At first glance, it looks like the Madison Square Park statue of Navy Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, who died 150 years ago, has come alive. But take a closer look at Farragut, a Union hero in the Civil War, and listen. Because that’s not Farragut at all.
"I don’t think anyone will imagine leaving a child behind for even a day or two," says the voice from the statue. "I had to leave my child behind me for ten years! Ten years! Ten years, I had to leave my child."
That’s a refugee from Liberia now in the United States, speaking through Farragut. A speaker at the base of Farragut’s statue projects the refugee’s voice, while video animates her likeness onto Faraggut’s body—complete with hand motions. Projections, taken from interviews with refugees from around the world, roll one into the next in 30-minute loops.
At a time when both the existence of monuments to the dead—and the idea of refuge for the living—are politically controversial, a new public art exhibit in Manhattan is tackling both. The Madison Square Park Conservancy commissioned renowned Polish-born installation artist Krzysztof Wodiczko to enliven this 19th century monument in the Flatiron District with the testimonies of refugees resettled in the United States.
In that way, Wodiczko said, he is also awakening Farragut. "Not unlike many of those who went through hellish situations, [monuments] seem to be speechless, frozen in their gestures," he said. "So they need help. The only way for them to feel better is to lend their bodies, their forms—their symbolic forms—to the living, so they can speak as if they themselves were elevated on the pedestals and say something."
His piece, entitled "Monument," opened last week and runs nightly 5-8 p.m. (except Sundays) through May 10th. Taken together, the testimonials speak to the timelessness of war and refugees. The American Civil War resulted in hundreds of thousands of people displaced, and Wodiczko believes Farragut would recognize today’s stories.
"I left my parents, my mom, and my siblings without even saying goodbye," says a refugee from Liberia.
Another, from Guatemala, speaks in Spanish. Wodiczko said he envisions that sparking conversation, as New Yorkers translate for each other. "The good thing about the public park is it’s not like the cinema or theater or art gallery—people actually talk to each other and get to know each other, they discuss things," he said.
Wodiczko, a part-time New Yorker who previously projected stories of Hiroshima bombing survivors on the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan, worked with nonprofits that support refugees to identify those who would share their experiences in interviews.
"I’m not saying a project like this will change the world," Wodiczko said. "But I think projects like this—cultural projects—are very important to create a certain level of consciousness and an emotional understanding of the situation of those people."
Bob Carey, a consultant on the project who ran the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Obama Administration, said storytelling can have political currency at a time when the U.S. government is more hostile to those seeking asylum than at any time in recent history.
"In my experience New Yorkers, Americans broadly, respond very compassionately to personal narratives of persecution and survival that refugees embody," he said. "So when they hear personal stories, when they encounter a refugee or asylum seeker, regardless of their political stripe I find that people tend to be compassionate, generous and understanding."
Matt Katz is a reporter at WNYC News covering immigration, hate, and security. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattkatz00.