contemporary art, migration, video installation

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, Promised Land (2011)

June 28, 2011

Paddling naked, save for a life jacket, through the dark waters of a harbour is so difficult it seems comic. Since the swimmer is in a video piece, one really hopes this is a performance.

But this is a real life moment in the life of a would-be migrant to Britain. Art is the last thing on his mind. And one can assume it is being filmed by a friend of his and not by Nikolaj B S Larsen.

This inside footage is one of several rarely seen activities which the Danish artist has captured. And he has done so by handing over cameras to refugees with minimal interest in video art.

So with little or no attempt to play with genre, other scenes come round out in which plans are sketched in the dirt (infiltration of a truckstop) and maps are drawn on scraps of paper (port security).

Lovers of classic cinema will recognise this convention. It belongs to the heist movie, or better still that embodiment of British pluck, The Great Escape (1963). There are several ironies in this film.

But the work is anchored by moving interviews with migrants sleeping rough in Calais. Professional footage shows sunset on the channel, convoys in the rain, finally the lights of Picadilly.

The three-channel installation is panoramic, and the 55-minute piece immerses the viewer in lives otherwise hard to imagine. Larsen has brought out a sublime quality in the port by night.

One imagines that seen penniless and paperless from a quayside, channel ferries always look like this. The vision in this film appears authentic, precisely because it is borrowed.

Promised Land can be seen at Folkestone Triennial until 25 September 2011. See festival website for more details. You can also watch a pilot for the film on Larsen’s own site.

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