Edges of Europe
Most people who travel leave places they will soon return to. And most travellers see their journey as a negligible hindrance separating themselves from their destinations. Of course, most people have a home—a place they feel secure in. For those who don’t, geography has other dimensions, flanked by anxiety, misery, or death. Their plight begins when they’re no longer safe where they are. They can only hope to reach their destination, and yet they might be turned back upon arrival. These people are not the migrants who move with the seasons to wherever their labour is needed. Nor are they immigrants who exchange one citizenship for another. They are refugees. Their journey is perilous. They can’t return. Yet they may never arrive.
For over 10 years the German performance artist Mia Florentine Weiss has been traversing the globe and asking the people she encounters one startlingly frank question: “What is your place of protection?” The answers she has received are chronicled in her multimedia installation Art Protector. In her latest work, The Pegasus Project, her quest for answers has led her on a collision course with a contemporary tragedy. Her project is, among other performances, an attempt to give a voice and a name to those who have no protection at all. Currently, the Aegean and the Mediterranean have come to exemplify the tragic course people’s lives can take when they are robbed of all fundamental protections.
The winged steed Pegasus has always been a hybrid metaphor—victorious in conflict, the fabled horse protects those who ride upon him, flying high above borders, whether natural or man-made; but Pegasus is also the favourite of the muses, a symbol of creativity, an invitation to dream. If there is a utopia out there, Pegasus will find it.
The Pegasus Project was long in planning, and it rounds off the years of artistic research into the significance of feeling protected. With the support of Pro Asyl (Karl Kopp, Director of European Affairs), Mia Florentine Weiss plotted a course leading from the Turkish-Syrian border through Turkey to the coast, then across the Aegean, via the Greek islands, to Athens on the mainland—an authentic route that precisely follows one of the pathways refugees are currently taking to reach Europe. In its tragic dimensions, what the artist´s team saw on this voyage has surpassed all previous encounters. Even those who survive the journey are not spared the indignation inflicted by European nations, where refugees had hoped to find asylum. After sailing across the Aegean with Pegasus, Mia Florentine Weiss stopped at Amygdaleza—one of the worst refugee camps in Greece, located just outside Athens. This “Migrant Detention Centre,” as it is called, is one of the most appalling oxymorons in the language on refugees.
Yet here as elsewhere on her voyage with Pegasus, Mia Florentine Weiss also offers us images of sombre hope. Children sitting astride the great mythic horse of antiquity can be seen smiling or gazing dreamily, a tranquil moment of promise in desolate circumstances. Other children leap over fences while their faithful steed looks on from behind them. In one image we see Pegasus through a hole in a brick wall, as if the noble horse had galloped through it, leaving an escape route for refugees in his path. In these snapshots we glimpse how Weiss has retooled the metaphorical manifestations of Pegasus to show us the promise of Europe while also reminding us what Europe has failed to become: a place without borders, a place of protection for those without it.
As in all of her decade-long projects related to one’s own personal “place of protection,” The Pegasus Project also strives to give a voice and a face to the calamity facing those without a secure place to live. While docked at a Greek island in the Aegean, Weiss encountered an ideal narrator: a Syrian man named Naart who, on his flight from his war-torn country, had followed a similar course than Pegasus: from the Turkish-Syrian border through Turkey to the coastline, then across the Aegean to Greece. On the 8th of May—the very day the exhibition of The Pegasus Project will open in Venice, Naart will be celebrating his 30th birthday. Unless Pegasus works one of his miracles, Naart won’t be in Italy to celebrate his party. It is uncertain where his destiny will lead him. Thus the artist will dedicate her exhibition at Palazzo Albrizzi to Naart and his family. His voice and his image lend a reality to the plight thousands are facing as they cross the Aegean and the Mediterranean. Who better to tell us what Pegasus symbolizes for homeless refugees.
The illuminated sculpture of Pegasus stands poised with its powerful wings, which the trailblazing artist assembled out of the various objets trouvés she brought with her from her worldwide performances. Here, the refuge turns into a prison, the wings get entangled in the barbed wire, the longing for freedom ends in entrapment. The installation is her social statement: The human being, born into this world, at home on earth, always & forever destroyed by his own curse!
Performance EDGES OF EUROPE