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Pitched on the grounds of the historic Trinity Church in Manhattan, sandwiched between the parish building and cemetery, are two tents that house on their floors an arrangement of used matchsticks surrounding tents of another kind: discarded books and assorted packagings — cut up, folded, and carefully propped to resemble miniature campsites. The structures, rather than representing grounds for leisure, stand as articulations of refugee camps that mark the ongoing Syrian uprising and refugee crisis, nearly 6,000 miles from the heart of the conflict.
The tents are the work of the Syria-born, UK-based artist Issam Kourbaj, who alters his installation each day with a subtle addition: a single matchstick. Titled “Another Day Lost,” Kourbaj’s reconstructed camps count each day that has passed since the start of the Syrian uprising: the matches, which also recall a fence around the scaled-down tents, are organized like tally marks to visualize the progress of time since March 15, 2011, when Syrian protestors first marched in their capital. Kourbaj has burned over 1,700 matches and will continue to light and include them in his installation until the crisis is resolved — a dedicated effort to a plight with no end in sight.
The striking of a match itself charts the progress of one day, with its burning recalling the sunrise and sunset. The gesture is small, but it’s a quiet commemoration of the millions of Syrians who spend day after day away from their homes. Kourbaj drew inspiration for “Another Day Lost” from the sheer visual force of this number, after he saw aerial images of camps in the desert of Jordan, in particular the Zaatari refugee camp that today temporarily houses close to 80,000 refugees. His iteration, though more colorful, captures the congested landscape of ramshackle shelters, with their flimsiness alluding to the impermanence of home to so many. Peering over the tiny encampment from above and surrounded by the sounds and tall structures of the city, one feels both privileged and powerless from the distance. Even though visitors cannot enter them, the larger tents, too, are evocative. When I visited on an evening after a day of rain, only one was open; having no access to the other was frustrating, but it makes one think of what it means to depend on a haven made of material as secure as tarpaulin.
The installation itself has travelled miles, opening earlier this year in five sites across London (the matches consisted of a different set from the ones at Trinity due to travel restrictions). From the interiors of churches to aboard a boat, each location represented a point in a larger geographic pattern that reflected the locations of certain camps as seen on a map. Here in New York City, the tents find sanctuary in one sacred space; as backlash mounts especially in this nation of immigrants over welcoming Syrian refugees, the shelters are a firm reminder of the crowds of the displaced who wait and will continue to wait in limbo.
Another Day Lost continues at Trinity Wall Street (75 Broadway, Financial District, Manhattan) through January 5.