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2016.02.05 Fri, by Translated by: 王之浩
Ai Weiwei on the Beach

The refugee crisis in Europe is about to peak, it seems. Not too long ago, one image in particular stirred up German society and generated a huge wave of solidarity with all the displaced people arriving in Europe—a wave that has now been broken by xenophobic populism and political maneuvering. It was the image of the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up, drowned, on the beach of Bodrum in Turkey. It is this image that Ai Weiwei mimicked on the shore in Lesbos, a Greek—hence European—island, where he posed as the drowned toddler. In a state of shock, many asked, “Can he really do this?!”

Official press coverage from the Washington Post to CNN views the image of Ai, shot by the photographer Rohit Chawla for India Today magazine a little over a week ago, as very much in line with Ai’s previous artistic activism. It was Ai himself who, beginning weeks ago, ramped up attention which culminated in the recent photograph of him: First, his walk with Anish Kapoor, departing from his exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in support of the refugees; then the closing of his exhibition at the Faurschou Foundation in Copenhagen in protest of the Danish government’s policies to dispossess migrants; and recently his departure to the Greek island of Lesbos, just 15 km from the Turkish border.

Social media are seething, however. Posts on Twitter and Facebook attest to either the artist’s empathy or his hubris, depending on the blogger’s own opinion. On one side, you can find those who see Ai’s years-long dedication, ever since the collapse of the “tofu schools” in May 2008, killing more than 6000 children, as proof of his humanity and empathy with the fate of the refugees, expressed also in the photograph. Ai underscores this reading with interviews about his emotions during encounters on Lesbos. On the other side are those who see some kind of vampirism at work—an artist who feeds on the blood of the dead migrants,predicting an act of profiteering like the one just announced. Apparently Ai Weiwei will “create” an artwork comprised of barely functional lifejackets used by refugees and donated to him by the mayor of Lesbos.

Quite interestingly, the criticism gets harsher the closer you get to the art world; this is kind of surprising, given the fact that the use of iconic images has long been an acceptable artistic practice. From Wolf Vostell’s appropriation of Eddie Adam’s photographs from the Vietnam war to Thomas Demand, who re-creates locations of global importance in cardboard and neutralizes them behind plexiglass, there is a wide field of artistic practice of appropriating iconic images. The wildest example that comes to mind is Xu Zhen’s “Starving of Sudan” which recreates in excruciatingly slow motion video Kevin Carter’s 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of an African toddler being stalked by a vulture. But there is not a single recent artwork that has garnered the momentum to galvanize society with the same impact of a media image like the one of Aylan on the shoreline. To the contrary, art at present seems more engaged in archiving and therefore banishing events of global importance, instead of engaging with the activation (for want of a better word) of real societal progress. To be totally honest, nobody in the West even deems such a dynamic originating from art possible any more. Most soap box oratories hence declare art to be a mirror of society, which relegates it to the status of a stabilizing factor.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei imitating the lifeless body of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi on the Greek Island of Lesbos. (Rohit Chawla for India Today)

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei imitating the lifeless body of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi on the Greek Island of Lesbos. (Rohit Chawla for India Today)

So what is all the fuss about with Ai Weiwei? And what exactly happens when an artist lies down to mimic a real-life victim? Cindy Sherman comes to mind, or Yasumasa Morimura, who famously posed as Lee Harvey Oswald being shot. Postmodern role-play of this kind serves a dual function of hyper-charging images and voiding them at the same time. As such, they are part of an art in the West (unwittingly) geared towards banishing social conflict via artistic practice. All potential for upheaval is exorcised, making social conflicts commensurable to the system. Effectively, there is no outside to the system anymore, leaving art pretty much inside the matrix. It is impossible to really criticize society in the West anymore. If you still do so, you will either be completely ignored or put straight into the museum.

The same activity in China might land you in prison. Ai Weiwei actually accomplished both, for he is someone who deals his two cards—“China” and “Ai Weiwei”—really well. His Berlin exhibition in 2014, “Evidence”, was an attempt at casting himself as victim to such a degree that now, in conjunction with the recent image from Lesbos, a fatal transposition takes hold. What is Ai Weiwei’s business with Aylan Kurdi all about, many on the social media ask themselves? There is the poor little boy whose life ended purposelessly on one hand, and a rich artist on the other. “Je suis Aylan”, this token gesture, just two weeks after the scandalous release of a Charlie Hebdo cartoon showing Aylan—had he had the chance to grow up—as one of the Cologne gropers whose assault on women soured the whole process of welcoming migrants to Germany. In that light, Ai’s image is very untimely for a whole array of reasons. Everybody in Germany (almost 96%) believes that the refugees need our help. Nobody, however, knows (anymore) how to actually get this done. During this ambiguous moment, Ai decides to lie down on the beach, representative not only of the fate of Aylan, but all refugees—because such is the power that emanates from the picture of the drowned boy. Does he remind us of an obligation that we no longer know how to fulfill, or does he want to profit from our dithering in the subject?

In any case, something is totally off with the picture: poor young boy—rich old artist. One isn’t sure if it’s possible to buy into the vicariousness of Ai’s gesture of himself as refugee. How about a thought experiment: What if Ai had taken a photo of his beloved son on the beach instead of himself? This would also have been controversial in so many ways. But it would undoubtedly have been a document of paternal love, one which would have offered deep insight into the human drama of the refugee crisis. Even the harshest of critics would have had to keep quiet. Instead, what came out was an asymmetrical dialog from “victim” to “VICTIM”. Because in the context of the refugee crisis, Ai’s individual fate appears to be, well, “individual”. In other words: in the context of China, his life appeared to be “exemplary”, embodying the strife of many. In the big context of the refugee crisis, this just doesn’t work. On many levels, the picture of him is as wrong as the strange hard shadow his body casts on the shoreline. His light comes flat from the right, whereas the sun softly lights the seascape from somewhere up on the left hand side.

Were the image oriented north, one could say that Ai’s light comes from the East. And that is the underlying drama in his life right now. He is so busy inventing himself as an “art-ivist” that has he cut himself off from his previous themes and sources of energy. What made him credible in the past was his profound engagement with his country, its history, present, and future. His power came from his struggle with China. With that gone, what remains is his ego—and that, for a lot of people, is just not enough.

[correction note: in the original version of the article, it was mistaken written that Wolf Vostell appropriated Nick Ut's photograph. It has now been corrected.]