An Empty Table and an Empty Boat: Empathic Encounters with Refugee Experiences in Intermedial Installation Art

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This essay is an inquiry into two intermedial installations that address the experiences of people on the run from war or poverty, yet overtly hinder and problematize the viewer’s identification with the depicted refugees. By doing so, Friday Table (2013) by art collective Foundland, and Isaac Julien’s video installation Ten Thousand Waves (2010) differ from the many contemporary discourses dealing with the so-called refugee crisis that suggest a blind assumption of empathy’s benevolence. Taking theoretical texts concerning the relation between empathy, politics and the (lens-based) representation of refugees by, for instance, Slavoj Zizek (2016) and Jill Bennett (2005) as a starting point, I read Friday Table and Ten Thousand Waves as reflections on the pitfalls as well as the critical political possibilities of empathy in contemporary debates on refugees. Moreover, I argue that the two lens-based installations in question are able to examine the limits of empathy and identification with refugees through their common denominator: intermediality. Both Friday Table and Ten Thousand Waves combine lens-based media (photography, video and film) with non-lens-based medial forms such as drawings, graphs and calligraphy. As I will demonstrate, the interplay between different media is decisive when it comes to the way in which the three works of art produce, manage and reflect on the relation between spectators and depicted refugees.

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