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Art and Exploitation: Ai Weiwei, Dissidence and the Refugee Crisis

Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

The status of a dissident offers a certain moral latitude in behaviour, and, in various cases, misbehaviour. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is one such figure. He is a feted figure of dissent of the Chinese political establishment, and celebrated by the artistic fraternity. He is the anointed and favoured contrarian.  “The one thing I should give the Chinese government credit for,” he claims to Artsy, “is the fact that being unable to travel allowed me to focus on my work.”

Ai has found refugees a suitable subject of identification.  This identification can be taken further, a form of ritualised pornogrification that finds gold in crushing victimhood.  Few other current crises, to that end, provide raw material than the global refugee calamity stretching from the Middle East to Africa, a seemingly endless procession line of suffering and, for Ai, raw matter.

The death of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, in September 2015 off the Greek Island of Lesbos, spurred the artist into imitative mode.  He would mimic the dead child lying on the beach, appropriating the meaning of his corpse.  But he would also mimic the photograph of the dead child taken by Nilüfer Demir, a sort of artistic re-appropriation of image and subject.

In collaboration with photographer Rohit Chawla of India Today, an image of Ai lying heavily and tactically, face down on the earth, was duly created.    Besides, Ai needed an exhibition sample for the Indian Arts Festival, and had noted the startling coverage Demir’s photo was garnering.  At the height of the image’s circulation, a peak of 53,000 tweets per hour was reached, touching 20 million individuals over 12 hours.  The premise of such work was not presented as crude self-glorification, a narcissist’s thrusting effort in the art world.  It was advertised, rather, as drawing attention to cruelty itself.

Supporters of what could only be described as a derivative stunt were aplenty.  Sandy Angus, co-owner of the festival, drooled with enthusiasm, calling it “an iconic image because it is very political, human and involves an incredibly important artist like Ai Weiwei.”

The last part of the observation is more illuminating than perhaps intended.  What matters is less the dead boy than Ai Weiwei playing a corpse reminiscent of the dead boy.  It is precisely such art that makes Francesco Bonami fume that Ai should not be jailed for his dissidence but for his art.  “I think he exploits his dissidence in favour of promoting his art.”

Not all artists rushed to the stands of resounding adulation.  Brooklyn artist Sean Capone vented on Instagram even as the image was receiving virally charged hits.  “Calling you [Mr. Weiwei] out for your bad taste, egotistical victim porn and endless parade of crappy art, enough is enough.” Another artist, New York-based street photography Sally Davis, suggested that Ai had essentially hitchhiked “onto a current tragedy”.

In January 2016, the artist turned his attention to Denmark, ostensibly to protest a local regulation permitting police to confiscate the assets of refugees and raid their homes.  Refugees were again rich material for indignant political expression, muses of perversion dressed up as figures of dissent.  Timing was, of course everything: the closing of his exhibition Ruptures, the pulling out of exhibitions at ARos Aarhus Art Museum and the Faurschou Foundation.

Ai insists on proud and noisy self-identification, his animating rationale for constantly returning to the subject matter of the global refugee crisis.  “I was a child refugee.  I know how it feels to live in a camp, robbed of my humanity.”

In 1958, his family was removed from their Beijing home and banished to isolated outlying territory, his father, the poet Ai Qing, a victim of forced labour and a policy heavy with rituals of self-criticism.  He remembers “experiencing what felt like endless injustice.”

It is the injustice that supposedly motivates him to create a 60-metre inflatable life raft jammed with 300 figures on Cockatoo Island in Sydney.  Such pieces are sharpened to target detention centres, which give “Australia such a bad image, about who Australia is, what the Australian culture really is about.”

The sense of the political slogan, not to mention the chance to plough marketing opportunities, is never far from Weiwei’s work.  It is also preferential, and politically stunted.  This month, his disoriented compass on the subject of refugees will receive another jolt.  His exhibition at Doha’s Fire Station art space, starting on March 15, will feature the installation Laundromat (2016), built from thousands of clothing articles abandoned by residents of a now closed refugee camp in Idomeni.

There is a tangy irony to this, though highly appropriate given the link between politically charged art, often of the derivative sort, and patrons with deep pockets.  Qatar is a state impugned for a range of abuses in employment, permitting conditions that verge on slavery. But that was not something Ai wished to self-identify with.

In another respect, Ai’s happy sponsor has shown itself more than lethargic when it comes to accepting refugees, notably from Syria.  Qatari Foreign Minister Dr. Khalid Al-Attiyah, claiming that his country was “in no way falling short of its responsibilities when it comes to the Syrian crisis”, prefers to focus on Qatari funding for programs outside the country to help Syrian refugees.

Such silo-driven ignorance comes across as disfiguring, but it is one that is earning rewards for Ai.  His political contrarianism is acceptable, his displays of crude art, not always well informed.  And unlike Kurdi, he is quite capable, after playing dead on the pebbles of a beach, to get up and spruce himself up for the next art opening.

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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