Weisman’s “Baggage Claims” Has a Lot to Unpack

WAM’s latest exhibit brings a unique perspective to emotion and immigration

By: Megan Hoff


Anyone who has ever traveled has experienced the nuisance of packing. There’s something frustrating about figuring out what you need in order to survive away from home. What most of us take for granted, however, is that we have the option of unpacking. The Weisman Art Museum’s latest exhibit takes portmanteaus, their contents, and why humans travel to a whole new level. “Baggage Claims” confronts some of the saddest and most urgent reasons behind the act of moving from one place to another.


Illustration by Jen Moss

Illustration by Jen Moss

The first display consists of many large, colorful suitcases stacked in a pile in the middle of the floor. Some of them are full of metal wires, others full of fabric. Aptly named “Room 28,” this amalgamation is one man’s attempt to literally pack up the entire contents of one motel room. The artist, Joel Ross, left the room empty and sent the owners cash in return for his deconstruction. He felt compelled to pack up the room in an effort to capture the emotions he felt there, brought upon by “unrequited love.” According to the description, this piece is meant to raise the question of “whether emotion can be transported,” and whether the essence of a space can leave the confines of the room in which it’s established.


Another piece contains several large buildings on a small scale: the London Bridge, Empire State Building, and Chelsea Hotel loom out of the open mouth of a suitcase, molded out of black fabric. A long, black camera case contains a mini natural landscape—running water and all. These pieces push the limits on how much can be contained and transported and whether certain things should be moved at all.


Other pieces represent various issues with immigration and distrust. In the center of the room, upbeat music with Spanish lyrics radiates from a speaker built in to a backpack, designed by a CD street vendor for quick getaways from authorities. A crate with a broken plaster shoe marks the time when artist Clarissa Tossin was searched at the United States border after her stay in Colombia. Border security cracked open the plaster shoe—which was going to be used in the artist’s next installment—to see if any drugs were concealed inside.


On the wall, plastic woven bags in red, blue, and some brown-with-age-plaid form a map of the world. These bags are commonly used by immigrants, known as “Ghana must go” bags in Ghana and “Tuekenkoffers,” or “Turkish suitcases,” in Germany, among other nicknames. (The catalogue for this exhibit can be purchased at the shop, and it comes in one of these bags.)


A short video on repeat in the corner depicts several women taking fabric coverings off of chairs, putting them on as clothing, folding up the chairs, and walking away with the entire set. The display shows the mobility of dual-purpose furniture and how it can be used to make a quick escape from a war-torn country. Another artist filled a typewriter case with rubble from his destroyed hometown in Syria. After a second glance, the hodgepodge of metal, cloth, and glass looks like a small village, complete with a tiny clothesline.


There are more suitcases: one with white sand that almost looks like sugar, another full of bricks. The artist of the latter is from Cuba, and the bricks are from a building in Manhattan, where he now lives. A brick wall in a suitcase: sometimes, when you leave a place, you can never go back.


The biggest piece consists of a large stack of bright blue suitcases and a video of a man in a white and yellow instrument-patterned suit. He manages to hoist all the suitcases onto his back and transports them across New Orleans; it’s quite the sight of human exertion (along with a light dose of ridiculousness).


All these cases, these objects represent the in-between: the little space we have to gather up what we deem important enough to drag around with us until we find a spot to settle down or return home. For some, this is never an option. The few cubic centimeters they can afford to carry are all they have. Certain questions will never stop haunting them: What do you take? What, or who, stays behind?


“Baggage Claims” is on view at the Weisman Art Museum until May 12.

Wake Mag