New York

Marina Leybishkis, Ode to the Sea (detail), 2021, concrete, life jackets, cell phones. Installation view. Photo: Emily Sieler.

Marina Leybishkis, Ode to the Sea (detail), 2021, concrete, life jackets, cell phones. Installation view. Photo: Emily Sieler.

Marina Leybishkis

After receiving a Fulbright Fellowship, Marina Leybishkis visited various refugee camps in Lesbos, Greece, between 2018 and 2019, including Moria Reception and Kara Tepe. At the time, these sites were the largest settlements for displaced people fleeing war-torn countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. In September 2020, asylum seekers set fire to Moria, perhaps as a reaction to Covid-19 quarantine restrictions, resulting in even more desperate circumstances for the island’s exiles. In her exhibition here, “Archeology of Loss,” Leybishkis—a 2020 artist-in-residence under Baxter Street at CCNY’s Workspace Residency Program—revisited the refugee crisis through a series of obliquely memorializing works. Though trained as a photographer, Leybishkis didn’t employ a strict documentary approach for this presentation, moving toward something more multisensory and poetic instead. The predominant sculptural materials in this show, life vests and concrete, pointed to a paradoxical irony between the impulse to preserve cultural heritage—particularly that of non-Western nations—and a disregard for the exiles who flee for their lives from conflict, poverty, and oppression.

The installation Ode to the Sea, 2021, alluded to the asylum seekers’ conditions during the dangerous oceanic voyage to Lesbos. In front of a projected video of the island’s shoreline, Leybishkis draped life vests covered in concrete—the very opposite of a buoyant material—over waist-high wooden beams reminiscent of a boat’s interior. Cell phones dangling from the ceiling above showed glitchy, almost abstract footage of a life-jacket “graveyard” on Lesbos’s northern coast. Each video was accompanied with a different song sung by an unseen refugee.

The overlapping languages on the videos’ tinny soundtracks were visually echoed in the five sculptures from the series “Palimpsests of Time,” 2021. The cast-concrete sculptures, created from molds that Leybishkis made of sculptural and architectural remnants found at Lesbos’s archaeological sites, contain layered scraps of life-vest fabric and impressions of texts written in Greek, Persian, Hebrew, and Arabic. Rather than elucidating a clear-cut history, this group of works attests to the commingling (and clashing) of various cultures throughout the island’s history.

Herself an immigrant to the United States, Leybishkis also understands the experience of living as a minority in one’s country of origin. The artist was born in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, to a Jewish father and a Russian mother whose family was killed in a gulag. However, she is not considered Uzbek, because heritage in this nation is defined through patrilineage. Much of the artist’s familial background remains a mystery to her. Leybishkis frequently explores this ambiguity by interrogating the value of an image when the emotional ties behind it have been lost. For instance, to make the series “Album,” 2017, she dipped photographs of unknown relatives in milky porcelain. Once the pieces were fired in a kiln, the pictures could be viewed only through the fragile material when placed in front of a light box.

For the sculpture Palimpsests of Time (Muhammad), 2021, Leybishkis used a related tactic of photographic semivisibility. She embedded a color portrait of a Black man named Muhammad—the only actual image of a refugee on view—into the craggy surface of a cast-concrete object. Flecks of gold foil shimmer across the work’s textured facade and in parts of the photo, mimicking the paint techniques found on Greek cult statuary or on ancient Egyptian sarcophagi. As a metonym for the global plight of displacement, Muhammad’s steady gaze and opaque expression invite viewer engagement without subsuming the subject in a narrative of crisis. Leybishkis’s show insisted on the value of preservation and interpretation without translation.