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Globalization of Indifference: Ai Weiwei and the Refugee Crisis

Fajt, Jiří and Adam Budak (2017) Ai Weiwei: Law of the Journey. Prague: Národní galerie.

STOCKHOLM / ROME, Feb 10 2020 (IPS) - Humans belong to a species that is constantly on the move . Since some Homo Sapiens 125,000 years ago began to move from the African continent, humans can be found all over the world, even in such utterly inhospitable places as the icebound plateaus of Antarctica. By moving, humans have tried to escape inadequate food-supply or otherwise unacceptable living conditions. Natural forces have forced them to leave, or even more commonly – violent actions by other humans. With them migrants have brought their means of expression and interaction, some of them expressed through their art.

Art can be a language shared between individuals, nations, and cultures. It can restore identities lost or abandoned when people have settled in new places, within new contexts. It may become a means of being heard and seen in an unsympathetic world. Art may also be used to make us aware of human suffering amidst a contemporary ambiance that far too often has become characterized by political dogfights and collective hysteria.

Two years ago, while in Prague I visited the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei´s exhibition Law of the Journey and its strong impact has remained with me ever since. Ai Weiwei had for long periods lived among refugees on the Greek islands, in the Turkish-Syrian and the US-Mexican border areas, where he collected material and stories, filmed and photographed. The Law of the Journey was the last in a series of diverse events concerning the European refugee crisis, which Ai Weiwei in his witty, provocative and often aesthetically pleasing manner previously had presented in Vienna, Berlin, and Florence. On each occasion he had added new objects and activities around the same theme.

To me, the Law of the Journey revealed itself as an epic statement about the human condition – an artist’s expression of empathy and moral concern in the face of continuous, uncontrolled destruction and carnage. It was hosted in a historically charged building, a former 1928 Trade Fair Palace, which in 1939–1941 served as an assembly point for Jews before their deportation to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt (Terezín) where 33,000 met their death, while another 88,000 were re-routed to be gassed in Auschwitz and Treblinka.

In spite of the fact that the country’s population has suffered from both Nazi terror and Communist oppression making several persons flee their country, the current Czech government has opposed the European Union’s refugee quotas. Its prime minister even threatened to sue the EU because the organization tried to force the Czech Republic to accept more refugees. When Ai Weiwei accepted the Czech Republic’s National Gallery’s invitation to stage an exhibition, the country’s official refugee reception had been modest, between July 2015 and July 2017, the Czech Republic had received 400 Syrian refugees.

Ai Weiwei declared that an important reason for his acceptance of the offer to organize an exhibition was his admiration of the Czech Republic´s former president Vaclav Havel, whom he admired as a valiant fighter for freedom of expression and global humanism. In the exhibition´s brochure, Ai Weiwei stated:

    “If we see somebody who has been victimized by war or desperately trying to find a peaceful place, if we don’t accept those people, the real challenge and the real crisis is not of all the people who feel the pain but rather for the people who ignore to recognize it or pretend that it doesn’t exist. That is both a tragedy and a crime. There´s no refugee crisis, but only a human crisis. In dealing with refugees we have lost our very basic values.”

In the foyer to the grand hall of the exhibit was a giant snake undulating just under the roof. Upon closer inspection, it became apparent that it was made out of childrens´ life vests. Two corridors led into the large central hall. They were wallpapered with black and white, stylized images. Cold and with sharp lines, they depicted war, destruction, refugee camps, dangerous voyages across the sea, risky landings, followed by new camps and deportations. The picture strips were reminiscent of Babylonian-Assyrian reliefs, associations confirmed by the fact that they were initiated with images of Greek and Babylonian warriors, followed by modern war scenes with city ruins, helicopters, tanks, and robotic fighters. This aesthetically pleasing stylization of war and misery served as a reminder of how war often has been depicted in various forms of propaganda. There were no individuals in these pictures, only standardized templates of human beings, like documentary films depicting war and torment through the cool distance of a camera eye. Like so much in Ai Weiwei’s art, his manner of expression indicated a keen knowledge of aesthetics during various epochs. It could be inspired by the Chinese, as well as European art. Ai Weiwei nurtures a deep respect for craftsmanship.

