Terminal: Lauren Brincat, Andreas Gursky, Adrian Paci

Lauren Brincat This Time Tomorrow, Tempelhof, 2011, video installation, 5min 20sec, Collection Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Lauren Brincat has performed her walking pieces in different environments, including a misty field, a busy street, and, here, an empty airport runway. All are presented as single fixed-shot videos, showing her walking away from the camera into the distance. Sometimes she carries objects that charge her performance with politics or poetics; other times the site carries these possibilities.

This performance feels transgressive from the outset. It takes place in a site normally off-limits to the human body. Boarding ramps and jet bridges were invented to remove bodies from the runway. Smaller airports, lacking these technologies, position attendants and barriers to prevent this access. Humans on the runway pose a risk to themselves and to the smooth operation of the flight schedule. Even knowing that this is a decommissioned airport, it’s exhilarating to watch Brincat stride purposefully down the broken white lines of the runway.

The runway is built for technology, not for the body. Brincat’s entire body is contained within the width of just one of its markings, and is eventually swallowed up by its expansive space. She moves swiftly, yet it takes over five minutes to walk this section of the runway. The skid marks that surround her are a reminder of the speeds that we are normally propelled at on runways. Most takeoffs and landings occur at around 285km per hour and would cover this distance in seconds. Like the solitary airport official in Gursky’s Düsseldorf, Flughafen II, Brincat enters and becomes subject to the vast industrial-technological spectacle that is the airport. Yet, there is no submission to its processes. Where Ed Atkins’s Safe Conduct satirises the body’s surrendering to security technologies within the terminal, Brincat’s performance outside wrestles its agency back. The body is liberated from the systems of control the airport normally forces upon it.

As a work of art staged at the airport, it is equally liberating. Inside the terminal, art is designed to engage with the ambulant passenger, providing stopping points, navigational assistance, or distractions from the neverending trudge. Jim Campbell’s light installation The Journey (2013), at San Diego International Airport, goes further by lighting up, joining, and guiding passengers on their route. Brincat’s performance breaks this dependency, connecting instead to Richard Long’s and Francis Alÿs’s walking pieces. Her use of the airport as a site to test the body’s limits also chimes with Chris Burden’s performance 747 (1973). On the outskirts of LAX, Burden was filmed from behind, firing a pistol at a Boeing 747.

An Australian, Brincat made this work while homesick in Berlin on a residency. The runway performance negotiates the physical, temporal, and emotional distance from home that is part of the traveller’s condition, symbolised by ‘taking off’ or ‘landing’. Naeem Mohaiemen and John Akomfrah’s video works in Terminal set key scenes on the runway to explore these themes in relation to the exile or refugee experience. (In one scene in Mohaiemen’s Tripoli Cancelled, the protagonist reverses Brincat’s route by walking down the white markings of the runway of an abandoned airport towards the fixed camera.)

For Brincat, the performance was also a way to come to terms with a new city—which is often felt or navigated bodily. This is especially the case in Berlin, whose dark history physically and symbolically looms over you. She walks the runway of the decommissioned Berlin Tempelhof Airport, once a central cog in the Nazi war machine. The eventual seizure of this runway by Russian forces helped end the war. Tempelhof subsequently became a US military base and would be the site of the Berlin Airlift (transforming a symbol of Nazi ideology into one of freedom). Many others have walked here before her.

Brincat walks into the site’s past and future. The performance was only a few years after Tempelhof was controversially closed. It would reopen as a city park, with its old terminal and facilities left intact as reminders of its history. When the European migration crisis hit, it was transformed into Germany’s largest refugee shelter. Now the park is promoted as the heart of Berlin, a popular space for recreational activities. Its website claims that ‘the former runway and the so-called taxiway offer the perfect ground for cyclists and in-line skaters’.[1] Brincat’s performance seems more aligned with the unsanctioned activities that continue to happen there, such as the open-air raves that were once a symbol of new-found freedoms but now constitute illegal gatherings. Her performance reveals the limitations of thinking of the airport as a non-space, grounding the experience of the airport in real times, spaces, relationships, and histories. These belong to and flow through her performance, which transports us to yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Andreas Gursky, Düsseldorf, Flughafen II, 1994, colour photograph, Collection Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; gift of the John Kaldor Family Collection. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program

Andreas Gursky uses ‘photography as a way of understanding how the world fits together’.[2] He chronicles the spaces of late capitalism: stock exchanges, markets, factories, stadiums, luxury stores, apartment blocks, and airports. In his work, airports repeatedly appear as symptoms of the borderlessness and time-space compression that capitalism creates. Gursky doesn’t simply picture capitalism, he co-opts its technological possibilities to make hybrid photographs that question the reality or validity of the world they represent. His photographs speak both to and through the current cultural condition. Their neutral, objective look masks any overt criticality of—or complicity with—a system that enables his regular travel around the world to make, display, and sell what art historian James Elkins describes as ‘airport-lounge size photographs’.[3]

