Symbolic action

Tania Bruguera: 10,148,451 at the Tate Modern; reviewed by Lucy Decker.

The title, provided by the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, represents the number of people who migrated from one country to another last year plus the total number of migrant deaths recorded since the project start date. This number is stamped on your wrist as you explore the gallery off the Turbine Hall – a stark reminder of the dehumanising nature of both many migrants’ experiences and the role of statistics used to report on the loss of human migrant life.

This unique exhibition from acclaimed activist and artist Tania Bruguera provokes an emotional and a physical reaction – an adjoining gallery contains a tearing agent which makes you cry. Bruguera describes this as ‘forced empathy’, a way to create a shared public emotional response and remind us that whilst migration may be represented as an ongoing crisis which can lend itself to apathy, we can all act and interact at a local level in our communities to support positive change.

Two levels of action are explored in this exhibition: direct and symbolic. Symbolic action through collectively touching the floor with others to reveal a portrait of Yousef, a young man who left Syria and found emotional and practical support through SE1 United and who now works for the NHS to support others. Tate Neighbours, a group of local residents/workers who were brought together for the project and to inform the future direction of the Tate, represents the direct action of the organisation by its neighbours. Their manifesto appears if you log into the Tate Wifi and it inspires you to act locally in your own community.

The discourse used to describe migration and migrants matters: ‘us’ versus ‘them’ language, the use of statistics rather than individual stories, and a focus on negative migrant stories are some of the ways which can be used to dehumanise a group of people who are no different from ourselves. At a time where the future legal policies concerning UK borders and migration are uncertain, Bruguera provides a timely reminder of the importance of taking positive local action as individuals and as Psychologists in society.

- Reviewed by Lucy Decker, Trainee Occupational Psychologist, Civil Service

The exhibition runs until 24 February.

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