On a recent afternoon, two visitors who know what it means to leave home took in a new exhibit at the Harvard Art Museums, paying particular attention to a work playing on a loop in a black-box theater erected specifically for the show.
In the short film “Remains,” by Northern Ireland artist Willie Doherty, a voice speaks as stark images cross the screen: a burning car; a wind-swept, abandoned lot; a gloomy sky. “It has become a distant memory, taken on the characteristics of a dream. At times I am unsure if it really happened at all,” says the unseen narrator of the brutal kneecappings carried out by the para militants who policed Northern Ireland’s streets during The Troubles, the sectarian conflict between loyalists who wanted to remain in the United Kingdom and republicans eager to have the country join the Republic of Ireland.
For Harvard Divinity School Dean David Hempton and his wife, Louanne, the film — part of “Crossing Lines, Constructing Home,” which explores immigration, home, and belonging with art from ranging from vivid photographs to a meticulously hand-sewn installation on the floor — was a searing reminder of the violence they lived through in their home country.
“It speaks to both the mind and the emotions for us. It’s a very evocative look back at images we were very familiar with,” said Hempton, who studied in Belfast during the unrest and moved to the U.S. with his wife, who had worked as a social worker in the city, 21 years ago. “It almost felt to me, I am right there, I know this landscape.”
Back in Northern Ireland recently during the 50th anniversary of the conflict, the couple said they were struck by TV interviews with victims and perpetrators of the violence who spoke of lasting trauma and guilt, and of fears that another physical border between the two countries could emerge as Britain plans its exit from the European Union. “Brexit has been a surprise for people in Britain but not for people in Ireland,” said Hempton, adding that many have half a century of questions about what Northern Ireland’s future holds.
For Louanne Hempton, Doherty’s film touched on those deep uncertainties.
“It brings up bigger questions about how we police our communities, exploit our youth, how we deal with poverty and violence and the legacy of violence … this is about all of our own questions, about all of our deepest fears, all our deepest anxieties, all of our desires, of where we belong.”
Before entering the gallery, the Hemptons chatted with the museums’ Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot director, Martha Tedeschi, who explained how the show speaks to both a specific cultural moment and to the museums’ commitment to contemporary acquisitions. Almost all of the items in the exhibit have been recently acquired.
“We’ve been working toward this moment,” said Tedeschi, “bringing these kinds of new artist investigations of migration and displacement into the permanent collection so when the show is over we don’t lose that possibility of keeping that conversation going.”
Items in the exhibit range in size and scale, represent myriad cultures, customs, people, and places, and touch on heartbreak, home, and hope. Among the more than 40 works on view are evocative photographs of U.S. border crossings, north and south, taken by American photographers Richard Misrach and Bill McDowell; a large mural by Chilean artist Eugenio Dittborn that blends photographs of the faces of people from different indigenous groups in Chile with drawings done by Dittborn’s young daughter; and a delicate reconstruction of a basement corridor in gauze-like fabric that visitors can walk through, created by Korean artist Do Ho Suh.