Bodies in Danger
The following interpretations of Bill Viola's art work come from a unique project at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (EMST) in 2017. Face Forward …into my home was an interactive art project focused on the stories of people who have been forced to leave their homelands and were rebuilding their life in Greece. It included storytelling workshops inspired by a selection of contemporary artworks from the collection of EMST, the photo shooting of portraits, and a photography exhibition about and with refugees and asylum-seekers, then living in the greater Athens area. Link
Beshr, 26 years old / Syria
In this artwork we could see a group of people, who all seemed to be absorbed in the problems of their daily life. I don’t think these people know each other. They’re all strangers, all different, all from different cultures. One of them looks like a priest, another like a doctor. From their clothes I get the impression that some of them are well-off and have a comfortable life somehow. And don’t seem concerned with the person next to them. Each of them is busy with something personal, a book or their cell phone. There’s a man in the group, the one with the purple shirt and the bag in front, who seems to be from the Middle East. He looks tired, as if he’s recently left his country and is caught up in his problems. They all want to say something but nobody talks. Until the water comes and hits them like a wave… Until this violent force comes and forces them to say something, to do something—to wake up. That’s why I see the pounding of the water as something positive. The wave, this force that assaults them, it’s telling them: wake up!
You see, in the beginning they weren’t united but after the water hits, they try to get up and help each other and make something for their future. Just as I left behind my family and friends to start a new life for myself all over again. There’s a saying, when you fall from a horse you have to get back up again. That’s how I’m living my life.
Bibiche, 33 years old / Congo
I understand and feel for [my friend] who was so moved by Bill Viola’s work. But I want to tell him he needs to chase away the despair he’s caught in. Looking at this work, I felt in the end a kind of optimism because I thought, I’ve made it through a very difficult time. I lived through a tragedy but in the end, I managed to get to Greece, and now I’m ready to rid myself of the hopelessness inside me and start a new life.
This work, then, shows us a group of people gathered together, all from different nationalities, just like us. Each of them is doing something different—one of them is reading, another is listening to music, etc.—while we’re all sitting here around a table discussing the same thing. Among the figures in the image is a man who’s perhaps a priest, or the leader of a church or religion, or maybe a political figure. He’s reading something and wants to communicate with the others, and everyone around him seems ready to listen to him. But at the same time, it also feels like they can’t communicate with each other or understand what the others have on their mind. They’re willing to talk to each other, but, in the end, that doesn’t happen.
That happens a lot in real life, too. People from different countries want to communicate and find solutions to their problems but then some outside force, like the water in the artwork we’re talking about, comes and stops them. It prevents people—and different countries, too—from taking that very first step to communicate with each other. But we also see that even though there is a violence in the way the water is attacking these people, at the same time it’s as if the water is waking them up and they’ll recover later and change their attitude.
Carlos, 25 years old / Syria
Bill Viola’s work5 shows, nothing can stop us from dreaming and making plans for our future, and we need to be determined that even if we fall, we will get back up and carry on.
Ghassan, 59 years old / Syria
In The Raft by Bill Viola I first saw a group of people who looked like they were getting ready to enter a church. The woman on the edge was trying to read, like the man in the middle was. They were all doing something, except for the three persons on the far left, who were aloof and distant, because they didn’t seem to have any purpose. The rest of the people were thinking, reading their religious books, talking about their families and the future. Just these three were indifferent and didn’t seem to care about anything. But then other things start happening. It shows these people being drowned by the sea and trying to save each other. At least that’s how I understand this artwork. It made me feel different things. It was painful to watch. There’s a woman praying to God saying: oh my God, save us, we’re drowning, we’re going to die… These images, they’re painful, they speak to me because I’ve seen these things myself. I’ve lived through them.
It’s terrible to live through an ordeal like that. I wish that everyone—all the countries in the world—could live in peace and safety and be well. No one should have to suffer so much. I wish we could all live in peace, without problems and hardships. Understanding each other—that’s the key thing we need to keep with us always. That and love, of course.
