The following text was commissioned by Vanessa Gould-Rakoczy to accompany the exhibition of her work at the MA Visual Arts Summer Show 2019, which is running from 11-17 July at the Camberwell College of Arts, London. The series from which these paintings are drawn was begun following her volunteer work in the refugee camps on the island of Lesbos. On 7 June, Vanessa exhibited photographs from her visit at a benefit event No Borders Kitchen Lesbos.
On 14 June 1985 the European Economic Community signs the Schengen Agreement, opening borders between what will eventually be 26 member states and over 400 million people; and from the Berliner Philharmoniker come the words of the Anthem of Europe:
‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.’
‘All people become brothers
Where your gentle wing abides.’
But what of our brothers and sisters not abiding under the gentle wing of the European Union?
Watchwords on a watchtower, from London to Lesbos. The same you’ll read sewn into banners held by the Focus E15 Mothers on Stratford Broadway every Saturday afternoon, sprayed beneath the blank eyes of abandoned bunkers on the shoreline of Mytilene:
From Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Somalia, they come to the ancient city of Mytilene. Founded 11 centuries before Christ, and home in the 7th Century to the lyric poet Sappho. Priam was its king, Aristotle was a tourist, Caesar its conqueror, Paul its apostle, Mehmed its liberator. A subject, successively, of the Athenian, Roman, Byzantine, Nicean and Ottoman empires and the newly-founded Kingdom of Greece, it finally fell, in 1981, to the European Commission. Hot over the long summers, winter in the camps are cold and wet, with three times the rainfall of London. Thick mud flows between the sodden tents.
Mytilene, with a population of 30,000, is the funnel into Europe. Fleeing poverty, political oppression, violence and war, half a million people arrived in Lesbos in the two years before 2016, a drop in the ocean of the 65.6 million displaced persons world-wide. 22,000 have died crossing the Mediterranean since 2000. Only three-and-a-half miles from the Turkish mainland, how many drowned in the straits of Mytileni, sold faulty lifejackets by traffickers in refugees, capsized in overloaded boats, fallen to hypothermia in the winter crossings?
Until, that is, March 2016 and the EU-Turkey deal that rules that refugees from Turkey into Greece are deported back. The rest – around 80 refugees daily – stay in the former prison of Mória. Located on the road to the island’s own Mount Olympus, its chain-link fences are topped with barbed wire. Built to hold 700, thousands have arrived at a time. ‘Unfit for animals’, said Human Rights Watch. Arrivals are screened here before being moved to the other camps around the island: Kara Tepe, a former shooting range, and the PIKPA camp, once a children’s holiday camp, now a refugee camp for children and their mothers.
Fortress Europe, where stone-built coastal forts are topped by modern concrete bunkers. Abandoned brutalist buildings loom above crumbling shorelines, while thousands under canvas shiver through the winter snows and swelter in the Mediterranean sun. No squatters allowed: the Lesbos police make sure of that. Greece, for so long the playground of the European rich, has become the waiting room for the enforced tourism of war: the favoured package deal of Western Imperialism. ‘See Baghdad and die!’ First send in the F-16 fighters, then the Texan oil magnates. Finally, the hoteliers arrive. The Greek mythology of European exceptionalism mediated through 1,500 years of Western propaganda we call Christianity. The surface-to-air Crusades we continue to launch at the Middle East, bringing democracy to the darker regions of the world. Mythology become religion become ideology is now the foreign policy of the West.
But Greek myths are also about what is beyond human control. ‘Like flies to wicked boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport.’ For the Olympian pantheon then, now the cruel indifference of Nature. The climate change that is killing us is a crisis for us: from the point of view of the planet, it’s nature reclaiming its rights. Tuffs of grass spring up in the cracks between concrete slabs. From the Roman aqueduct to the crumbling houses of 21st-century Mytilene, the yellow sun of Lesbos laughs at our attempts at eternity. Under the same sky that looks down on the sun-bathing tourists of Europe, refugees wait for release into a civilisation nearing its end. From the frying pan of the refugee crisis into the fire of climate crisis. But before that, time passes. Weeks, months, seasons, years. Countdown to the end of the world as the sun rises and falls on opposite horizons. Nature as a product of political and military policy. The Hostile Environment.
How to represent all this for a London audience? What technique will translate this modern tragedy into the language of paint and canvas? Pencil drawing, acrylic paint, spray can, print, photography, writing, sound recording. The absence of human presence from the places of their absence. The dissolving of the already abandoned, man-made structures into the ground of the canvas. The graffiti left on the walls of the buildings inscribed again on the surface of these canvases. The spray paint of the words become the spray paint on the canvas. Not the words, which are repeated in turpentine-thin paint, but the overlapping, intermingling patches of sea, water, reflection, sky, clouds, sun, mist, haze, shimmer, atmosphere.
Spray paint as atmosphere: global, environmental, social, political. What is the atmosphere of war? What is the atmosphere of the European Union? What clouds congregate above the borders of the West? What colour is the ocean of a nation? What colour are the people that stand behind our barriers? What colour is the passport that permits me to cross? What colour is my nation?
Blue is the colour of the European Union. Yellow are the five-pointed stars of its member states. Purple are the lips of the bodies that wash up on our beaches. White are the walls of the towers of Lesbos. White is the dome of the decommissioned port authority of Mytilene, like the ruin of a 5th-century temple. Scratched like tattoos across the bruised skin of these canvases: plum purple, egg yellow, flesh pink, blood red. The blue of the Aegean, the blue of forgetfulness. On the concrete blocks of an abandoned building on the road that leads to the camps:
NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL
The protest of mothers in Stratford’s homeless hostels. The horizon line of Monet’s seascapes at Le Havre. The turned card of Matisse’s Odalisques. The prison house of Orientalism’s jailors. On the horizon appears a fridge the size of a skyscraper, dissolving into the ultramarine sea, its waters boiled down to a melting tray of ice. Then nothing. Beneath a patch of blue paint on an otherwise blank canvas the Catalan painter Joan Miró wrote:
‘Ceci est la couleur des mes rêves’
Architects for Social Housing
All paintings and photographs by Vanessa Gould