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Gursky made many photographs of the airport in his home city of Düsseldorf. Germany’s third busiest airport, it remains central to the city’s economy and culture. Gursky always sets his human subjects in a complex relationship to the airport. In Dusseldorf I (1985), they crowd the tarmac, eyes raised to the arriving or departing plane and all it symbolises. Düsseldorf Airport, Sunday Walkers (1985) shows people milling on the airport’s fringe. It’s a banal scene of escapism rather than escape; its subjects are ‘the terminally grounded’.[4] Yet, as Gursky knows, this space at the airport’s edge holds revelations. Hungarian student Andras Kisergely—a self-described ‘aviation anorak’ who drove around European airports photographing planes from his car—was circling Charles De Gaulle Airport in 2000, when he captured the only image of the Air France Concorde exploding on the runway.[5] It was picked up by Reuters and became an iconic image of airport disaster. It is but one of a thousand-strong archive of airport photographs made with fellow anorak Szabolcs Szalmási that offer a counter to artists Fischli and Weiss’s 800 Views of Airports, taken from inside the terminal looking out.

Gursky’s Düsseldorf, Flughafen II (1994) feels abstracted. There’s his signature bird’s-eye view (presumably from the windows in the terminal). Ground and sky are demarcated by a green band of grass; tarmac markings become pure pattern. Hazy forested hills retreat into the distance, suggesting that, for many, it is the airport that now enables that escape to nature—if this is even possible any more. A solitary subject—an airport worker standing on the empty runway—is dwarfed within this epic constructed site. The allusion to nineteenth-century German romantic painting is irresistible. Where Caspar David Friedrich located his solitary monks and wanderers within sublime natural vistas, Gursky’s dot constructed ones, always pulling us back to the human within the machine. This figure is a cipher for a collective experience of the spaces and systems of the post-industrial world. (Gursky’s scenes of crowds at football games and concerts make the same point in the opposite way.) Düsseldorf, Flughafen II moves beyond the representation of a specific airport to represent the airport as an emblematic site. It is all airports.

Gursky has made some of art’s best known airport images. In Frankfurt Airport (2007), travellers are dwarfed by the iconic announcements board and the sheer weight of information it offers: departures, locations, gates, times. This is travel as data, which, like photography, can transport us everywhere and nowhere. The board lists a Lufthansa flight to Düsseldorf, taking off at 8.35pm. Düsseldorf airport remains a key to Gursky’s art. It was a subject in his early investigations and he held his first exhibition inside its advertising vitrines in 1986. Last year, Gagosian Gallery upped the ante by presenting Gursky’s work as the first exhibition at Tarmak 22, a private gallery at Switzerland’s Gstaad Saanen Airport, which promises to ‘bring contemporary art to new heights’ while offering panoramic views of the runway.[6] But it’s not all alpine vistas and ski resorts. After Gursky made Frankfurt Airport, Lufthansa closed its Düsseldorf operations, with significant impact on the local economy. More recently, the sound of Frankfurt’s split-flap announcement board echoing around the abandoned airport has become a symbol of the grounding of the aviation industry by the coronavirus pandemic.[7] Somehow, Gursky’s photographs seem to anticipate it all.

Adrian Paci, Centro di Permanenza Temporanea  2007, video, 5min 30sec

Centro di Permanenza Temporanea ends with one of contemporary art’s most enduring images of the refugee crisis: people are stranded on the boarding stairs of a runway with no plane. They have no access to the freedom of movement enjoyed by the unseen ‘regular’ passengers in the planes that take off around them. The image captures the harsh reality behind the romanticisation of the airport as an escapist non-place—especially as it exists for the refugee or the exile. As an image of traumatic displacement, the image is not far removed from those heart-wrenching accounts of refugees on boats who look up to observe planes flying high above them.

The video plays like a series of stills, set to ambient runway sounds. It opens with a side view of the empty boarding stairs, then cuts to a high-angle shot looking down the stairs to a vacant runway, which is soon occupied by approaching feet and bodies. Their slow, silent shuffle suggests people being collectively processed at airports and other borders. After the stairs fill up, the video alternates between group shots and closeups. The camera pulls back to reveal its final twist, that iconic image of the fully occupied boarding stairs adrift on the runway. The video moves the viewer through different stages and moments, while halting the movement of its subjects. We ‘arrive’ at that last image and are forced to confront its implications.

Adrian Paci explores movement as form, process, and possibility. His work—especially his use of video—is determined by his own movements as one of thousands of refugees who escaped Albania to Italy during the civil war in the late 1990s. Trained in Albania as a painter, he turned to video through this experience of immigration and exile. Albanian Stories (1997), his first video, was made a few months after arriving in Milan. With her dolls, his three-year-old daughter acts out a story studded with the real events and forces that drove the family from their homeland—things children shouldn’t have to know. In this moment, Paci recalibrated his practice, understanding that ‘What I needed to use was a simple video camera and stand in front of my daughter to witness this moment.’[8] He temporarily abandoned painting and sculpture, feeling that his new medium was better tuned to the experience of exile. Video, he argued, ‘doesn’t indulge itself as a medium, nor does it set out to gratify its author’.[9]

