Mia’s formal front entryway is so elegant and unapproachable in its neoclassical grandeur that these days the museum seems to steer visitors away. It’s roped off as an entrance during winter; most visitors head directly to the Third Avenue lobby. That’s what made it startling this February when, suddenly, life jackets covered all six of the massive ionic columns.
The roughly 2,400 life jackets make up an installation by Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei. All were abandoned on the beaches of the Greek island of Lesbos by Syrian and Afghan refugees fleeing to Europe. The installation, Safe Passage, is the new public face of Mia’s exhibition When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration (now through May 24), originally presented at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston.
“I immediately connected that installation and our historic McKim, Mead & White façade,” says Mia curator and head of contemporary art Gabriel Ritter. Having first noticed Safe Passage in 2016 (the piece showed in Berlin), Ritter knew it needed to be part of When Home Won’t Let You Stay. What he liked about that juxtaposition? “That it’s neoclassical, that it’s this seat of cultural and Western power, that it faces out to the public space of a park, that it can be a beacon visible to all.” It’s a portal, Ritter adds, for “difficult conversations.”
Walking into a museum draped in 2,400 life jackets that have been used by real people desperately fleeing war? That will certainly inspire dialogue. (In a similar mode, Epimonia, a mission-based clothing and lifestyle brand in St. Paul, turns life jackets into bracelets and clothing and donates half the profits to refugee causes; epimonia.com.)
But the sheer volume of the life jackets—donated by the mayor of Lesbos—also forces a question: How many life jackets have turned up in Europe’s de facto refugee intake center? The answer: a lot more.
No exact count exists for the number of refugees who have landed at Lesbos since 2014. This year, anywhere from 500 to 1,000 souls arrive each week. And that’s way down from the nearly 3,300 a day who were arriving at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015. Put another way, while it’s difficult to look away from the human drama behind Mia’s 2,400 life vests, they represent only .6 percent of the 379,000-plus refugees who arrived in Lesbos… in just 2015. Difficult conversations, indeed.