Earlier this week, the South African artist Candice Breitz changed the title of one of her works to protest that the Australian museum hosting it hired a security firm that allegedly abused refugees at detention centers. Her action and accompanying statement have moved other artists to join in the protest.
The work in question, a video in which actors including Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore recite the stories of refugees, is featured in the inaugural NGV Triennial, which opened today at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne. The work’s original title was “Love Story“; due to the NGV’s contract with Wilson Security — a company whose human rights abuses at Australia’s offshore detention centers on Manus Island and Nauru came to light in August 2016 — Breitz has retitled it “Wilson Must Go.” In a statement posted on Facebook (and included in full below), the artist says that the work will retain its new title until Wilson ceases to provide security services for the NGV.
“The new title will remain in effect for as long as the work is on view at the National Gallery of Victoria, or when the work is exhibited in any other exhibition context on Australian soil, until the NGV severs its relationship with Wilson Security,” Breitz wrote. “Until that point, the work will continue to speak its objection to being under the surveillance of a security contractor that commits human rights abuses in Australia’s offshore detention centers.”
Breitz called on any other artists in the NGV Triennial who are opposed to Wilson Security’s contract with the museum to retitle their works “Wilson Must Go,” and at least one has heeded her call. According to ArtAsiaPacific, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has retitled his piece in the show from “Recorded Assembly” to “Wilson Must Go / The Sequel,” and Richard Mosse has modified his 16-channel video installation “Incoming” (2015–16) to include a video statement sent by the Kurdish refugee and filmmake Behrouz Boochani, who is currently being held in an Australian detention center on Manus Island. In his video, Boochani says: “Art is beauty, and artists have a responsibility to show the beauty of human beings and the beauty of the world, to make life bearable and show the connections between us all.”
The NGV has reportedly told Breitz that its contract with Wilson Security is temporary and that the museum is in the process of picking a more long-term security contractor. However, in the meantime, she has demanded that “all NGV publications of any nature, all public discussions hosted by the NGV, any educational conversations conducted around the work at the NGV, any and all press communications issued by the gallery, and all wall texts and captions, shall refer to the work as ‘Wilson Must Go.’”
Hyperallergic has reached out to the NGV for comment but has not yet received a response. The Artists’ Committee, a coalition of Melbourne artists, first raised the alarm about Wilson Security’s deal with the NGV in August, when it delivered a protest letter with 1,571 signatures to the museum.
The NGV Triennial is not the first exhibition to become enmeshed in protests related to Australia’s contentious offshore detention centers for refugees and asylum-seekers. In 2014, artists boycotted the Biennale of Sydney over its sponsorship deal with Transfield, a company that manages the Australian detention centers on Manus Island and Nauru. The boycott eventually succeeded, with the Biennale dropping Transfield as a sponsor and the exhibition’s chairman resigning.
Breitz’s full statement about her NGV protest is included below.
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I am one of many artists participating in the National Gallery of Victoria’s inaugural NGV Triennial, an exhibition that is scheduled to open in Melbourne this week. ‘Movement’ is one of five themes that frame the Triennial. Consequently, the exhibition includes a number of works that engage with and represent the global crisis of displacement. My own work, LOVE STORY, a video installation that evolves out of interviews with six individuals who have fled their countries in response to a variety of oppressive conditions, has been enabled and acquired by the NGV for the Triennial, via a generous artist commission.
It has come to my attention, via the Artists’ Committee (an informal association of Melbourne-based artists and arts workers), that security services at the NGV are currently provided by a private security contractor called Wilson Security. On their website, Wilson claims to ‘offer the highest level of protection and peace of mind for [their] customers across myriad industries and complex business scenarios.’ Under contract to the Australian government, however, Wilson security has violently enforced the imprisonment of refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia’s offshore immigration detention centres. The horrific effects of indefinite mandatory detention are well-documented. The allegations against Wilson Security since the commencement of their contracts on Manus Island and Nauru in 2012 are extensive and disturbing. While I am grateful for the immense support I have received from the NGV, it would be morally remiss, in light of the above knowledge, for me to remain silent in the context of the current conversation that is taking place around the Australian government’s ongoing and systematic abuse of refugees.
I have been assured by the NGV that the contractual relationship between the gallery and Wilson Security is of a temporary nature. I have been told that the tendering process that will culminate in the appointment of a more permanent contractor is at an advanced stage. As such, the response that this statement articulates is itself potentially of a temporary nature:
With immediate effect, the work of art that was formerly known as LOVE STORY will carry the new title WILSON MUST GO. The new title will remain in effect for as long as the work is on view at the National Gallery of Victoria, or when the work is exhibited in any other exhibition context on Australian soil, until the NGV severs its relationship with Wilson Security. Until that point, the work will continue to speak its objection to being under the surveillance of a security contractor that commits human rights abuses in Australia’s offshore detention centres. Until that point, all NGV publications of any nature, all public discussions hosted by the NGV, any educational conversations conducted around the work at the NGV, any and all press communications issued by the gallery, and all wall texts and captions, shall refer to the work as WILSON MUST GO. The title of the work will automatically revert to LOVE STORY if and when Wilson goes. Should they wish to, I invite other Triennial artists who may share my discomfort at having their works under the surveillance of Wilson Security, to temporarily rename their own works WILSON MUST GO.
It is extremely unfortunate that individual security workers who are currently engaged at the NGV may experience negative repercussions as a result of this intervention. The NGV has assured me that fair treatment of their security staff is of high priority. I have every reason to believe that the NGV will provide secure working conditions for their security staff, and wish to make clear that this intervention in no way wishes to target specific individuals who currently provide security services on NGV premises.
The moral failure characterising the Australian government’s refugee policy is all the more deplorable in ‘a nation that has been forged through stories of mobility.’ As the NGV Triennial catalogue states, ‘The challenge of hospitality is not an abstract philosophical problem or a minor political issue.’ I have experienced my interlocutors at the NGV to be deeply attuned to the horrific conditions and challenges facing refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. I trust that the NGV will receive this gesture as one of solidarity, solidarity with the Triennial’s focus on forced displacement, but more importantly, solidarity with all refugees and asylum seekers who have been or remain subject to the cruelty of the Australian offshore detention regime, as enforced by agents like Wilson Security.
Melbourne, 12 December 2017