Hassan, Student / Pakistan
Bill Viola’s artwork5 was the one that really moved me. It reminded me what I went through on my way from Turkey to Greece. It shows people from different backgrounds standing in some space and suddenly they get blasted with water, like from a really powerful storm, and they get knocked down. I think he wants to show that we shouldn’t be arrogant or brag about things. Like in the movie I saw about the Titanic, where the shipbuilders bragged about how the ship was unsinkable. But unfortunately, as we all know, the ship sunk and not only that, in a calm sea. Their pride went down with the ship, too.
My own trip lasted five hours, even though they said it would be only an hour and a half. I was on my own and didn’t know anyone else in the boat. It was winter and the weather was bad and I didn’t know how to swim that well. I thought I was going to die, but thank God, I’m still alive. But the fear has stayed inside me ever since. I’m not afraid of the sea, but when it’s windy and the sea is rough, I remember what I experienced in the boat and I don’t feel well.
It’s really hard when you’ve gone through all of this. But now I can at least think about my future. I’d like to be a success in my life and become a doctor so I can help other people. If I can’t be a doctor, I’d like to become a policeman, because the police help people, too. Wherever I finally get settled, I want to be useful to society and help other people.
John, Student / Zimbabwe
Some of the works we saw in the Museum4 made me think about human relationships today, others about the conditions refugees faced in the past and how these have changed over the years. Finally, others made me think of more personal matters. For instance, Τhe Raft, by Bill Viola, depicts many different people, each absorbed by something different and personal and not even looking at each other. Then, the work shows what can happen when people are not united, when they’re selfish about preserving the peace and not ready to sacrifice anything for the sake of unity.
Patricia, 34 years old / Cameroon
The Raft by Bill Viola brought to mind the time we got ashore; we left the inflatable and were so happy we all cried. It is a very powerful feeling, hard to describe. It is the moment when you become aware of your own existence and how close to death you can be at any moment. But once we set foot on land, we had already had our first victory—a victory over death. I saw something like that happening in Viola’s work, when all these different people, who were standing together in the same space, were suddenly hit by a jet of water. I saw it as a divine intervention, a threat, a shock sent by God, after which the people realized they needed to come together to better face the danger. We, too, faced this danger in the boat in the rough sea, when we all tried to save ourselves.
Aboud, 26 years old / Syria
The Raft by Bill Viola shows that when people find themselves in a critical situation, because of the shock they experience, forget whether they are from Europe, Asia or Africa, if they are rich or poor, and try to face the horror that has been inflicted on them by helping each other out. This is more or less what we felt inside the boat that brought us here. These were the most difficult hours of my life. When you’ve been through what we have, you see this work and it’s upsetting, it hurts a lot.
Farida, 28 years old / Afghanistan
The work by Bill Viola4 reminded me of how we travelled on a boat from Turkey. No refugee will ever forget their journey at sea. When I first boarded the boat, I was so scared I lost my voice. My children also had problems, they were afraid and I couldn’t help them. But the adults were also crying and shouting: one had lost his child, the other one had hurt his leg … My little daughter was crying from the moment we stepped on the boat until the moment we got off it.
When we approached Greece, the Coast Guard came to rescue us. The smuggler was thinking throwing us into the sea and leaving with his boat. But the Coast Guard stopped it so he wouldn’t leave and arrested him. Me and two of my children hadn’t managed to get off the boat and we were sucked into the sea along with the boat. If it wasn’t for the Coast Guard officers who pulled me up with a rope, the sea would have swallowed me along with the children and we would have drowned. I was really scared. When we arrived ashore I couldn’t see Khalida, and neither could she. Someone had picked her up to rescue her and she was crying: “My mom… where is my mom…?” Then the ambulance arrived and took me. I was put on oxygen, I couldn’t breathe from the shock.
My kids will never forget what we went through either. The three oldest ones often discuss what happened on the boat. Even when we were in Lavrio, whenever we approached the sea, they would get scared. Here in Thessaloniki, it was suggested that Khalida takes swimming lessons, but she doesn’t want to. She sees the water and she’s scared. But we tell her to go, to learn to swim so she won’t be scared any more.
Khalida, student / Afghanistan
In Bill Viola’s work4, I could see many people, tall and short, some of whom looked rich, while others looked poor. It’s a very beautiful work of art and you can tell that the artist has given a lot of thought to it.