The first Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings lobby commission, Tears, by French artist Claire Fontaine, consists of nine neon signs suspended from the ceiling. Each reads “isle of tears” in a different language, a reference to the experience of immigrants passing through Ellis Island.
Claire Fontaine’s art work addresses the ethical crises affecting society. It explores ideas and representations of power, freedom, and identity, often undermining or destabilizing these concepts. She uses found materials, borrowed text, images appropriated from other artists, and commercial or industrial media to probe such issues and subvert their original contexts, offering a way to imagine change. Yet despite deep intellectual roots, she is at heart a romantic, even a bit sentimental.
Fontaine’s practice is rooted in political activism, especially the collaborative protest movements of the late 1960s. Contemporary political theory provides the armature for her investigations; she especially values postcolonial perspectives, feminism, and neo-Marxism, with their focus on the politically and socially marginalized.
The installation Tears comprises nine neon signs suspended from the lobby ceiling at the Jewish Museum. In each, the phrase “isle of tears” is written in a different language: French, Polish, Russian, Yiddish, Greek, Italian, German, Spanish, and English. These were the languages most commonly spoken at the Ellis Island immigration station by the people who came to America through its doors – nearly sixteen million between 1892 and 1914.
The neon lights, in lambent blue and green hues, create a wavelike color field above the spectator. Located in the lobby – the liminal space between the outside world and the realm of art – they mark a point of transition for the visitor. With their multilingual voices they serve as surrogates for the millions of poor immigrants who landed at Ellis Island filled with hope and trepidation.
Claire Fontaine lives and works in Paris. A Readymade collective artist, she was founded in 2004. Her work has been shown at Tate London; the Museo Tamayo, Mexico City; the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami; and CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, among other venues.
About the Series
Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings is a series of artist commissions at the Jewish Museum, initiated in 2013. Artists from around the globe have been invited to create new art or adapt a work for placement in the entrance lobby. The project builds upon Using Walls, a 1970 exhibition of commissioned artworks installed both within and beyond the gallery space of the Museum’s Warburg Mansion.
Forty-four years later, the Museum revisits this idea in Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings, curated by Jens Hoffmann, Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs, and Joanna Montoya, Neubauer Family Foundation Assistant Curator.