Wood, a Brit who has lived in the US for the past 18 years, calls his position of wilful displacement not ‘voluntary homelessness’ but ‘homelooseness’. Wood admits this condition is not even close to the plight of the exile but that it still speaks to the gamut of our increasingly self-imposed geographical and psychic extradition. Wood describes what I and other expats like me will no doubt recognize, that never-fully-disappearing feeling of ‘foreignness’, and the antagonistic bind of contempt and nostalgia for a homeland we no longer fully recognize.

As a Brit living in Berlin, I understand Wood’s decidedly privileged ambivalence. In the UK, the remarkable rise of the Scottish National Party makes it increasingly likely that Scotland will secede from the United Kingdom. And the Conservative government has promised to hold a referendum by 2017 on whether or not the UK should leave the European Union – ‘Brexit’, they’re calling it. ‘Grexit’ too, an issue seemingly adjudicated by the Bundesfinanzministerium in Berlin, still lingers ominously on the horizon, with more than a puncher’s chance of becoming a reality – and with it, perhaps, the beginning of the end of the European project. Rising nationalism across Europe is a worrying trend not least because drawbridges are coming up just when those most in need are arriving at the gates. (Our) ‘home’ and (your) exile indeed mutually bound.

Talk of exit reminds me of the 2014 book Lee Lozano: Dropout Piece by Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, part of the Afterall Books: One Work series (also mentioned by Mark von Schlegell in this issue’s ‘Trouvaille’). Lozano was a tough, funny, fierce feminist (when Kasper König told her ‘you are a good painter and a nice girl’ Lozano replied, ‘wrong on both counts, I’m a very good painter and not a nice girl!’). In the late ‘60s, despite a burgeoning career in New York, Lozano decided to exit the art world – making this act of exit a work in itself, her greatest ‘Life-Art’ project as she called it. The work was titled Dropout Piece. In a sense, that is all that exists of it, the name. There is no ‘piece’ of which to speak: the work became her life as art.

Writing, for Adorno, that famous émigré, was the only truly available home. For him this carried an ethical mandate: ‘it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home’. This means both to treat one’s home country with the suspicion it deserves but also to treat language with the same caution. Between 1968 and 1970 Lozano filled 11 numbered, private notebooks with over a thousand pages of text. Language became the very medium that allowed for the fullest, truest self-expression, the closest ‘art‘ could mix with ‘life’. Ultimately, as Dropout Piece proved, the art world wasn’t Lozano’s home, with its rules, mores and situations of compliance. Ever the rule maker, not taker, for Lozano her Dropout Piece was her self-imposed exile from the art world to the strictures of herself. As the art world lulls into sleepy summer, it’s an enticing thought, retreat, exile, at least for a while. But we must not forget that any exit for us is freely taken. For others there is no choice.

Paul Teasdale is editor of frieze.com. He is based in London.

Issue 20

First published in Issue 20

Jun - Aug 2015

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Janiva Ellis, Catchphrase Coping Mechanism, 2019, oil on linen, 2.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York; photograph: Joerg Lohse

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