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The Sea is the Limit

By Varvara Shavrova

Images of refugees and migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in unsafe overcrowded vessels have been dominating the media since 2015 and have become powerful symbols of the “migrant crisis”. The term “migrant crisis” however, can be contested, as the meaning of the word ”crisis” implies a situation that is temporary, and therefore requires temporary measures and solutions.

The reality is different.

Migration to Europe is expected not only to continue, but to increase, creating what can be described as a “migrant condition”. The ongoing position of migrants who managed to survive the arduous journeys across the seas is often that of precarity, danger and uncertainty. Refugees and migrants stand at the limits of societal acceptance and become stateless non-residents of the world. The sea can be interpreted as a metaphor for the societal attitude towards migrants which, on one hand, keeps them afloat without offering safety or refuge, and, on the other hand, engenders the persistence of the sense of temporality of the “migrant condition”. Hostility turns into indifference, the last frontier where human life and its value is challenged and undermined.

Referring to the sharp clash between the expectations and the realities experienced by migrants crossing the seas in search of safety and a better life, the artists in The Sea is the Limit exhibition address the fragility of human life. The sea serves as a metaphorical symbol of all migratory and diasporic experiences, where physically perilous journeys across the continents and the seas also represent continuous journeys of the emotional kind, an uprooting and a disconnection. Dispossession, alienation and trauma do not always manifest themselves in direct physical experiences, but are all too familiar to many migrants, as an emotional backdrop to the physical upheaval of forced transition.

The sea serves as a metaphorical symbol of all migratory and diasporic experiences, where physically perilous journeys across the continents and the seas also represent continuous journeys of the emotional kind, an uprooting and a disconnection.

The Sea is the Limit features artists who have been working on the topic of migration, borders and diaspora for many years, in some cases even for decades, and many of the participating artists are migrants themselves. Using the language of painting, drawing, sculpture, video, installation and virtual reality, the artists explore the complex experiences and multi-layered emotions associated with borders and migration, statelessness and belonging. The artists do not aim to offer solutions but instead draw attention to these challenges in a meaningful way.

The personal positioning of the artists sets the premise of the exhibition aside from sensationalist interpretations of the “migrant crisis” that makes a distinction between ‘‘us and them”, alienating those who move, from those who remain, and instead brings empathy to the fore. In that sense, the sea no longer is the limit, the ultimate frontier, but instead could be interpreted as a new beginning, a limitless sea of humanity.

Small boat made of money bills for The Sea is the Limit art exhibition by Susan Stockwell at VCUarts Qatar
On this page: Varvara Shavrova, ©Anthony Chappel-RossSusan (top), 'Varvara Shavrova 'Blankets Project' (top) and Stockwell, Installation fo 'Sail Away', ©Raviv Cohen, VCUarts Qatar

Halil Altindere’s work, Journey to Mars (Space Refugee project), “ addresses the flow of refugees, a truly global issue, in an extensive project composed of several ensembles of works. Framing an ironic response to the pervasive negative attitudes and resisting stereotypes with which large parts of European population view the refugees from areas ravaged by war and terror and victims of political, religious, and ethnic persecution from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Sudan, Space Refugee proposes a sanctuary for refugees in outer space.” (1)

In her Sail Away installation, which is a flotilla of small boats that have been made from old paper currencies, stamps, tickets and maps, Susan Stockwell explores the mythological aspect associated with boats as symbols of transition from the material into the spiritual world, and as carriers of our dreams, as well as vessels for adventures, escapes and journeys. The delicate and playful nature of paper boats is subverted by the duality of their meaning, commenting on the historic and contemporary imperial trades pursued by the world superpowers, hungry for economic expansion.

The intensity of memory ripples through Mohammed Sami’s charged palette and the tightly devised compositions of Beautiful Exile and Notes From Underground, and are indicative of narratives that are both personal and ambiguous. The language of Sami’s paintings has an almost cinematic quality, where colors, shapes and shadows of seemingly ordinary objects are intensified to an almost unbearable pitch, enhanced by the sense of the unearthed memories and complex emotions that charge them. Entering those painted worlds that Sami creates is like going through an out-of-body experience with him, with the artist’s gaze hovering on the edge of consciousness and subconscious, dream and nightmare, life and death.

The themes of disappearance, invisibility and the sea are explored in Taus Makhacheva’s Baida. The work combines two different narratives: one is a conversation between the art world protagonists travelling on a boat in Venice’s lagoon to view a performance piece at sea. This journey is full of ambiguous uncertainty, and the conversation is both vague and anxious. The parallel story has evolved from conversations between Makhacheva and the fishermen in the village of Stary Terek in the artist’s native Dagestan. Setting off on their perilous journeys at sea, the fishermen never know if they will come back alive. This fear of disappearance, of being invisible, is what connects the two narratives in Baida.

