The power of art often lies in its ability to move us, whether it be intellectually, physically, or emotionally. Art is perceived differently by each person who interacts with it, resulting in everyone bringing a unique identity, background, and set of beliefs to the works as they observe them. Indeed, it is this individual engagement that gives art its purpose, and the question is often posed whether or not art would even exist without an audience.
Your answer to that question would undoubtedly be “no” if you went off of this new London exhibition, whose entirely emotional quality would go unappreciated if there weren’t any people around to feel it. Of course, that’s far from the case, and in its current state, it’s capable of quite literally moving its observers to tears.
Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s new interactive piece is technically entitled “10,145,196,” but that number is constantly increasing. The figure, which is displayed to visitors as they enter the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, reflects a couple of different things. For starters, it reflects the number of migrants and refugees that are moving around the world at any given moment. It also accounts for the number of migrant deaths that have occurred between the date the project started and the current date. Effectively capturing just how many people are moving at a given time, the viewer is forced to examine their own place in the world, especially when put in the context of a global migrant crisis.
There are a few other parts to Bruguera’s exhibition, one of the most evocative of which is a room labelled “the crying room.” This room is located off to the side of the main hall and is very bright, its air filled with a chemical compound that forces tears from the eyes of anyone who comes into contact with it. The irritant has a strong odor of mint and is constantly being circulated. Many have likened its effect to that of cutting an onion. While the tears may not be real, they do produce a sense of discomfort, which itself acts as another way of getting the observer to analyze the different situations in which human beings might find themselves reduced to tears. The artist calls this “forced empathy.” Artificial tears could also be read as a counterpoint to compassion fatigue: a phenomenon that most heavily affects those exposed to relentless cycles of bad news.
The rest of the exhibition has been similarly designed to make visitors uncomfortable. A low-frequency bass sound greets them when they first enter the gallery, reverberating deep inside them and often making people queasy. In another area, the floor has been covered with a gray heat-sensitive material that reacts to the bodies of guests when they lay on it, leaving behind a ghostly imprint as soon as they get up. All in all, the exhibition is a provocative experience — one that forces us to engage with the emotions and spirits of the migrants who perpetually experience the world in a state of flux.
“10,145,196” will remain on display until February 24th, 2019.