East City Art Reviews: The Warmth of Other Suns at The Phillips Collection

By Miguel Resendiz on September 17, 2019

The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement spans three floors of The Philips Collection’s annex and includes the work of 75 artists. The artworks speak to the displacement and migration of people in several countries and focus on the twentieth century through the present.

The exhibition starts on the first floor displaying artworks that touch on the universal. Runo Lagomarsino’s neon sign, Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea,” in Latin), and Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs of clouds from his Equivalents series convey that nature is shared by everyone. Centering around images of the sea, John Akomfrah’s breathtaking video triptych, Vertigo Sea, also presents beautiful scenes such as those of the arctic, snow covered mountains, and savannas, setting them alongside violent images of the whaling industry. Scenes of birds and Monarch butterflies migrating are compared to scenes of people migrating across the sea—whether by choice, through aspirations of colonization, or by force, as in the transatlantic slave trade. Avalanches, bashing waves, and violent interactions between animals are juxtaposed with footage of people shooting polar bears or brutalizing slaves. These images set the current refugee crisis against the pattern of destruction and migration that has always been a part of natural and human history. Vertigo Sea is an apt primer for the show.

John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015, Three channel HD color video installation, 7.1 sound, 48:30 min. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.


Several of the works in this exhibition visually capture the perpetual waiting and striving that often accompanies displacement. For instance, Francis Alÿs’s Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River (Straight of Gibraltar, Moroco-Spain) is a two-screen video work projected on opposite walls. In the videos, two groups of children, one on each screen, hold small sailboats made from found materials as they walk in line into the sea. The wall text explains that the children are attempting to build a human bridge between opposite sides of the Straight of Gibraltar, a site of numerous migrations. As they progress, the line disintegraes and the children and their boats become overwhelmed by the blue-green abyss that is the sea. Another video work, Adrian Paci’s Centro di Permanenza Temporanea (Temporary Detention Center), depicts a line of immigrant men and women climbing a set of stairs to board an airplane. Within a few minutes, they begin to accumulate at the top of the stairs as the line comes to a halt. Then, a sudden change in the camera’s perspective reveals to the viewer that they were never actually boarding an airplane; the staircase led nowhere. The camera returns its focus to the immigrants’ expressions as they remain on the staircase and bleakly stare outward into the open air as airplanes in the background get ready to takeoff. There is no sign that an airplane will ever pick them up. Both artworks articulate an aspect of the migrant experience: people are shown going towards an abstract sense of a better home. They go somewhere that is neither here nor there, suspended between two points. Or they are will get home …sometime… eventually… soon. They might go forward, but they never truly arrive.

Francis Alÿs in collaboration with Julien Devaux, Felix Blume, Ivan Boccara, Abbas Benheim, Fundación Montenmedio Arte, and children of Tangier and Tarifa, Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River (Strait of Gibraltar, Morocco-Spain) (still), 2008, Video installation, color, sound, 7 min. © Francis Alÿs. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner


Adrian Paci, Centro di permanenza temporanea (Temporary Detention Center) (still), 2007, Video, color, sound; 4:32 min. Courtesy of the artist and Kaufmann Repetto, Milan/New York


With over 100 artworks on view, there are countless other statements being made about the migrant experience and the way nations choose to treat these people. With regard to the U.S., the galleries showcase works by now historically famous names like Arshile Gorky and Mark Rothko. Their biographies can remind viewers of the richness that results from accepting immigrants. Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series is in dialogue with, Pulitzer-prize winner Isabel Wilkerson’s book on the Great Migration, which was one of the origins of the title of the Phillips show: The Warmth of Other Suns. Photographic subjects range from immigrants arriving at Ellis Island at the turn of the twentieth century to the current distress at the U.S.-Mexico border, chronicling the country’s fickle relationship with immigrants.

While conflict between or within nations will continue to exacerbate the refugee crisis, climate change is set to cause a far greater number of refugees this century.[1] Indeed, it has already displaced millions of people within the past decade.[2]  The Warmth of Other Suns does not focus on this particular cause of displacement, but its emphasis on the shared natural changes in our world—in the sun, the air, the ocean—evokes the current state of the planet. In this increasingly volatile climate, the next refugee could be anyone.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Lampedusa, 2008, Inkjet print on paper and clips, 24 x 20 in. © Wolfgang Tillmans, Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, and Maureen Paley, London



The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement is on view through September 22, 2019. The museum has extended their Friday hours for the duration of the exhibition.

Banner Image: Griselda San Martin, The Wall, 2015–16, Digital inkjet print, 20 1/2 x 16 1/2 in., Courtesy of the artist.

[1] A commonly used estimate: “150-200 million people may become permanently displaced by the middle of the century” due to climate change. Nicholas Stern, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 77.

[2] For example, in 2017 “there were 18.8 million new disaster-related displacements.” As cited in “Climate Change and Disaster Displacement,” Webpage, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, unhcr.org/en-us/climate-change-and-disasters.html, Accessed September 8, 2019.