Fion Gunn: “Arrivals/ Departures”

Victoria Gallery, until 23rd December, free

Fion Gunn’s Arrivals/Departures is a rich show which wants to tell many stories. It shines when it’s about the journey – but stumbles when it gets to the destination.

Painting by Fion Gunn from Arrivals/Departures. Square canvas looking through a porthole at a sea covered in ships and birds, with mixed details of these around the edge.

Arrivals/Departures is a mix of sculpture and 2D works. The paintings all share a similar perspective, setting us up to look out through a porthole to the sea onto see ships, birds, planes, or new horizons. This is visually rich work, many of the paintings packed with details. There’s not only the views of the big wide world to take in, but figures & reference meaningfully sitting around the edges.

The overall effect is a feeling of untethered-ness. I feel adrift in many of these canvases – and that, I think, is the point. For the central subject of these works is the experience of migration and displacement, particularly that which is not through choice. And the lack of clues about where to start does convey a sense of precarity.

The reasons for these journeys is another question posed. Seeing the scores of birds, planes and boats: where are they going, and why? It’s a line of enquiry that the sculptures in particular want to dig into – though personally, I don’t find them all that satisfactory. They’re about trade routes and the consequences of colonialism. But the way they approach these subjects feel very similar to many things I’ve seen before – if you like, a kind of “typical” criticality of the networks of Empire. This trade changed the nature of international relations of trade and power – this we know. But what do we *do* with this knowledge? And I don’t feel like the work has much more to say about this.

Photo from Fion Gunn's Arrivals/Departures. Sculpture made from a stringed musical instrument with a woman sitting on top, standing, with something which looks like a globe.

And for all the cleverness of the paintings and the worlds they create, I realise that I have issues with their perspectives. I think they’re aiming for empathy, but it’s clearly a sympathy which is looking in from the outside.

I’ve never had to make the choice to leave country and culture behind. I don’t know the experience of building a life in a new country with new ways of doing things. I can’t imagine how daunting the process must be for some people, to be in a place of “other”. Though I’ve experienced feeling myself a bit lost in an unfamiliar place/culture, but it’s always been both voluntary and temporary. And as a white English speaker, I can always find point of cultural familiarity if I feel the need.

Arrivals/Departures comes from a similar perspective. Its gaze onto other shores as exotic and strange has a sense of excitement about it. From astronauts, to underwater babies, to ordinary families, staring out onto horizons, the journey is portrayed as a sort of magical fantasy. As a traveller yes, it’s great fun to imagine these journeys, and what it’d be like to experience these places. But I don’t think this is typically the thought process of displaced people when planning their own journeys…

Painting from Arrivals/Departures by Fion Gunn. Looking through a porthole at a ship and a submarine, with symbols of Chinese and presumably Arabic culture around - e.g. terracotta horses, woman in a headscarf

It feels particularly awkward when this perspective is taken on different cultures. From sampans and feluccas to styles of national dress, there’s bits which border on exoticism. We’re not asked to consider places as homelands of their own, familiar to millions, but simply as ‘other’. This is valid to an extent, but shallow. It misses a key point of interrogation; that to cross the sea is undoubtedly a big step, but it misses out on the even bigger journey: that of actually making a life in a place. The empathy is with those moving, but stops when they need to make a life. Which is already so often the case with refugee support – to take two recent large-scale migrations, just look at what’s happened to Afghan and Ukrainian refugees. Received with sympathy, our political and social structures mean that many are now finding it incredibly difficult to build lives here.

One huge work on the back wall parallels the stages of The Odyssey with the music of The Beatles. Travelling to foreign shores has fascinated civilisations for millennia, with extraordinary personal and social consequences, and is worthy of exploration. Gunn’s gorgeous, rich works are full of a sense of wonder at the dreams and possibilities of the world. But this excitement is easier to feel when your way of life doesn’t have to depend on what happens next. Arrivals/Departures gets to the heart of the anticipation, but isn’t so successful at dealing with the fallout.

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