A shrill wail pierces the air at the Institute of Contemporary Art — an alarm, a warning, an alert. Is that what Juan Manuel Montes heard when they came for him in the middle of the night — the whine of a siren, his life torn down between moments? Likely not. The ICE agents at his door wouldn’t have announced themselves with such fanfare, the better to avoid a last-second escape.
When they took him away, they left something behind: artifacts of his American life, now roped into a tight bundle at the ICA — a single bed, neatly-made with plaid bedspread, a bright-red pair of boxing gloves, a computer, a tennis racket, a karate uniform with four belts. Look closely and you’ll see a photo of Montes peering out from within, entombed in a life wound up tight and brought to a standstill.
Montes, who is Mexican, occupies a special place in recent American history: He was the first person deported by the Trump administration while under the protection of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2017. He’s also a ghostly presence at the ICA, where his belongings, transformed into a monument of aching loss by Mexican-American artist Camilo Ontiveros, loom in a precarious tilt in the first gallery of “When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Migration Through Contemporary Art,” the museum’s newly-opened entry in what’s become a widening field of migration-themed art exhibitions this year.
It’s a sign, surely, of troubling times, with mass movements of people fleeing one disaster or another before bumping against international borders less and less sympathetic to their various traumas. That sound you hear wasn’t made for Ontiveros’s work; it’s a siren meant to call workers back to their stations embedded in Reena Saini Kallat’s “Woven Chronicle,” a global relief map forged of brightly-colored chain link and barbed wire that hangs nearby. Kallat’s work traces patterns of movement, one continent to the next, and her choice of material surely says much about borders growing sharp with antipathy and thick with indifference. But its relentless wail jangles the nerves and evokes the knife’s edge of anxiety on which so many migrants live, not knowing, day to day, or even hour to hour, what comes next. Like Montes. Like millions of others, across the globe, in the same bleak, liminal state.
Given the tenor of the moment, it would have been easy enough for the ICA to assemble a screed quivering with fiery political critique and plaintive cries for social justice. That tone is hardly absent — Tania Bruguera’s “Dignity Has No Nationality,” a blue flag with a Pangaea-like cluster of continents, dangles in the day-lit glass elevator shaft, while Michelle Angela Ortiz’s bright yellow, two-story-high text (“WE ARE HUMAN BEINGS, RISKING OUR LIVES FOR OUR FAMILIES & OUR FUTURE”) faces the harbor and the immigrant haven of East Boston beyond. But it’s not dominant. “When Home Won’t Let You Stay” eschews obvious activism and brings things down to earth, to the rough, lived experience of the growing legions of the displaced.
The show can be brutal, mostly because it needs to be: Richard Mosse’s unsettling “Incoming,” a towering three-channel video shot with a long-distance military surveillance camera, casts migrants detained at the sprawling camps on the Greek island of Lesbos in a shimmering, silvery chill (the camera, used to surveil borders from as far as 20 miles away, detects heat signatures, making Mosse’s piece a tight bundle of complementary concerns, from form to content). “Border Cantos,” a collaboration between the photographer Richard Misrach and the sculptor and performer Guillermo Galindo had them tracking a path along the US-Mexico border, gathering remnants of fraught journeys over walls and through fences. A grid of Misrach’s images — of hats and clothing, of family photos abandoned to the dusty earth as they ran — line one wall, while Galindo’s rough sculptures, which he plays like percussive instruments, loom nearby. One, a twisted and rusty husk of corrugated metal — a section of old border wall — dangles from a salvaged border patrol drag chain — the agents drag tires behind their trucks along the wall, smoothing the ground to better identify fresh footprints. The rough wooden structure that supports it — not coincidentally, I’d imagine — left me thinking of the gallows, and bodies left to twist in the wind. He calls it “Angel Exterminator.” Enough said.
But “When Home Won’t Let You Stay” is less plaintive than evocative, leaving your imagination to follow its lead into the darker corners of human experience. There’s Kader Attia’s “The Dead Sea,” a splay of blue clothing — sweat shirts and jeans, socks and scarves — scattered on the floor. It made me think of the waters that so often carry those fleeing one life for the next — if they don’t swallow them entirely, as they so often do, and spit out what’s left over, which those old rags could very well be. There are Do Ho Suh’s ghostly, softly translucent fabric re-creations of rooms in his childhood home in Korea, a monument to the fragile memory of a past life, forever incomplete. There’s Aliza Nisenbaum’s suite of paintings, warm and moody portraits of a family of Mexican immigrants, captured over years of close contact, their two worlds enmeshed in her long, painterly view.
What are these lives, you might wonder, a foot on either side of a border, truly at home in neither? The best works here leave that question hanging, unresolved. That’s their point: Migration is surging — 258 million people changed countries in 2017 alone, a number that’s increased nearly 50 percent since the turn of the century. This is a story not just unfinished, but barely begun.
“When Home Won’t Let You Stay" includes chapters of pure hope, too: Rineke Dijkstra’s long-term photo project whose subject, Almerisa, was a Bosnian refugee from the unraveling chaos of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Safely admitted to the Netherlands, she grows from childhood to surly teen to gleeful young mother to a very normal, happy middle-aged woman, all in front of Dijkstra’s lens. It’s a fairy-tale — and frequent — outcome for the dispossessed who are given shelter and opportunity — a fact of which the current moment badly needs reminding.
Carlos Motta’s video project “The Crossing" doesn’t feel much like art — it’s a collection of a half-dozen video interviews with gay and trans people in a refugee camp in the Netherlands who had fled regimes where their gender and sexual identity put them at mortal risk. But its emotional force resonates through the entire show. Put on your headphones, and you’re face-to-face with pure terror — Anwar, who describes how he fled Egypt for the Netherlands because being gay was illegal, and dangerous; Raneen, an Iraqi wearing full makeup and a long wig, who explains how, at home, she was the subject of constant ridicule at best, and violence at worst (Raneen breaks down as she explains the horrific murder of a gay friend). Both stories, drenched in tears, end in smiles — “This is the new Anwar,” he says. “This country embraced me.” Raneen calls Holland “the land of happiness, my own country,” which she wants only to serve.
It feels like a lead-in to the next and final room, and Yinka Shonibare’s “The American Library,” thousands of bright volumes bound in Dutch wax-print fabrics that suggest bright endings to Motta’s beginnings. The fabric has its own stories — the prints were sourced by 19th-century British and Dutch traders in Indonesia, then mass-produced and distributed in West Africa, where in an example of relentlessly insidious colonialism they became symbols of that region’s fashion aesthetics. But the books themselves tell the tale. Each of the spines is emblazoned with the name of a well-known American who’s either a first- or second-generation immigrant, or part of the Great Migration of African-Americans north to south.
Each was a product of someone not far removed from them looking for a way forward, and another chance. This country gave them that chance, which helps you think of immigration, and progressive social policy more generally, as a return-on-investment deal: Thelonious Monk is here, and Toni Morrison, and Eli Wallach; so are Jeff Goldblum, Jennifer Connelly, and (ahem) White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
That last one, of course, stopped me flat (Trump, whose mother was a Scottish immigrant, must be here too, though I couldn’t find him). Home, it all seems to say, isn’t so much what you make of it as where it’s allowed to be made. We’ve given that permission to generation after generation — poor, huddled masses needing a fresh start and a place to call home. They’ve rewarded us with the glorious pluralism that makes us who we are. Could we ever have imagined that the home that won’t let you stay, as the title goes, would be this one? That’s the proverbial dream turned nightmare.
WHEN HOME WON’T LET YOU STAY: MIGRATION IN CONTEMPORARY ART
At the Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, through Jan. 26. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org