Nidhal Chamekh’s delicate and detailed drawings portray the lives of those who have succeeded in crossing the sea and have arrived at supposed safety on land, yet their lives remain precarious. Etude d’un Habitat de Fortune and #icare belong to a series Chamekh made from images of a refugee camp in Calais, and focus on the ideas of confinement and escape. The works comment on the state of refugees who are forced to settle within a societal boundary, yet remain unaccepted and are treated as a threat. In Studying Circles there is an overall sense that the men pictured in this work are waiting for time to pass, their fragmented bodies appear fractured, with features obliterated, their stories digitized, their lives processed, and their bodies tagged.

Varvara Shavrova’s Blankets Project is an ongoing series of wearable objects containing personal memories that exhibition visitors are encouraged to hold and wear. Featuring images from Shavrova’s family albums, the blankets represent the desire to reconnect with something warm, familiar and personal when one experiences disconnection, loneliness and rootlessness as a migrant. By inviting visitors to wear her blankets, Shavrova hopes the feelings of loss of identity and a desire for basic comfort that are experienced by millions of migrants and refugees from all over the world, can be shared through the process of the direct physical encounter with the artworks.

Return to the exhibition page here.

Varvara Shavrova is a visual artist and curator who was born in Moscow, in the former Soviet Union, and now lives and works in London and Dublin.

Shavrova’s practice is focused on excavating the layers of her family’s history through the process of remembering, recalling, retracing, and reenacting stories. In engaging memory, nostalgia, and reflection, Shavrova creates installations that make connections between historic and current narratives, between the archival and the present.

In her work, Shavrova examines the symbols of power and authority, while investigating their relationship to the individual and questioning the possibility of materializing the past into the present through the process of empathy. The materiality of Shavrova’s recent installations comment on women’s labor, and include objects made of paper, thread, yarn, and fabric, with methodologies of drawing, carpet making, loom weaving, embroidery, and knitting.

Shavrova studied at the Moscow Polygraphic Institute and completed her MFA postgraduate program at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Shavrova’s projects include over 20 solo and group exhibitions and curatorial projects in London, Dublin, Los Angeles, Berlin, Frankfurt, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Beijing. She has received a fellowship award from the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ireland, a Dublin City Council Visual Arts award, a Culture Ireland award, and a British Council Visual Artist’s Award in the UK. Shavrova has curated ambitious international visual arts projects, including The Sea is Limit at the York Art Gallery in the UK (2018). The exhibition examined migration, borders, and refugee crises, with works by 11 international artists. Shavrova presented The Sea is the Limit project at the Tate Exchange seminar as part of the Refugee Week events at the Tate Modern in London in 2018.

In 2015, Shavrova curated Giving Voice, a landmark exhibition of selected objects from the archive of the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, at the Ballina Library in County Mayo, Ireland. Map Games: Dynamics of Change (2008– 2009), an international art and architecture project which reflected on the dramatic changes affecting Beijing and China during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, was curated by Shavrova in collaboration with Feng Boyi and studio OffiCina at the Today Art Museum, Beijing, and received international acclaim, touring to the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in the UK and to the CAOS Centre for Contemporary Arts in Terni, Italy. In 2008, Shavrova curated the visual arts program for the First Irish Cultural Festival in Beijing. Through the Lens, the first-ever exhibition of new media art from Ireland to arrive in China was also curated by Shavrova at the Beijing Art Museum of the Imperial City (BAMOIC). Shavrova’s solo projects include Mapping Fates, a multimedia installation addressing family history, diaspora, and trauma which was presented in Vladimir Lenin’s apartment in St. Petersburg as part of the Facts and Fiction ProArte festival of contemporary art in traditional museums (2017).

Shavrova’s interests in borders, history, identity and language were explored in her solo video and sound installation Reflections on the Haw Lantern at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace museum in Northern Ireland. The Opera, a multimedia sound and video installation that explores issues of gender fluidity in traditional Chinese opera, was shown internationally, at the Venice Biennale of Architecture (2014), Temple Beijing (2016), Momentum Berlin (2016), Espacio Cultural El Tanque, Tenerife (2011), and the Gallery of Photography Ireland (2012). Shavrova’s multimedia project Borders exploring borders and territories between Russia and China was part of the Galway International Arts Festival (2015), and toured to the MMOMA Moscow Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of the History of St. Petersburg, RichMix London, and Morono Kiang Gallery, Los Angeles. Shavrova was invited to present a paper on the Borders project at the international Symposium Visualizing Chinese Borders, which was organized by Manchester University in 2016.

Shavrova’s works are in important contemporary art collections, including the Museum of the History of St. Petersburg, Russia; the Ballinglen Arts Foundation, Ireland; the Department of Foreign Affairs, Ireland; Minsheng Art Museum, Beijing/ Shanghai, China; and MOMENTUM Collection, Berlin, Germany. Shavrova is represented by Patrick Heide Contemporary Art London.

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