Don’t be welcome: exhibition in a marl quarry about refugees leaves you cold

No Access is an exhibition that will leave you cold to the bone. Literally: The more than 20 video installations can be seen in Cannerberg, a former secret NATO complex in a marl quarry near Maastricht. The temperature does not rise above 13 degrees.

It is not clear from the explanation whether the creators deliberately chose this location because of its symbolic value. But if anything becomes visible in these film images in this themed exhibition curated by the Maastricht art initiative Viewmaster Projects, it is the icy way in which migrants are received.

The images that can be seen in the underground passages are not presented to you as if you were watching a news broadcast, you have to look for them as a spectator. The dark corridors – which have been temporarily opened for the exhibition – sometimes lead to a dead end, behind small doors there can be several rooms, and everywhere there are screens with videos about border control and migration. You’ll need to go back and forth a few times to make sure you’ve seen everything.

There are impressive photos and videos about the big stories: a collage of aerial photos of the Rio Grande reveals the difference between Mexico and the United States, without even being able to see a single person (‘Best of Luck with the Wall’ by Josh Begley). An animated film about Afghanistan tells the story of a boy who tries in vain to get his girlfriend with him. The one who leaves feels guilty, the one who stays doesn’t make it (‘Leaving the Box’ by Osman Taheri).

There are conversations with Afghans and Syrians who have been waiting for months on Lesvos and who make request after request (‘Children of the Labyrinth’ by Marieke van der Velden and Philip Brink). We see maps that attempt to draw a logical, operational border between Israel and Lebanon (Mohamad Hafeda’s Sewing Borders) to confirm that artificial borders were drawn too easily. These consequences are visible in most other works.

No matter how cold it is in Cannerberg, you don’t really dare to run away.

A painful highlight is Tina Farifteh’s ‘The Flood’, three screens of nothing but images of a surging sea, interspersed with cynical comments from Trump and Wilders, who use words like ‘flood’ about refugees, and on the other hand bare news footage of refugees drowning .

Artificial borders

As painful as it may be, at least these kinds of messages make the news. We have known since the moment Africa was ‘divided’ among Europeans that artificial borders have major consequences, and we are also increasingly aware of how polarizing words can be. That does not make the films any less valuable, they are exciting, but unfortunately they are not really surprising.

No access is strongest when it tells stories that you tend to call “small”. Such as ‘Farewell’, an autobiographical graphic novel by Sam Yazdanpanna, showing how he tried to get to the Netherlands from Turkey with a fake passport and saved the life of a human trafficker. It’s an exciting story that can almost be seen as a feature film.

Or the story of the man who smiles widely and tells his success story, which turns out to be an illusion. He fled Senegal and is stuck in Morocco; Cuban artist Adrian Melis has asked the man to fix his face in a smile for as long as possible. ‘The smiler’, it says, and the face turns into an increasingly painful grimace.

Also read the interview with filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which depicts the painful life of asylum seekers in their new film Tori et Lokita.

At first glance, the short film ‘Centro di Permanenza Temporanea’ by the Albanian artist Adrian Paci seems tragicomic. People are queuing on an airplane staircase. You look at the faces, the stairs from below, from above, to the side, planes departing elsewhere. In short, nothing is wrong and you assume they are waiting for another passenger to enter. But after a few minutes, these passengers seem to take the stairs to nowhere. There is no flight, only stairs. In the absurdist world of the filmmaker Jacques Tati, one would laugh, here the ‘permanent temporality’ – you want to leave, but you can’t – is also absurd, but above all crooked.

Waiting room

As always, it’s not the worst photos, but the everyday photos make the most impression. In Laura Huygen’s short film ‘Waiting Room’ we see people waiting for their asylum application to be processed in the Netherlands. They sit, hang out, learn Dutch, wait and wait some more. No matter how cold it is in Cannerberg, you don’t really dare to run away.

Then there is the mother of a family who is also waiting on Lesvos. She reads a letter in which she talks about her hesitation; about her hope that what she does is best for her children; about despair when nothing happens, for three years now.

After reading the letter, she takes her child in her arms. Her husband and second child join them, waving a friendly smile at the filmmakers. This cheerful picture of a happy family on a Greek island shows the artificiality of everything. Just like with those flight stairs and the ‘smiler’ from Senegal: You can smile, but there is nothing to laugh at.

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