If you have time for only one event during Basel week, go to the Design District, where Galerie Perrotin is showing the starkly beautiful film “ELLIS”, starring Robert De
Niro. Not only is the price right – it’s free – but also, it may cause you to ponder the various issues surrounding immigration to this country – both in the past and current day.
The 14-minute short film was conceived long before Donald Trump made immigration the leading topic of the presidential debates, long before the Syrian civil war forever imprinted images of lifeless children washed up on a Mediterranean shore, and long before a cry to halt immigration of Syrians into this country in the wake of the Paris terror attack (which included a recent immigrant from Syria).
French artist “JR” began working on ELLIS shortly after the abandoned hospital reopened for public tours in October 2014. The facility had lain derelict since 1954. Many of the
windows were missing or shattered. The walls were a mass of blistered and peeling paint. The floors and walls reduced to concrete rubble in places. A rusted bed frame, with coils intact, and rotted doors lay strewn about. A jumble of wooden slated chairs provided the perfect backdrop for JR to place black-and-white headshots. It’s as if the seats have absorbed the essence of the immigrants who once sat there.
JR – a pseudonym assumed by the former graffiti artist who now is known for his monumental photographs and public installations – used actual images of immigrants who
came to Ellis Island. Those images appear throughout the film and in several ink-on-wood portraits that are also on display in the pop-up gallery on the second floor of the Melin Building. The process JR used to transfer the images to the wood, give them a faded, ghostly appearance.
Their serious, straight-forward gazes appear throughout the wall art and film. The backs of a family can be seen in silhouette on the outside of a window, looking toward the
Statue of Liberty. A man in a fedora has a firm grip on a valise, while a young boy in a newsboy’s cap hoists a duffle bag on his right shoulder. A woman in a long skirt and bun lay down upon a public bench in exhaustion, and her image is superimposed above a rusted cot. The heads of white robed doctors and nurses peek above the surgery, where the white subway tile has fallen away.
All had to come through the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, which screened them for communicable diseases or mental illnesses. The hospital could serve as either a portal to the new world and a new life, or an impenetrable barrier.
“If a family came and the father was sick, then the whole family was told to go back,” says Marc Azoulay, the film’s producer. “Of the 12 million who arrived, only 200,000 were sent back,” he adds.
The central theme of ELLIS is that of an immigrant from an unnamed country who cannot cross into New York because of some unnamed disease. It tells the improbable tale of the unnamed character, played by De Niro, who hides in various places in the hospital and remains undetected. He can be seen roaming the abandoned hospital, cloaked in a black trench coat that makes him stand out in a predominantly snowy landscape.
With the poignancy of one returning to a childhood home, De Niro takes the viewer through the corridors and rooms of the Ellis Island hospital. His memories are foggy, as are several scenes of the Manhattan skyline, its skyscrapers looming like icebergs across the icy harbor.
Those buildings become an illuminated beacon when De Niro’s character talks of his yearning to fly across the water that separates Ellis Island from a new life in New York and beyond.
“Where I could find peace,” De Niro says. “Where I could be treated like anyone else. Where I could be anyone I wanted to be.”
IF YOU GO:
What: ELLIS, a film directed and produced by JR, starring Robert De Niro, and written by Eric Roth, and an exhibition images placed on wood JR, in a Pop Up Exhibition from Galerie Perrotin
Where: Melin Building, 3930 NE 2nd Avenue, Suite 201, Miami
When: Dec. 2-7, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
By Siobhan Morrissey / Siobhan.Morrissey@gmail.com