Earlier this year Ai Weiwei released his new project in Berlin which involved wrapping the columns of the Konzerthaus in 14,000 salvaged refugee life jackets to raise awareness of the plight of displaced people all over the world. With life jackets taken from those who arrived on the Greek Island of Lesbos after facing the dangers of the treacherous Mediterranean sea, Weiwei has created a piece that both the world and Berlin cannot ignore. The sheer scale of the installation highlights the sheer amount of suffering that these people face and as the blaring orange of the lifejackets has captured the attention of the world, we can only hope that these people will try to do something to change the situation of those in need.
This is not the first time that Weiwei has been seen in the headlines for his art this year. In January, Weiwei revealed he would be withdrawing his work from a show he was currently involved in within Copenhagen after new legislation was implemented by Denmark’s parliament which would delay families from being reunited and gave the authorities the right to confiscate the possessions of migrants in order to dissuade them from seeking asylum. The law provoked international outrage from many people including an array of human rights groups and Weiwei himself released a statement saying ‘The way I can protest is that I can withdraw my works from that country. It is very simple, very symbolic – I cannot co-exist, I cannot stand in front of these people, and see these policies. It is a personal act, very simple; an artist trying not just to watch events but to act, and I made this decision spontaneously.’
Through his actions, it is clear to see that Weiwei is a hugely important figure in showcasing that art is political and that it is not merely an aesthetic form. Art is not shallow or meaningless and when it is put into the hands of someone like Ai Weiwei it can bring political issues to a range of people. Weiwei himself is no stranger to political turmoil and disruption with it featuring throughout his life from being beaten by police officials to being held in jail for extended amounts of time with no official charges. Both Weiwei’s life and career has been shaped by political authority who have not only impinged on his right to freedom but on his creativity as well with the demolition of his studio in 2011 by officials showing how this is an artist who knows how it feels to persecuted. Weiwei has suffered at the hands of tyrannical regimes just like the ones that refugees are fleeing from everyday and therefore there is an affinity between the artist and the people who provide inspiration for his work, there is a shared suffering between the creator and the subject.
Interestingly, the artist has not only chosen to explore these important issues through large scale projects, he is also utilising platforms within the social media world and particularly through Instagram. The artist posts videos and photographs documenting his time spent with refugees which includes anything from images of the people he encounters to the conditions they have to live with. These digital expressions act as a juxtaposition from the work people usually associated with Weiwei but they relay instant and important messages. Through this platform, the artist can posts daily and continual images that highlight the struggle these people are facing, meaning that the issue can never fade out of sight. It would be impossible for Weiwei to erect one of his large scale sculptures everyday or have an exhibition in every city in the world, but through the Internet he can spread his political and artistic message and people are able to interact with it almost instantly with Weiwei’s Instagram page having over two hundred thousand followers. You don’t need to be an art buff to recognise and acknowledge the suffering that the people in these images are facing and therefore by utilising social media, the artist can speak to a brand new audience and spread the message of their plight even further.
The refugee crisis is important and it should not be ignored, and with figures like Weiwei the world is waking up and the permeation of this political crisis into the world of art shows that this issue cannot and should not be ignored. Throughout history, art has been there to express some of the most important moments that define the world that we live in and I think Weiwei’s work is no exception. Art and culture can hold so much power and through these sculptures, photographs and videos, this power is being harnessed and I believe it can go a lot further. Ai Weiwei is an artist who has taken on both his own suffering and the suffering of others and has managed to take a stand through his work, and if you enjoy Weiwei’s piece perhaps you should consider stepping up and trying to make a difference too.