Accidents/Persons: Migrant Deaths, Border Crimes, and the Marks of Humanity

Published in
6 min readNov 10, 2016


by Ayten Gundogdu

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen. “End of Dreams.” 2015. Installation view, Fotografisk Center, Copenhagen, Denmark. Courtesy of the artist

Border policies have made the journeys of migrants increasingly perilous, resulting in thousands of deaths each year. These deaths are oftentimes recorded as statistical estimates by international organizations: The “Missing Migrants Project” of the International Organization of Migration, for example, gives an estimate of “46,000 fatalities since 2000,” as it calls for international action to address “an epidemic of crime and victimization.” Such efforts to create a sense of outrage by the sheer magnitude of numbers leave much to be said about these deaths. So do the frequent news stories about “migrant boat accidents,” which are often accompanied by photos of overcrowded or capsized boats, search and rescue teams, and dead bodies on the shore.

These all-too-familiar images served as a starting point for contemporary artist Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen’s multimedia installation End of Dreams. As Larsen puts it, “Every day I saw photos of drowned migrants and I wanted to react to this with my work.” Larsen’s project initially started in 2014, when he prepared 48 sculptures using wire armature as a support structure for concrete canvas, a type of fabric that hardens when exposed to water and is used especially in the building of shelters in disaster zones. These sculptures, evoking the images of dead migrants wrapped in fabric or placed in body bags, were then installed under a raft and submerged in the sea off the coast of Pizzo Calabro in South Italy. The initial plan was to let them “slowly acquire a patina of sea organisms” and then exhibit them as “a sculptural constellation marked by the wear and tear of the sea,” as described on Larsen’s website. A powerful storm destroyed the raft, however, and scattered the sculptures across the seabed and onto nearby beaches. On the same night that the storm hit, a migrant boat capsized in the Sicilian Strait. The storm, along with the news of the capsized boat, led to a re-envisioning of the project. Larsen hired divers to locate and film the scattered sculptures. What results from this effort is a multimedia installation comprised of a five-channel video shot underwater, a composition of some of the sculptural remains, and a series of portraits documenting the marks and cuts inflicted on the sculptures by the storm crash.

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen. “End of Dreams — Portrait Series #1.” 2015. Courtesy of the artist

Larsen’s End of Dreams poses pressing questions about the lethal consequences of restrictive border policies and the challenging task of commemorating the deaths of migrants who often remain unidentified. Originating in an “accident,” it also presses the viewers to grapple with, and perhaps even resist, the use and abuse of this term in media descriptions of migrant deaths. “Accident,” after all, indicates an unfortunate event that is unexpected and unintentional, resulting in damage or injury. End of Dreams raises the troubling possibility that what is often cast as “accident” might actually turn out to be a “crime.”

This last point draws from a striking remark that Walter Benjamin makes in his well-known 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” As Benjamin describes the crucial transformation that photography undergoes once its focal point shifts from the portrait to the streets, he refers his readers to the photographs of deserted Paris that Eugene Atget took around 1900: “It has quite justly been said of him that he photographed them like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance.”[1] Notwithstanding the different styles of Atget and Larsen, Benjamin’s statement could be helpful in considering the crucial intervention that End of Dreams makes in response to contemporary representations of migration especially in the media. It is important to note in this regard that the concrete canvas sculptures, photographed with their marks and cuts in the portraits, are arranged in the multimedia installation in a way not unlike bodies in a crime scene. In some respects, each one turns into a corpus delicti, or “the body of the crime,” to use a legal term, figuratively serving as evidence of an injury resulting from border policies that push migrants to ever more dangerous routes.

These canvas sculptures also have an eerie quality: If they are supposed to resemble coffins or body bags containing the dead bodies of migrants, it is also important to note that they are empty; there is nothing inside the wire armature. And as Thomas Laqueur puts it in his book, The Work of the Dead, “A purposely empty tomb — a cenotaph — or an empty coffin have power precisely because they lack what is universally expected.”[2]

With their uncanny emptiness, the sculptures in Larsen’s End of Dreams draw attention to the “accidents” that go into the making and unmaking of human beings as persons, or rights-bearing subjects. In light of Laqueur’s statement, we could note that what is gone missing in these sculptures is not only corpus but also “the person,” which is often understood metaphysically as an intrinsic quality that endows human beings with inalienable rights grounded in their inherent dignity. This is an idea that has its origins in Christianity, especially the debates on the Trinity, which gave rise to the notion of “person”as “an individual, intransmissible (incommunicable), rational essence.”[3] Even the secularized understandings of personhood contain traces of this religious lineage as they continue to take personhood as an essential attribute of human beings. But Larsen’s empty canvas sculptures challenge such a metaphysics of the human person and indicate that personhood is not an essential substance inherent in all human beings but instead an artificial and accidental attribute, an assembled effect of legal, political, cultural, and aesthetic practices. Stripped of these marks of personhood, there is nothing to the human but a hollow armature.

This possibility becomes even more palpable in Larsen’s portraits of these sculptures, which move away from the conventional focus of portrait photography: the human face. To go back to Benjamin, photography epitomizes the historic transformation of the work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility, especially the loss of an aura attached to the irreproducible and irreplaceable singularity of a work. But even this revolutionary medium still held onto some kind of cult value in its early stages: “It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography. The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face.”[4] Portraits of human face continue to occupy a central place in human rights photography, including those that center on the themes of migration and displacement. By shifting away from the human countenance and its associated aura, Larsen’s “portrait series” of canvas sculptures hint at a desacralized understanding of the human person, one that breaks with the idea that the human person is that which carries its inherent dignity within. There is perhaps still the suggestion of an irreplaceable distinctiveness — if we attend to the individual marks and cuts imprinted by the storm and the water organisms that some of the sculptures acquired during their lifetime in the seabed — but a distinctiveness that is not intrinsically given, instead one that has accumulated and assembled over time, layer upon layer. And once one removes those layers, there is nothing but an unsettling void.

[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 217–251, at 226.

[2] Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015), 18.

[3] Adolf Trendelenburg, A Contribution to the History of the Word Person, trans. Carl H. Haessler (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing, 1910), 21.

[4] Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 226.