Forced displacement, suffering and the aesthetics of loss

Maruška Svašek


This article investigates how artists have addressed shocking experiences of displacement in different political contexts. Drawing on the notion of ‘the aesthetics of loss’ (Köstlin, 2010), it examines and compares the different aims, desires and strategies that have shaped the histories and social lives of paintings, memorial statues, installations and other artefacts. The analysis identifies a mode of artistic engagement with the sense of a ‘loss of homeland’ that has been commonly felt amongst Sudeten German expellees, namely the production and framing of visual images as markers of collective trauma. These aesthetics of loss are contrasted with the approach taken by the Dutch artist Sophie Ernst in her project entitled HOME. Working with displaced people from Pakistan, India, Palestine, Israel and Iraq, she created a mnemonic space to stimulate a more individualistic, exploratory engagement with the loss of home, which aimed, in part, to elicit interpersonal empathy. To simply oppose these two modes of aesthetic engagement, however, would ignore the ways in which artefacts are drawn into different discursive, affective and spatial formations. This article argues for the need to expose such dynamic processes of framing and reframing by focusing on the processual aspects of aestheticisation with attention to the perspective of loss.



displacement, trauma, memory, art, aestheticisation, empathy, Sudeten German, Sophie Ernst, refugees

Full text: Svasek_p.137-156 (PDF, 1,086 KB)


Biographical note

Maruška Svašek’s main research interests are art, material mediation, migration and the emotions. In her most recent work, she brings these strands together by exploring the mobility and agency of humans, artefacts and images in an era of intensifying globalisation and transnational connectivity. Her publications include Emotions
and Human Mobility: Ethnographies of Movement (Routledge 2012), Moving Subjects, Moving Objects: Transnationalism, Cultural Production and Emotions (Berghahn 2012), Anthropology, Art and Cultural Production (Pluto 2007), Postsocialism: Politics and Emotions in Central and Eastern Europe (Berghahn 2006) and, (with Kay Milton), Mixed Emotions: Anthropological Studies of Feeling (Berg 2005). She is co-editor with Birgit Meyer of the Berghahn book series ‘Material Mediations: People and Things in a World of Movement’.

An earlier version of this material was presented on the occasion of the project conference ‘Disturbing Pasts: Memories, Controversies and Creativity’ (20 -22 November 2012, Museum of Ethnology/Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna). To view the film footage on the Open Arts Archive,, follow this link: