"Displacement has become a method of depiction" - how have artists addressed the themes of travel, migration and exile.

Reflecting on the dissolution of national and artistic borders in the context of contemporary globalised culture, Nicolas Bourriaud argues in his essay ‘Altermodern’ (2009) that ‘displacement has become a method of depiction’. This essay is revisiting the theme of travel, migration and exile in the contemporary art practices.
Migration has become an important topic in the modern world. Many changes in global political, economic and cultural situations trigger peoples’ desire to leave their homeland in a search for a better future.

In this essay I will look at the range of questions in relation to travel, migration and exile, what influence do globalization processes render on art and culture, and how contemporary artists address the topics of migration in their art practices.

The base of this study is Nicolas Bourriaud’s essay “Altermodern” (2009, no page) where he raises several interesting observations while examining current artistic practices from a prism of globalized culture and economic integration. I will look into several aspects presented in this essay in order to verify their validity in line with the current tendencies in art and culture. Firstly, that the displacement of an art object into a different cultural content would become a source of new meanings, and secondly, that art practices and culture are moving towards ‘global’ singular entity or if they still largely inherit the characters of their countries of origin.

To illustrate my research, I’ve selected Russia as the country with rich migration history, especially after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The artists I’ve chosen for this essay will represent two different groups of migrants: emigrants, those who decided to leave Russia, and immigrants, those who are moving to Russia mainly for economic reasons. By selecting these groups, I would like to cover different possible situations of assimilation processes and review their influence on art and society.

Many scientists agree on the fact that “…migration has been a structural aspect of human life from the very beginning” (Lucassen J., 2010, p.3)

In IV-VII centuries the western part of the Roman Empire has transformed significantly when different nationalities that were living on the borders of the empire expanded to the core imperial territories. This invasion resulted into cultural and later religious conflicts between immigrants and local population (Goffart W., 2006, p.14). During XVII-XIX centuries huge migration flow rushed to the North and South America realising the need for the labour force expansion, so the migration of slaves from Africa was kicked off. (Kachur M., 2006, p.6-7)

More recent examples include migration of people from the locations of military conflicts: Syria, Iran, Palestine, but the biggest part of migration in the modern world is happening from developing countries to developed countries, for example, from Ukraine to Russia or from Mexico to the USA (World Bank, 2016, p.xi). The key motives that drive these moves are of economic nature, when people want to improve the quality of their life, to find better jobs, receive a better education, realise ideas which they cannot do in the country of their origin.

Based on “Migration and Remittances Factbook 2016” report issued by the World Bank, the overall share of migrants remains unchanged since 2000 on a level just above 3 percent from the total world population, but the absolute figures are rising and now broke the level of 250 million people. As reported by World Bank (2016, p.xi) “The top migrant destination country is the United States followed by Saudi Arabia, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Spain and Australia”.

Russia is a representative of top migrant destination countries. Although the number of immigrants in Russia is significantly higher than the number of emigrants, there is a substantial difference in quality between these two flows. The emigrants are mainly represented by highly intellectual and skilful people from different areas of society: artists, writers, dissidents, highly skilled professionals, etc. Historically they are mainly representatives of selected nationalities. From the early 1970’s, Moscow allowed official emigration for Jewish, Germans and Pontic Greeks. For the next forty years almost 2 million Jews and the members of their families migrated from the post-soviet territories following open migration corridors to USA, Germany and Israel with the pick of emigration during 1989-2009. (Tolts, 2012).

Here are just several examples which seemed to be relevant to this essay. Boris Groys (an art historian, philosopher, writer, specialises on Slavic topics) left USSR in 1981 to Germany (RIA-News, 2010). Ilya Kabakov (represents conceptual Soviet art, his exhibition in Tate Modern “Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future” was on show during autumn 2017) left USSR in 1987 to Europe and then settled in the USA in 1992 (Bingham, 2017, p.11). Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid (conceptual artists pioneering Sots art movement) both left USSR in 1977 to Israel and a year later moved to the USA. (Butenop, 2017). Grisha Bruskin (Russian artist who became famous after the first Sotheby’s auction of contemporary art in Moscow in 1988, represented Russia on Venice biennale in 2017) left the USSR in 1989 to the USA. (Bruskin, 2004).

