|“Film Noir of Lampedusa." Clay Apenouvon|
Artist: Clay Apenouvon
Commissioned by the Église Saint-Merri, (Church Saint Merri) for the Paris Climate Conference COP21. Installation in situ: Extended plastic film with various objects.
In this extraordinary installation, artist Clay Apenouvon, born in Togo, West Africa, has created a haunting memorial to the untold thousands of migrants/refugees from Africa and the Middle East who have struggled across the Mediterranean to reach Sicily and the safety of Europe in makeshift boats and rafts. In many cases, their corpses and possessions have washed up on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, 70 miles from Tunisia and 127 miles from Sicily. The artist is inspired by the work of Lampedusa activist Giacomo Sferlazzo, who has tirelessly collected the objects thrown overboard or lost at sea by the refugees and assembled them into a “Museum of Silence,” composed of the mute traces of those lost forever beneath the waves.
Nearly all of those who attempt this perilous crossing are climate refugees, victims of the modern world’s relentless hunger for hydrocarbon-based energy. The current wars and economic crises in Africa and the Middle East are ultimately driven by struggles over oil and related resources, and are exacerbated by climate change, itself the product of the endless burning of fossil fuels. Here, from a ledge that sometimes hold the host, an endless waterfall of blackness pours out from the walls, a vast oil spill that cannot be capped. Upon the floor of the sanctuary waves of black gold disgorge all manner of lost things—a mismatched pair of children’s shoes, a bottle containing a message of love, a Qur’an, an image of the virgin, a small crucifix, a cell phone. In this corner of a stunningly beautiful ancient church we find ourselves before a latter-day sacrificial altar, pondering all those whose dreams of refuge will never be realized.
The work’s title, “Film Noir,” has many allusions. It recalls the black film left on the ocean’s surface by each oil spill. It reminds us that so many of the victims of the Mediterranean are African, who all too quickly fade from the view and conscience of the world’s wealthy nations. It evokes as well the Film Noir genre of Hollywood melodrama, celebrated for tangled plot lines of crime and passion, low key lighting and unbalanced composition. For here we are in the presence of a vast crime scene, a movie reel that plays over and over and over again, a film noir nightmare from which, it appears, we can never awake.
The installation was commissioned for the Paris Climate Conference COP21, before the brutal mass murders of Friday, November 13 in the environs of the Saint Merri Church. The work now strikes us eerily prophetic, anticipating the spontaneous memorials erected to the lost in the nearby Place de la République. The very walls of the church, one senses, are weeping—for all the victims, near and far. This endless filmstrip of tragedy plays again and again, mute testimony to all those who can no longer speak for themselves.
Appropriately, Apenouvon’s installation emerges from beneath the grand painting by Charles Antoine Coypel, Les Disciples d'Emmaüs,(The Disciples of Emmaus, 1749), Soon after his death and resurrection, Jesus reveals himself to two of his disciples, who are despondent over his crucifixion. When he breaks bread with them, they recognize him and are filled with joy (Luke 24:13-35). This setting, it seems to me, is even more deeply appropriate after the terrorist horrors of November 13. In our anguish, in our grief, whatever our faith, we long for some trace of hope, for a better future for ourselves and for those that will come after us. That is the spirit of COP21—an insistence that we gaze squarely and unflinchingly upon the ravages to which our planet is now subjected, combined with a demand that we act in concert to imagine, and actively produce, a better world. That is now the silent prayer of Clay Apenouvon, a Parisian born in West Africa: that the atrocities of the Paris assaults will not cause us to turn our back on the world’s least fortunate, on the refugees struggling to reach Fortress Europe. The terrorists, after all, viciously attacked those engaged in the most fundamental expressions of common humanity—eating and drinking together, listening to music, dancing together. Should not our response, in the spirit of Coypel’s painting of the scene from Luke 21, be to move beyond misrecognition of those whom we encounter on the journey? Should we not, instead, recognize in the Other all that binds us, from the richest and poorest, and join in that most basic of communions, breaking bread together?