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Thursday, 15 May 2014

The European Fortress

Eva Leitolf sent me a copy of her book on migration and the edges of Western Europe. It's called Postcards from Europe. 

The book is a portfolio of prints with a picture on one side and text on the other. But the prints aren't postcards. They're massive 40 x 30cm prints all loose, wrapped up in a grey cover which fits into a white slipcase.

Where the postcard bit does work is with the information. The first picture is of a piece of rough parkland with a picnic bench intruding in one corner and a security fence intruding in the background. Flick the page over and you learn that this is a picnic park in Melilla, a Spanish enclave in Morocco that has been in the news very recently (after this book was made). This is literally the front line for entry into Europe, the fence a barbed wire boundary to Europe.

The next picture shows the Melilla to Spain ferry crossing which Leitolf took fo 19.20 Euros, an option not available to the 14,714 migrants who are known to have drowned in the seas off the coasts of Spain between 1988 and 2007.

So a pattern emerges; there's a division between how Europe sees itself looking from the inside out and how Europe is seen by those seeking to get in. Postcards from Europe then is a book to do with Europe and migration, but why not extend the symbolism somewhat ; it's about wealth and non-wealth, about power and impotence about justice and injustice.

It's also about how there might not be such a thing as a Promised Land. We see a village in Spain where  immigrants were chased through the streets after a local was murdered, we see the hiding places in Eastern Europe where people smugglers hide migrants, the godforsaken refugee 'hostels' where asylum seekers are confined as they wait to be processed.

There's a watchtower in Hungary where the local hunters work with the authorities, where 'certain areas are completely covered by hunters' night scopes during the hunting season.' A watchtower is just a watchtower but it comes with chilling connotations which reverberate through both the image and the accompanying statement.

The economics of migration, farming and falling crop prices are examined, as are the problems that exist for asylum seekers who are landed in Italy ( perhaps the worst thing that can happen to an asylum seeker who has already landed in Lampedusa!). There's a park in Greece where migrants slept and were attacked by local 'vigilante' groups that were possibly connected to the country's neo-fascist Golden Dawn party.

Leitolf also looks at the people who are challenging this view of Europe. There's a campsite on Lesbos where hundreds of activists discussed 'Facets of the Border Regime'  and a picture of a beach where bodies of drowned migrants have washed up, and where the impact of the deaths on some local residents led to the foundation of the Borderline Sicilia organisation.

I thought Postcards from Europe was too big at first but I've changed my mind. The sentiment of this Fortress Europe runs from the captions to the picture and back again. The pictures have that sense of empty space liminality, but never fall into that boring picture category; they are energised by the information and tie together under the border theme. It's Europe as a boxed in geographical area that shuts outsiders out and keeps insiders in.

I've seen Postcards online, and it looks very worthy; lots of hard work and some not especially interesting pictures. But the book from brings it alive. It's a completely different kettle of fish where the text/picture/scale/layout all comes together.

The book has rather slipped under the radar in comparison to the project and exhibition that preceded it. Perhaps that's because the theme is very sober, or because the book is kind of pricey ( it's £40 in our English money) or because it hasn't been promoted very well. Or possibly a combination of all of the above.

I'm interested in the subject so for me, it's not at all dry. In fact it's one of the best books (if not the best) I've seen for energising and giving meaning to empty landscapes, something a lot of people try and fail, very miserably, to do. And the price? Well it is expensive, but it's beautifully made. And it cares. And it's worth it.

You can buy the book here.

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