All of them offered the western society the best of their knowledge – the knowledge and interpretation of Russian history during Soviet period which they also introduced through their works.

This is what Ilya Kabakov said in his interview to the radio channel ‘West End’ in 1997 about his life in the West after migrating from the Soviet Union. The audio and the transcript of this interview were published on the Russian web-site of BBC in 2017. “…I don’t need to live two different lives any more. I was dreaming… what the artist could dream about? To have ability to work, and his work is exhibited…” (Kabakov, 1997).

Another type of migration is the inflow of immigrants from former Soviet Union republics which significantly exceeds the emigration and as of 01.02.2017 is at the level above 8 million people (Dergachev, Kuznetsova, 2017).

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the economic situation in many of the former Soviet republics severely deteriorated in comparison to Russia, as a result, a significant amount of immigrants flooded Russian territories to become the source of cheap labour force. According to the World Bank report, Russia is number three in top ten remittance senders in 2014 with the assets of $32.6 bn going outside of the country (World Bank, 2016, p.214).

Let us now discuss in more details what impact do these changes have on art practices globally.

Nicolas Bourriaud is a French curator and art historian who curated the fourth Triennial exhibition at Tate Modern in 2009 “Altermodern”, the term which he introduced to describe the art after postmodernism.

One of the aspects which Bourriaud researches in this work is the changes of contemporary art as a result of migration and globalization processes where the openness of borders stimulated the emergence of numerous trans-national cultural interlaces which in turn resulted into the emergence of new forms of contemporary art: “…in the era of altermodern, the displacement has become a method of depiction, and … artistic styles and formats must henceforth be regarded from the viewpoint of diaspora, migration and exodus” (N.Bourriaud, 2009, n/p)

He also suggests that the new cultural state does not connect any longer to its heritage roots, but instead merges into a single ‘global culture’: “There are no longer cultural roots to sustain the forms, no exact cultural base to serve as a benchmark for variations, no nucleus, no boundaries for artistic language. Today’s artist, in order to arrive at precise points, takes as their starting-point global culture and no longer the reverse.” (N.Bourriaud, 2009, n/p)

Let us now use several examples of art practices impacted or created in response to migration, in order to evaluate the validity of Bourriaud statements.

Ilya Kabakov is a Russian contemporary artist who represents conceptual art movement. His works are reflections of his life during Soviet times bearing his personal attitude, but at the same time presenting fully invented characters with fictional life stories, ideas and biographies. During his life in Moscow he was officially working as a children book illustrator but at the same time was practicing underground art with the close circle of friend artists. After his immigration to Europe in 1987 and then to the USA he quickly became known to the West as the author of the ‘total installations’, the term he invented for his works, which allowed him to introduce to the viewers different aspects of life under the Soviet ideology. (Bingham J., 2017, pp.11-17)

He is re-thinking and replicating with a great care and attention to detail different characteristics of the life in Soviet Russia. Quite often they are based on the author’s personal experience, redeveloped to their most exaggerated metaphoric state.

There are many signature works which can serve as an example here, to mention a few, these are “The Man Who Flew into Space From His Apartment”, first created in 1985 in Moscow and then later re-created in 1988 in New York, “The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away”, 1988, and “Incident in the Corridor Near the Kitchen”, 1989, the later I would like to describe in more details for the purpose of this essay. In the installation we see many kitchen utensils carefully hanging down from the ceiling, and creating an impression as if they are flowing from the sky. This artwork represents communal kitchen, depicting typical way of living during Soviet times where people used to have their own little rooms but were sharing kitchen, toilet and bathroom areas. There are two landscapes at the background with splashes of green colour, which probably aim to call for positive emotions of the inhabitants of the space. Although there seems to be a chaos which will fall down any minute, all the objects are very carefully selected and curated by the author and his wife who became his co-author, curator and collaborator.

Kabakov Image

Fig. 1. (C) Ilya Kabakov. Incident in the Corridor Near the Kitchen, 1989.