Paci would return to painting and sculpture, while continuing to make videos with a strong performative element. His continual shifting between and across these media—with the tensions set up between the still and moving images they produce—is part of his wider rejection of boundaries and borders of all kinds. ‘I don’t look for closed or definitive forms’, he has stated, ‘but am interested instead in their mutual relations.’ [10] Centro di Permanenza Temporanea does feel like a video made by a painter, especially in the ways it slows down or freezes the moving image to invoke a certain type of aesthetic and emphatic response. Curator Rosa Martínez sees other art forms embedded in that image of the boarding stairs. She describes it as ‘a free-standing sculpture, a huge inhabited though isolated pedestal, an artefact that leads nowhere’.[11]

Albanian Stories and Centro di Permanenza Temporanea use portraiture to draw attention to the individuals behind prevailing abstractions of ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’. Seen together, these two works articulate the shift away from the documentation of personal stories and histories towards more collective experiences of displacement and exile in Paci’s work—though the two constantly bleed into one another.

Rather than use actors, Paci works with people who, like him, have a direct experience of displacement. Centro di Permanenza Temporanea was shot at San Jose International Airport in California using migrant workers hired for the day. This workforce plays an important role in the state’s economy and has a long history in art stretching back to Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photographs. The central metaphor of stranded migrant workers has assumed even greater poignancy with the coronavirus pandemic. California has reclassified migrant labour as ‘essential’, rather than a border-control problem. Yet, in doing so, it has put these already vulnerable workers at high risk of exposure to the virus, to keep others safe and the economy buoyant.[12] Passenger numbers at San Jose International Airport have also fallen by up to ninety percent—few are flying out.[13]

Paci’s workers are caught in a different yet similar state of limbo to the subjects of his Albania-related work. He makes this explicit by titling the video after the temporary relocation camps set up in Italy to process refugees—many of whom have to wait for years before being granted further passage. There is an uncomfortable tension in Paci’s treatment of his subjects. He works to maintain their vulnerability, to not let the viewer, art, or politics off the hook, but this has occasionally landed him in trouble. Kristen Chappa notes that ‘the artist’s concern for the plight of his subjects is evident [in this video] … but Paci is also complicit in the system he critiques by momentarily employing these workers, only to subsequently send them on their way’.[14]

A more serious interrogation followed a laboratory tipping off police after processing Paci’s Exit photographs (1999), which document passport-control stamps drawn onto his daughter’s shoulder blades. Believe Me, I’m an Artist (2000) restages the interrogation via surveillance-camera footage. Paci counters charges of child abuse and exploitation by calmly explaining that the photographs are a commentary on migration and expatriation (in a situation where his own visa status and liberty were potentially under threat). The exchange is treated as another border issue, this time between the art and non-art contexts that determine Paci’s own freedoms and movements. He treats himself like the subjects of his other videos, as a vulnerable migrant worker caught in a hostile system. In the interrogation room, Paci’s attempt to legitimise his own work—by insisting that a related video of his daughter, Albanian Stories, was recently shown at the Venice Biennale—doesn’t fly.

Published in Terminal (City Gallery Wellington, 2020), 54-65.

[1] www.thf-berlin.de/en/tours/.

[2] ‘Redefining Photography: Andreas Gursky: Interview with Ralph Rugoff’ (London: Hayward Gallery, 2017), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdOxpTARGx4&feature=emb_rel_pause.

[3] James Elkins, What Photography Is (New York: Routledge, 2011), 77. In 2011, Gursky earned the title of the world’s most expensive photographer when his Rhine II (1999) fetched $US4.3m at Christies.

[4] Ralph Rugoff, ‘Andreas Gursky: Four Decades’, in Andreas Gursky (London: Hayward Gallery, 2018), 15.

[5] Simon Bowers, ‘The “Aviation Anorak” Who Took the Now Famous Photo’, Guardian, 27 July 2000, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2000/jul/27/concorde.simonbowers.

[6] Fleur Burlet, ‘New Gallery Brings High Art to Gstaad Airport’, WWD.com, 2 April 2019, http://www.wwd.com/eye/lifestyle/new-gallery-tarmak-22-art-gstaad-airport-1203093327/.

[7] Joe Miller, Tanya Powley, and Alexander Vladkov, ‘Coronavirus: Future Looks Bleak for Global Airports’, Financial Times, 16 March 2020, www.ft.com/content/1d12dbca-6533-11ea-b3f3-fe4680ea68b5.

[8] ‘Adrian Paci: Moments of Transition’ (Humlebaek: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2014)

[9] Federico Florian, ‘Interview with Adrian Paci’, Art Slant, 13 May 2013,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Rosa Martínez, ‘Centro di Permanenza Temporanea: The Caixa Collection’,

[12] Yvette Cabrera, ‘Essential but Exposed: Farmworkers Are Risking Their Lives to Feed a Nation on Lockdown’, Grist, 4 April 2020

[13] Jody Meacham, ‘Coronavirus Takes Massive Toll on San Jose Airport Passenger Numbers’, Silicon Valley Business Reporter, 23 March 2020,

[14] Kristen Chappa, ‘The Workers’, Frieze, no. 143, November–December 2011: 134.