On the island of Lesbos, not far from the narrow rocky beach at Skala Sykamnias where hundreds of thousands of refugees have arrived in rubber dinghies over the past three or four years and continue to land in smaller numbers, there is a vast mound of brightly coloured life jackets that some now call the life-vest graveyard. Already a kind of monument to those whose lives were not saved (it has been widely reported that some of the jackets sold in Turkey have rips and flaws), the accumulated material is being repurposed at a refugee workshop in the island’s capital, Mytilini. At the Mosaik Support Center, the strips of fluorescent-orange and royal-blue PVC are turned into wallets, bags, laptop cases, and backpacks that are sold to support the centre’s work, which includes language, music, and computer classes. Seated on stools or standing in front of sewing machines donated by local Greek households, young men from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and various parts of the African continent chat quietly in a tenuous patchwork of languages.
If there is a place that can act as an antidote to the toxic and manipulative rhetoric about migrants current in the politics of much of the Western Hemisphere, it is this workshop. Another is a recent exhibition of works by Peter Sacks at the Marlborough Fine Art Gallery in London: Migrations. These twenty-some mixed-media canvases are also constituted of found materials: an extraordinary abundance of richly coloured strips and scraps of cloth—cotton, linen, silk, jute—and fragments of embroidery and crochet work whose patterns and stencilled shapes evoke a multitude of native customs, climates, and trade routes. Arranged in swirls, ripples, and near-figures, the fabrics spill over each other and over pieces of ribbed cardboard, wood, and shells. Some include numbers and texts: crumpled and truncated lines of poetry and prose typed on white linen and, in a few instances, scraps of printed paper.
It is hard to exaggerate the evocative scope of these canvases: expressive of profound intellectual and historical complexity, they are wonderfully free of theoretical affectation. They evoke with the simplest of material means all varieties of human and animal migration: flights from war, famine, disease, natural and human-made disasters; marches such as that described in Xenophon’s Anabasis (and Saint-John Perse’s Anabase); biblical and Cold War exiles; expeditions; displacements temporary and permanent; but also the migratory paths of birds, butterflies, whales, and wildebeests. They imply journeys by land (covered wagons or trucks through the desert), sea (sails and hammocks), and air (winds blow from every cardinal direction through these works). At the same time, they portray wreckage, not just the rending of lives but what is left behind or washed up after a catastrophe: damaged clothing, a single glove, a lace collar, bedclothes and tablecloths, rugs, tents. All the forms of protection and shelter for our bodies are hinted at, but also the symbols of division: flags or “banners [that] change their colors like a forest against the horizon / a delicate bird yellow in spring through green to winter’s black,” to quote Zbigniew Herbert’s “Report from a Besieged City.” They rise and fall, loose or taut, over planks or pieces of modelled wood, suggesting shacks, wagons, musical instruments, destroyed furniture; I was reminded of the traumatized-furniture assemblages of Doris Salcedo on view not long ago at the Harvard Art Museums. Salcedo’s famous work The Orphan’s Tunic also provides a good comparison here, in that its maimed and grafted tables are covered with fabric that suggests a shroud covering not just an individual body but a whole community. Where Salcedo’s central impulse remains one of mourning, Sacks’s work orchestrates a more complex range of emotion, from subtle menace to ecstatic cry.
Some of the formal elements of Sacks’s works can best be described in terms of a broken music. Each canvas has its own rhythm, its half-repetitions, its texture, pitch, and tempo: Eight of the works on view are titled Quickening; these are the ones most riotously dancing with bright colour. The sequence titled Outpost—an inevitably Conradian title—moves the focus toward colonial conquest and its migratory consequences, mapping a more tightly controlled encounter between whiteness and colour, straight line and undulation. The numbered groups titled Township and False Bay bring the viewer unambiguously into Sacks’s original South African frame of reference. The works refer to the perilous but beautiful bay on the Cape and are constructed with the most open space and a looser, thinner texture, as if affected by the distance not only of geographical space but also of personal time.