After this discreet introduction, the exhibition visitor found her/himself overwhelmed by a huge rubber raft, more than seventy feet long, diagonally hovering over the grand hall with 258 faceless passengers on board. The raft shaded a marble floor with inscriptions of quotes from famous humanists, who from Mengzi and onwards have been appealing for compassion while pointing to the importance of helping our neighbour. Visitors moving around in the shadow of the enormous raft became diminished by its immensity. Its presence, the impact of its darkening shadow could not be avoided. As we moved under it, we trampled upon words pleading for understanding, compassion, assistance, and participation.

The impersonal black rubber figures crouching inside the raft were bigger than us and sat tightly packed, with their backs bent. On the shining marble floor, other rubber figures floated in lifebuoys lifting their hands as if to attract attention. The menacingly shadowed cool marble with its quotes reminded us that even if we live a life overcast by bad conscience and fear most of us still seem to be unaware of, or not bothered by, desperate appeals that tell us it would be far better for us all if we shared love and compassion, instead of preventing our fellow humans from enjoying equal rights and freedom. Instead of nurturing feelings of empathy we are inclined to use violence whilst turning our backs to starvation, pain, and afflictions of others.

The walls of the great hall were not wallpapered with aesthetically pleasing drawings but instead decorated with thousands of densely arranged colour photographs depicting boat refugees and those lingering in wretched camps around the world. Their diversity constituted quite a beautiful backdrop to the distressing scenery with the enormous, sinister rubber raft. The wall decorations were similar to mosaic photomontages that have become fashionable in advertising. However, if you approached the walls and scrutinized the photos you could distinguish derelict vessels and rafts packed with people, barbed wired refugee camps, people crowding in rain and mud under plastic sheets, and corpses washed ashore.

I reached the top floor from which, through a glass wall, I could look down on the huge rubber raft. From this viewpoint it turned out to contain hundreds of children curled up in the middle of the vessel, surrounded by adults. The children were also made of inflated, black rubber. When I turned around I discovered that on the floor of the spacious room I was standing in, just like the one in the grand hall below, visitors’ shoes were trampling on text messages. These were not made in marble but laminated in plastic. The entire floor area was covered with messages from the web – this white noise that constantly surrounds us, day and night. The texts consisted of fanatical condemnations of “the refugee avalanche”, day-to-day profane and hateful outbursts, as well as factual accounts of deaths, anguish, statistics and figures, sensible proposals and desperate disclosures.

On this floor there were symmetrically placed racks with hangers holding a wide variety of garments. Each rack had a handwritten note informing what it displayed – “children’s jeans”, “rompers”, “children’s clothes, 0-7 years”, “life jackets, children’s sizes, 0-7 years”, etc., etc. These were garments and equipment gathered on beaches of the Greek Islands. They had been washed and classified according to type and size. There were also lots of shoes and boots in strictly organized rows. Like hair, eyeglasses and similar objects that have been in contact with an individual’s body, the apparel collected by Ai Weiwei’s collaborators awoke thoughts about personal lives. A huge accumulation of such things might serve as a reminder of our own, personal life, as well as the death that constantly threatens it. Seeing all these items was reminiscent of the shock of being confronted with the piles of personal belongings displayed in Auschwitz. These things bear witness to the inconceivable, cold-hearted violence and brutality that once befell their owners.

Ai Weiwei’s provocative installations will probably not have the political impact he might hope for. They will neither change history nor the attitudes of people who want to close their countries´ borders for people in desperate need of shelter, food, and security. Nevertheless, art as an expression of awareness of human suffering and an appeal to our compassion is something that has to be valued, not least because it reminds us of the better aspects of humanity. Humans are naturally social beings. We live in communities, both within our family and a larger society, and such a life is certainly more pleasant, more stimulating and safer if we are caring and friendly, rather than greedy, easily irritated and hostile.

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.

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