Welcome to the Jungle Camp
By Ashley Yu
The European refugee crisis has receded from public consciousness as swiftly as it paralyzed the world. Waves of other breaking news and the Kardashians’ latest antics have drowned out the overwhelming fear of the crisis, as people console themselves that “Time” will take care of them. Ahmed El Shaer’s latest installation Crossover (The Scene) is set in the former refugee camp known as “the Jungle” in Calais, France. Currently exhibited at the Museum of Moving Image in Queens, El Shaer combines live-action footage, landscape photography, and computer graphics to explore what is now a wasteland and what used to be Living Hell for a near 8,000 migrants.
Narrated in Arabic, the overarching plot of the seven-minute video installation is based on an Italian folktale about a man in search of “a place that death can’t reach.” There is a remarkable lack of actual human beings, except for the footage of a pool cleaner’s silhouette. Instead, all the characters are “machinima”--real-time computer graphics of people as in a video-game. Alongside his “machinima men” is that of life-size fluorescent pink rabbits that walk aimlessly, yet repeatedly, across desolate landscapes. Here does El Shaer’s history of hilariously subversive video projects come into play. His synthesis of graphic design and implied political critique into a multimedia art piece is definitive of his career, particularly considering his previous project Think Tank (2015) that toyed with Mahatma Gandhi’s march for peace alongside voluptuous anime girls. To ignore the political framework in which El Shaer is critiquing is to misconstrue his multimedia experiments as simply a practice in surrealism-for-surrealism’s-sake.
His artistic decision of machinima serves a dual purpose. On one hand, by representing the refugees as machinima or symbolically as a group of pink rabbits, he removes any chance of unconsciously exploiting any individual migrant narrative. Instead, he lets the Italian allegory explain and chronicle certain universal aspects of asylum seekers, such as the escape from death, or the return to a ruined homeland where “no one knew the name of his family.” On the other, El Shaer’s incorporation of computer graphics with live footage disorients the viewer to mimic the refugee’s confusion in the face of violence and displacement. By doing so, El Shaer’s visual allegory transcends more than a singular person’s narrative and more than a singular crisis. It exposes a recurring phenomenon throughout history of those fleeing from a home that is no longer habitable due to the turning of the revolutionary “wheel of time.”
At the end of the Italian fable, the man is finally tricked into the hands of Death, disguised as an old man in need of help. On the screen, the life-size machinima pink rabbits walk, as if resigned, into the flaring pink and blue lights of a Halal cart, ironically mirroring the cinematography of when a ghost in a horror film “go towards the light.” What that correlates to in the life of a migrant after his departure from the Calais jungle camps, or to the state of the refugee crisis, is up for interpretation.
Ahmed El Shaer’s Crossover (The Scene) is currently exhibited at the Museum of Moving Image in Queens, New York from February 9th, 2019 to June 16th, 2019.