The work in this show, which follows a group of works in a similar format shown in the Marlborough New York last year, can be read—despite its obvious sympathetic attention to the meeting and mixing of cultures—as a rebuff of sorts to easy pieties about multiculturalism. The idiom of this art doesn’t simply assert the value of cultural cross-pollination but conveys the turbulence of worlds colliding. A swath of printed African cotton cutting across a neatly laid-out piece of white lace renders a whole age of colonial subjugation and rebellion. Twisting scarves overrun or dip under linear, frame-like borders. Sections of quilt patches resonant of community dissolve into a desert of numbered jute bags. This mixing of materials creates an effect both of desperate fragility and tremendous energy. The patterns on the canvas have a way of acting as large-scale landscapes, maps of countries or indeed of continents, and, at the same time, as close-up still lifes in which each crease or edge is as intimate as the crook of a girl’s satin-clad arm or the border of a table rug in a seventeenth-century Dutch interior.
This fluency of movement between the personal and the impersonal, the force field created by rapid oscillation between the ant’s- and the bird’s-eye view, allies this art with one of its inspirations, the work of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. Scraps of Herbert’s poems are embedded in several of Sacks’s works, both in this exhibit and the previous New York show (which featured on one canvas repeated reproductions of Herbert’s face in a famous photograph by Anna Bohdziewicz). The poet is most explicitly present here in the name of the two major triptychs, Report from the Besieged City I and II, one of which was recently purchased by Oxford University’s new Bonavero Institute of Human Rights. Herbert’s poem of that title and the eponymous 1983 collection are connected to the period of martial law in Poland, but in Sacks’s show the title reverberates most immediately with the devastating siege of Aleppo. That city’s name appears in fragments of text along with words and phrases evoking recent conflict in the Middle East: checkpoints, opposition, fighters. But these are balanced elsewhere by contrary notes:
something structural and inclusive
nearness of the Capitoline
built to last
Read in the light of Herbert’s poem “Report from a Besieged City,” these clutches of words are the scant pocketful of mementos a migrant, a refugee, or an exile manages to bring with them, the tenuous remnants of a city’s pride:
and if the City falls and one man survives
he will carry the City inside him on the paths of exile
he will be the City
This city-in-exile is a private memory as well as a dream of justice. In quoting two lines from Herbert’s great poem from the same collection, “To Ryszard Krynicki—A Letter,” Sacks addresses himself to Herbert’s question of what will remain—in the shape of poetry, art, human culture—of this dream in our time. How does our desire for justice relate to our need to mourn and celebrate? Herbert’s poem makes clear that it is not enough for art to stand “on the right the better side of the triptych / the Last Judgment.” In order to attain its full power and in order to last, art requires, beyond political outrage, the strength to mourn and praise life, to join people not only in protest but also in joy.
Sacks’s triptych Report from the Besieged City I brings its humble salvaged materials into an extraordinary frenzy of defiant being, an upward reach of limbs, branches, or flames, which articulate a response of sorts to Herbert’s question:
what forces of the spirit do we need
blindly beating despair against despair
to ignite a spark a word of atonement
that the dancing circle might last on the soft grass
that a child’s birth and every beginning be blessed
the gifts of the air of the earth of fire and of water
The work asks for a new kind of structure to host it: not the box-like rooms of a gallery. Remembering another group of modern triptychs, the imposing reddish-black panels by Mark Rothko housed in the sombre, bunker-like Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, I wish for Sacks’s works a shelter that would be the precise opposite—something light and airy, open to all comers. These triptychs are as likely to prompt a dance or an anecdote as a meditation or prayer.
In the ecosystem of Albemarle Street, where glass shop windows protect the lavish fabrics of couturiers from the mounds of rubbish bags lined up along the pavement, Sacks’s works at the Marlborough suggest a mode of survival in which the remains of broken lives are taken up tenderly and ingeniously into new stories, new directions and artifacts. Sacks’s works are both elegiac and prophetic of a world in which there is no waste, no loss, only reinvention and new discovery. This art calls on viewers to make that world with their own hands.
Alissa Valles is the author of the poetry books Orphan Fire and Anastylosis and editor and co-translator of Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems and Collected Prose, and the translator of Ryszard Krynicki’s Our Life Grows and Anna Bikont’s The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne.