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Memory, meaning and mortality are at the heart of this migration exhibit


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight: a timely exhibit which examines the experience of migration. Some of the artists are migrants themselves.

"NewsHour" special correspondent Jared Bowen of WGBH first visited the exhibit at the University -- or the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston when it opened. It is now at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through May. It will be at Stanford University later in the year.

The piece is part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: According to the United Nations, there are nearly 71 million people worldwide who've been forcibly displaced, including nearly 30 million refugees.

For them, home might be a colossus of what they left behind or hazy wisps of memory.

Ruth Erickson: This is by the Korean artist Do Ho Suh, and all of his work is really engaged with places that he's lived. And you can see all of the amazing detail, the, you know, outlets, and the door handles, and the lights, really evocative of something that is both kind of present and not present.

Jared Bowen: Ruth Erickson is the curator of this exhibition at the ICA, which looks at migration through contemporary art.

A show of works by artists observing the globe's record level of displacement, it's called When Home Won't Let You Stay, a line from a poem by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire.

Ruth Erickson: Home is -- each person probably defines that slightly differently, but I think it brings together the real and the symbolic in really strong ways.

Jared Bowen: We met Erickson in an installation by English artist Yinka Shonibare called The American Library. It features more than 6,000 books, all lavishly bound. Each sports a name embossed in gold.

Ruth Erickson: All of those individuals are either first- or second-generation immigrants or they're individuals who had moved from the South to the North during the great migration.

Jared Bowen: Deeply immigrant stories, presumably, and Donald Trump's name is to be found here?

Ruth Erickson: That's right. Due to the kind of very divisive rhetoric right now around immigration in particular, he also added in names of people who, in his mind, were really actively kind of working against immigration.

Jared Bowen: This is an exhibition of deep contrasts.

The short film "Western Union: Small Boats" captures the sun-drenched glow of an idyllic Mediterranean island where tourists take holiday, and where migrants from North Africa land, if they're lucky.

In an adjacent gallery, La Mer Morte, The Dead Sea, a sculpture of blue clothing by French artist Kader Attia.

Ruth Erickson: Inevitably, when you see that clothing, you think of the bodies that it used to cloth. And the ways in which it's strewn on the floor and kind of twisted, you get a sense of bodies that, you know, are no longer living.

Eva Respini: We have been asked a lot, what is our polemic? What are our politics?

Jared Bowen: That should be left to the artists, says ICA chief curator Eva Respini. There was debate about the show at the museum, she says, not about the politics at play, but how to tackle such overwhelming subject matter.

Eva Respini: Eventually, we drove in and said, you know, this is such a huge topic. This exhibition can't be comprehensive. We found value in thinking deeply about the topic of migration through the lens of art.

Jared Bowen: What do you see surfacing, in terms of how this is represented in art?

Eva Respini: Artists are not historians, they're not journalists. They don't have the responsibility to bring forward facts and figures. But I think they have a role to play in our society.

Jared Bowen: The ICA went big for the show with large films, sculpture, and paintings that fill galleries physically and emotionally.

Mexican artist Camilo Ontiveros created this looming sculpture out of the belongings of Juan Manuel Montes.

Eva Respini: The first recipient of DACA to be deported under the Trump administration. These are real people. These are real stories.

Jared Bowen: Some of the works are pretty brutal here.

Eva Respini: Brutal is the right word for a couple of them. Richard Mosse's kind of epic three-channel video installation, Incoming, which traces the migrant roots of refugees from Syria and North Africa to Europe through some pretty brutal experiences over water and in refugee camps.

I don't see a way that we can do the show or address the topic of migration without including art works that take your breath away.

Jared Bowen: What couldn't be taken by migrants on the move fills this gallery.

First, there is the photography of Richard Misrach, a California artist who makes routine trips to the Mexican border wall, where he's an archaeologist of modern day, says curator Ruth Erickson.

Ruth Erickson: He's really interested in, what are the sort of traces of human passage on the landscape? How can we know of the events that have happened there, even if we can't see those events?

Jared Bowen: Misrach collaborates with Mexican sculptor and composer Guillermo Galindo, who creates these massive musical instruments, also from found objects.

Ruth Erickson: For instance, the tire would have likely been dragged behind Border Patrol trucks in order to smooth the sand to be able to look at where people are crossing. The boot, the glove, the targets, the horn, the jawbone, even the lumber itself.

And in this case, to make Zapatello, he's actually using Leonardo da Vinci's drawing of the mechanized hammer. This actually is a crank. And so, if you crank this, you can imagine these levers go up and down and bang on this like a drum.

Jared Bowen: All for a beat, and a march, that seems to have no end.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Boston, Massachusetts.

Judy Woodruff: Some powerful works.

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