From Tate Modern to St Paul’s church for Refugee Week art installation

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DeadReckoning 2023. Image: Gurnoor-Singh
DeadReckoning 2023. Image: Gurnoor-Singh

A nationally touring art installation that has been exhibited at Tate Modern and the British Museum comes to Bedford this month to honour asylum seekers who have lost their lives crossing the sea.

As part of Refugee Week (18 – 23 June), Bedford Creative Arts (BCA) has commissioned socially-engaged artist Bern O’Donoghue to bring her emotive participatory art installation, DeadReckoning, to Bedford.

Dead Reckoning is a 10-year-long project bearing witness to the many migrants and refugees who continue to die attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of sanctuary and a better life.

O’Donoghue turns data collected by the International Organisation for Migration into art installations, producing one installation per year based on that specific year’s statistics and reaching completion in 2025.

The data records the deaths of people attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea migratory routes.

In private vigil, Bern turns this data into something emotive and familiar, intentionally manufacturing each installation from materials found in her home, honouring people who have fled theirs, using the commonplace to weave a connection between the audience and the deceased, so that people living in host communities feel the urge to hold and engage with the subject matter.

This can be laborious work: if, for example, 2,500 people were to be recorded as having died in one specific year, 2,500 individual objects are made to bear witness to each loss of life.

Every object made represents the death of a significant individual and will have the words “son”, “daughter”, “neighbour “ or “friend” written, sewn or painted upon them.

Public collaboration

Once all the objects are completed, O’Donoghue brings them into civic spaces and begins the co-production of building an installation, forming a brief but emotional connection between herself and a curious group of strangers, facilitated through questions being asked and stories exchanged, dispelling myths and bringing the media and political policy narratives into shared ground through collective action.

As they work together, people begin to understand that they are taking part in a ritual to bear witness and ultimately make space for the possibility of reframing our narratives around refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.

For Refugee Week 2024, O’Donoghue presents two installations from the DeadReckoning project in St. Paul’s Church, Bedford and invites visitors to connect personally on a human level with the devastation caused by hostile borders, inviting the audience to recognise the people hidden behind migration statistics.

St Paul’s Bedford

Visitors to St Paul’s will be able to participate in building DeadReckoning2021 in the church, an installation considering the people behind the
statistics in the form of origami paper boats.

Each tiny, hand-marbled paper boat will be marked with a relationship to another person, a fragile reminder of the individuals caught up in the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II.

The installations will feature in the Trinity Chapel, noted for its use as a studio to broadcast the BBC’s Daily Service from during the Second World War.

O’Donoghue will also exhibit her 2023 installation, for which the artist will be drawing and painting on a 10 metre paper roll of paper, to visualise IOM Missing Migrants 2023 data, through the language of flowers.

All the flowers, either grown in the artist’s house or garden, have been chosen because they specifically relate to travel and what’s needed along the way: luck, bravery, courage, hope, love, tenderness and valour.

Deaths in January are represented by snowdrops, which symbolise new beginnings, hope, rebirth, and the capacity to triumph over challenge. When completed, the painting will show a different flower each month to represent the 3,105 sons, daughters, neighbours and
friends who died whilst attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea in 2023, as recorded by the Missing Migrants Project.

Visitors to St. Paul’s between Tuesday, 18 June and Sunday, 23 June 2024 will be encouraged, through the collaborative process and through conversations, to consider not only the experience of migrants and refugees, but also to think about how those of us living more secure lives might engage supportively with refugees.

O’Donoghue says, “It is in the small and the simple where human scale may be found, where one mind is changed, and we begin to change the world.”