This is how Svetlana Boym (1998, p.515), a professor of Slavic and comparative literature at Harvard University, characterises Kabakov’s installations in her essay “On Diasporic Intimacy: Ilya Kabakov’s Installations and Immigrant Homes”: “Total installations are Kabakov’s homes away from home; … a way of inhabiting one’s space habitats and avoiding the extremes of both the domus of traditional family values and the megalopolis of cyberspace”.

By presenting such installations to the Western audience Kabakov deliberately pulls out the bits and pieces of his past and creates the narrative in the new environment, managing the formation of Soviet society representation in the West. Thus, by displacing fragmented pieces of Soviet life and migrating them into a different environment (western society) and by connecting them into the gigantic web of interdependencies and hidden stories he creates new artistic value for the culture of the country where the work is exhibited. But the understanding of these works in the country of exhibiting will be differ than understanding such works in Russia, because they will be viewed through the prism of local culture and social norms. By enriching the culture of receiving country, they create new cultural meaning to the viewers but the changes between the cultures of two different countries do not collapse into one.

The different case is represented by Olga Jitlina who is Russian contemporary artist and art historian, working with the topics of migration, languages and cultural politics. In 2012 she became the finalist of the Henkel Art Award where she presented the table game “Russia, the Land of Opportunity” created by the group of artists and designers including herself. This game initially was designed to attract public interest to the problems of migrants. After the game became well known as an artwork, the anti-discrimination centre “Memorial” commissioned to develop a practical version of the game which has become a handbook for potential migrants and is aimed to help them to understand complexities of living in new country (ART-chronicle, 2012).

Russia land of opportunities

Fig 2. (C) Olga Jitlina et al. Russia, the Land of Opportunity, 2012

She is also the author of several documentaries where she invites migrants as key participants. One of such videos is representing re-makes of music videos, in which migrants transform their working environment into the stage and use their labour instruments as if they are musical instruments (Bashmachnikov, 2017)

She talks to the migrants a lot. People in her documentaries tell her about their lives before moving to Russia. Families break up, cultural traditions get abandoned and people are forced to live lives imposed for them by the new society.

One of the later actions include exchanging clothes between Russian art practitioners and students with immigrants and waking across the city during the day. This was done in order to attract attention to different perception of migrants by local population.

What we see from the examples above, the migration of the cultural object to a different cultural environment creates new meanings for the viewers in the recipient country and therefore can be considered as a part of artistic process, confirming the conclusion of Bourriaud that “displacement is a method of depiction”. In his installations Kabakov creates a new meaning to simple objects of a daily life by displacing them into a different environment and through this creating for them new artistic and cultural qualities.

The same is valid for the performances where Russian emigrants from Central Asia are involved. The documentary on improvised disco party in the centre of Saint-Petersburg (Jitlina, 2014), as opposed to disco party anywhere in migrants’ homeland, becomes a work of art because of the synergy effect where cultural codes of historical centre of a ‘cultural capital’ of Russia (this is how Saint-Petersburg is considered among many people in the country) comes into synthesis with the city architecture and the responding behaviour of the people around. Moreover, the disguise as an emigrant becomes a work of art as carnavalization of reality is a European cultural feature, which does not exist in other nationalities and therefore is not global.

Even more, the whole thesis about the move to a ‘global culture’ contradicts to the possibility to use migration as ‘a method of depiction’ for creation of new artistic meanings, because in the global culture the move of an object from one place, territory or country to another would not lead to creation of a different meaning. They would have simply remaind the same everywhere.

To further reinforce my view, as we discussed earlier, migration is staying flat as proportion to the total population and mostly impacts large economically developed agglomerations. But a single migrant would not be able to bring and re-create its own culture, its history or identity into a new place in its invariable state. They have to adopt themselves to the habits and principles which already exist in the society around them. Although it is a two-way process, where migrants are changing in themselves and the society is changing by adopting some elements of migrants’ culture, this merge will never be equal, and the culture of the region which accept migrants, will continue its domination.

At the same time, local cultural societies which do not suffer from the expanded migration, still mainly remain stable in their cultural traditions. By adopting technological changes, they do not abandon their cultural heritage and in many cases, keep the traditions preserved. Therefore, the point of moving to a ‘global culture’ can only be applied to big agglomerations with a substantial mix of nationalities where different cultures have sufficient number of representatives.


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