Déplacement (Smuggling Pod), 2017. Life-jackets, Steel, 200cm diameter x 100 cm / Installation Melbourne AUSTRALIA / Courtesy of the artist.
Déplacement (Smuggling Pod), 2017. Life-jackets, Steel, 200cm diameter x 100 cm / Installation Giardini Marinaressa, Venice ITALY / Courtesy of the artist.
Paul Handley is a New Zealand born multi-disciplinary artist who lives and works in Melbourne, Australia. He explores and interrogates ‘big picture’ social issues that cross borders and even continents; but in doing this, he always is searching for a perspective that speaks to the viewer on a personal, individual level. In an age of mass data and geo-political population movements, Handley finds a way for us to consider the fragility of the individual within the mass of humanity.
People Smuggling Pod is a part of a larger art project that focuses on the refugee arrivals on the island of Lesbos in 2016. Handley journeyed to the island in the midst of a chaotic international effort to deal with the tens of thousands of people that were fleeing the Syrian war. He created a series of photographs that exposed and documented the vast pile of life-jackets that were dumped on the Island. It was reported that the pile covered 10 acres, its vast scale told of the mass human movement that was happening in Europe at the time.
Here, Handley has reduced the overwhelming scale and asks the viewer to examine the form of each jacket individually – the arm holes, the neck and the waist ties – so that the viewer cannot but help but imagine the body of the child that this jacket was designed to fit. It humanizes the narrative of mass migration, it asks us to care about each and every individual story. The absence of the body also causes our worst fears to flicker momentarily in our minds - these empty spaces could be the children that have not survived the dangerous journey. They have become an absence, a negative space?
People Smuggling Pod also speaks of the economic systems that create these desperate circumstances and these terrible personal narratives. The word ‘smuggling’ frames the plight of refugees into a legal discourse that can strip people of their humanity. Associated with smuggling, their plight becomes associated with lawlessness, distrust, and things undisclosed. But even more than this, it is clearly evident that these life jackets are made from a cheap plastic, they are poor quality and most likely unsafe. This speaks to the poverty of those that wear these vests and the inferred low value that is put on the life that is meant to be saved. The viewer can imagine a desperate parent paying for anything that might make them feel more secure on a frightening journey, and a seller, calmly looking to exploit this situation.
Handley’s work asks us to reflect on the plight of millions of people around the globe, but he offers an alternative to simple despair. There is an inner strength that is associated with the circle that he has created, there are bonds that bind each life-jacket together and there are bonds that connect the viewer to this group. For the artist the circle reminds him of the great chandeliers that hang in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a building that speaks to the very highest of human achievements. The circle is associated with sharing, warmth and protection, and the work helps bring empathy and a sense of connection in a world often seems fractured and uncaring.
By Richard Ennis