Cuban artist Tania Bruguera recently unveiled an installation on the theme of migration in which viewers use their body heat to make a portrait of a young Syrian refugee appear on the floor.
She is the latest international artist commissioned to exhibit in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London, a vast space in the former industrial building by the River Thames turned into a home for modern art since 2000.
This year, Bruguera has chosen to leave the hall – boasting 3,000sq m and 30m-high ceilings – largely empty, except for a large grey rectangle painted on the ground framing an invisible portrait of a young Syrian refugee.
He left the war-torn country in 2011 and after arriving in Britain received support from local NGOs based in the community surrounding the Tate Modern.
But his image only appears if visitors cooperate by stretching out on the black heat-sensitive floor together to activate the thermochromatic ink that details the portrait.
“It’s a reflection on the times we live in, where it seems it’s necessary that everybody works together even if they don’t believe in the same issues, even if they have different political agendas, even if they are unknown to each other,” said Bruguera.
Curator Catherine Wood added: “It’s kind of an antidote to selfies culture and to the way we often consume news stories and tragedies alone.”
The exhibition also features accompanying low-frequency sounds composed by Scottish sound artist Steve Goodman, known as Kode9, adding to the disturbing undercurrent felt within the hall.
“It’s almost another presence because the whole piece is about invisibility, like immigrants’ lives, they have to be invisible,” she said.
Similarly, nothing at the stealth installation – what to look for, how to find it – is explained directly to visitors, who are left to work things out for themselves.
“It’s ok if somebody comes and never discovers what’s happening because that’s what happens in life, a lot of people pass by and they don’t see what’s going on,” added the artist, laughing.
The work’s title is fluid too: an ever-increasing figure, representing the number of people who migrated globally last year, added to the number of migrant deaths recorded so far this year.
The changing total, intended to show the sheer scale of migration and risks involved, is stamped with red ink on visitors’ hands on entering a small room adjacent to the hall.
At the same time, they are hit by the release of an organic compound to induce tears.
The artist has described the feature as provoking “forced empathy” while Tate Modern director Frances Morris said “it’s a way of moving from statistics to emotions”.
A self-described dissatisfied plastics artist, who currently lives and works in Havana and New York, Bruguera has been arrested several times in Cuba for her work but insists she does not seek out provocation.
“I look for avenues to open conversations and sometimes the bigger the conversation you want to open, the louder your argument has to be,” said Bruguera.
The exhibition runs until Feb 24. – AFP