Homage to the journey of life

BERLIN – Creating a work of art that will stand right next to the famed Brandenburg Gate in Berlin must be quite a challenge. The presence of history is strong and the symbolic connotations of the monument so imposing as to overshadow any neighboring structure. «At Crossroads,» Kalliopi Lemos’s contemporary art installation which rises a few meters behind the Brandenburg Gate responds to the challenge with great success. A visual surprise that meets the eye as one approaches the monument from the tree-lined Unter den Linden boulevard, this emotionally evocative work interrupts the austerity of the surroundings and breaks the latent tension built up by Germany’s recent history. The artwork alludes to immigration and is a tribute to the lives of illegal immigrants and their difficult journey to the West. A 13-meter-high installation consisting of seven boats turned upside down and caught symmetrically between a solid structure with a cross-shaped base, the work – at this particular site – juxtaposes the official view of history with the hardships of people who never make it into its pages. Like fish trapped in a net, the boats express the concept of an impasse. They are placed parallel to the Brandenburg Gate, rather than vertically, and face the back of the statue of Winged Victory atop the monument. Both these aspects suggest that the immigrants have still not been integrated into the city. «At Crossroads» was placed in this spot in mid-October and will remain there to the end of the month. (In 2010 it will be installed permanently in another part of the city.) It is being presented in the context of a series of events marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The organizers of the exhibition are Berlin’s Akademie der Kunste and the Hellenic Migration Policy Institute (IMEPO) in Athens, which has also funded a large portion of this costly project. The installation is the third part of a Kalliopi Lemos trilogy that began in Elefsina in 2006, continued in Istanbul the following year and comes to a close in Berlin. In all three works, Lemos has used actual boats that were used for transporting illegal immigrants from the coast of Turkey to Greece and which the artist found abandoned along the shores of Chios (her place of origin) and Mytilene. All three works allude to immigration but are mainly intended to offer a more general and poetic homage to the idea of the journey in the archetypal sense, the «journey of life,» so to speak. The perilous journey of the immigrants is seen as a metaphor for the transitions in life and the adventures that one encounters along the way. «Death» and renewal are part of this process, a concept that the Elefsina installation expressed the most eloquently, partly because the site was endowed with connotations emanating from the ancient myth of Demeter and Persephone. Lemos, whose work is closely tied to personal experiences and usually stems from a heartfelt approach to her subject, is particularly sensitive to immigration and the emotional cost of having to leave one’s country. The stories that her grandparents would recount of how they fled their homes in what is known as the Asia Minor Catastrophe have had a lasting impact on her. Lemos also remembers the long periods that her father would be away from home at sea (Lemos comes from a family of shipowners and also married into the Lemos shipowning family). Moving to London when she was 20 years old, was in a way, another kind of departure from her roots. In the Berlin installation, the political subtext is there yet Lemos’s intention is not to create a hardcore political work but to highlight the human dimension of immigration. Immigration as a political and socioeconomic issue is indeed a complex subject whose solution escapes the scope of art. All that art can do is to hope to cultivate understanding and sensitivity. «At Crossroads» succeeds in doing so. It stimulates thoughts, stirs sentiments and creates an interesting, visual juxtaposition in the heart of Berlin.