Charlotte Bray Installation

Life Jackets Turn into a String Quartet Score

The Castalian String Quartet premieres a new work that packs a punch – it refers to children's dresses handmade from discarded refugee life jackets.

Sometimes a picture tells more than a thousand words. For example, you can read every day about the refugees crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better life. Refugees, who surrender themselves to smugglers, border patrols and the elements, with many losing their lives. Those who do make it to European shores, end up invalidated and with nothing except their wet clothes.

Or you can just have a look at a picture of the »Life Jacket Graveyard« on the Greek isle of Lesbos. Cast-off life jackets stack up like mountains here, bleached by the sun. Every single one of them saved somebody’s life.

The event

On April 7, the Castalian String Quartet will be performing at the Elbphilharmonie.The exhibition of the artist Caroline Burraway will be open to the visitors in the foyer before and after the concert.

Lifejackets Graveyard
Lifejackets Graveyard © Unknown

London-based artist Caroline Burraway has visited this place several times. Since 2015 she has been responding to the refugee crisis, filming and collecting research materials in refugee camps across Europe which she uses for installations, sculpture, video, and paintings. This work aims to provoke a humanitarian response to the twin issues of displacement and dispossession. Burraway's work is supported by UNHCR. She has received numerous accolades, for example for large-scale images of 13 children’s faces from Moria, the largest refugee camp in Europe. 

Burraway describes her experience of the Lifejacket Graveyard in her own words:
»As I stood at the edge of the chasm, it felt like a physical blow - below me mountains of discarded lifejackets, many meters deep, lay quietly abandoned, decaying, buried in the stillness of the surrounding valley.  My feet sank into the depths below as I made my way through thousands of loudly shouting colours, each shape evoking the suffocating presence of an abandoned body. Straight away, I knew I needed somehow to bring a sense of this to those who would, nor could ever see it, never have the chance to feel it themselves.«

Artist gathering life jackets
Artist gathering life jackets

From refugee life jackets she gathered herself on Lesbos, Caroline Burraway tailored 13 children’s dresses. Dirty, torn, patched together, a mixture of faded oranges, pinks and reds, at first glance they look like any dress a three or four-year-old child may wear. Some dresses bear the name of a country stamped across their chest like a fashion slogan, some have whistles hanging down as if in play. But a closer look slowly confronts the viewer with the realisation of what they are made from and what they embody.

Each dress represents 1 million of the 13 million child refugees worldwide. The dresses signify the absent body, evoking memory, absence and loss, and inviting the viewer to meditate and contemplate the story of the refugees’ journey and loss as they try to reach the shores of Europe.

In her installation »Ungrievable Lives«, the 13 dresses are hanging above piles of sand, representing physical and cultural borders.

Charlotte Bray
Charlotte Bray

Composer Charlotte Bray, in turn, felt compelled to respond to it with the means she has: »With shocking news stories appearing almost daily, I attempt to imagine and find some way of illustrating what millions of migrants are enduring, in search of safety or a better life. Deeply moved and motivated by the work of Caroline Burraway, her installation ›Ungrievable Lives‹, forms a large part of the stimulus behind my new string quartet, which will be premiered by the Castalian String Quartet at the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg.«

Text: Clemens Matuschek, last updated: 2 Mar 2022

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