Top 20 ArtPrize finalist work pushes talks of global refugee crisis

This ArtPrize piece is highlighting the refugee crisis.

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH., - The creators of "SOS (Safety Orange Swimmers)," which is installed in the Grand River, want the work to promote dialogue on the global refugee crisis.

The piece, which is a finalist in the ArtPrize top 20 from the public vote, is a group of 22 floating foam figures in the color "Safety Orange."

The eye-catching nature of the piece makes it hard to ignore, said Ann Hirsch, who co-created the piece with Jeremy Angier. The two collaborate as A+J Art+Design in Boston.

The first installation of the piece came in 2016 at Boston's Fort Point Channel. The figures, designed through a computer-generated 3-D model, were sculpted in clay and then reproduced in foam.

"We had an idea of what materials we were going to use and how we were going to technically hold this thing in the water," Angier said. "And then we had six weeks to create the piece itself, to physically make it."

The figures represent refugees, swimming upstream in a color that's often used for safety gear, he said.

"The number is significant in that it reflects the official United Nations [High] Commissioner for Refugees number of 21.3 million refugees worldwide," he said. "[It's] one figure per 1,000,000 refugees. And that was in 2016. Now the numbers a little higher, but we've kept the figures at 22." 

The wider meaning of the piece looks not just at refugees, but immigration as a whole, Hirsch said.

"It's going to be, in the Grand River, a piece that has to do with immigration and how this city was made and where it came from," she said.

With such a public piece, the hope is for viewers to keep talking about the refugee problem, Hirsch said.

"I do hope that it's looks at, in its own sort of terms, as a way of looking at a group of people who can't float forever," she said. "They have to go somewhere at some point. It's really about provoking discussion rather than one sort of single message."

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