‘Staged’ vs ‘Faked’: Ai Weiwei as Aylan Kurdi

Chinese artivist Ai Weiwei has been stationed in Lesbos documenting the daily arrival of refugees, which is (was) to say that he was playing the role of a photojournalist. His photographs are published via social networks and his main goal seems to be to draw attention to the crisis and our active role on it, while choosing to stay passive.

On January 27th, protesting against the law that allows Danish authorities to seize valuables from asylum seekers, Ai Weiwei shut down his exhibition, Ruptures, at the Faurschou Foundation, in Copenhagen. The Guardian printed a statement from the artivist justifying his actions: “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.” […]“I am pointing at all those governments who are not really facing up to this humanitarian crisis. And are not solving the problem, how to end this tragedy. It has not ended, it still continues. No nation can separate themselves.

Ai Weiwei is known for his ethics, his sense of justice, but also for the way his practice gains moment from the tragedies he engages with. Now and again he draws attention to humanitarian crisis. However, now and again, another discussion sparks, one that concerns his artistic practice and the artistic value (as opposed to the historical value) of his works.

Although he is an artivist, Ai Weiwei is also a contemporary pop artist, so his work is usually born of the remains of the very same society that propels him to create. Whether acting as a collector or a gatherer, he appropriates the collective imagery to shine a light on current events. That is his modus operandi. No one doubts that sometimes this strategy fails redundantly. It may be the case with the appropriation of the death scene of the Syrian boy who the world got to know by the name of Aylan Kurdi.

Migrant boat accident in Turkey
Aylan Kurdi photograph, September 2015
Weiwei
Ai Weiwei, for India Today.

I wouldn’t be writing about this (yes, it has been a long time since I last wrote here) if I didn’t care about the issue, but it’s fair to state that I also care about the defense of Ai Weiwei. Let’s not be hypocrites: contemporary art is very dependent on the stardom of its makers. Artists like Ai Weiwei and Marina Abramovic have become brands. But there are big differences between the two: while Marina wants to be the brand, which is to say she wants to be the product of her labor, her body of work, she is the commodity; Ai markets himself to bring attention to the objects of his concern, which is not to say that he isn’t also making money from the crisis.

E-flux editor Karen Archey wrote about this episode making her point across with great assurance. Archey first explains the context in which the photograph was staged – “[t]he Chinese artist was being interviewed by India Today while the photo was taken, and apparently wanted use the photo op to show solidarity with the dead Kurdish refugee toddler” – and then attacks the cultural opportunity, for now the photograph is being showed at the Indian Art Fair.

Archey’s premise is that no one should “accept capital gain from restaging images of dead refugee toddlers”. I couldn’t agree more. But that’s not the end of it. In her words: “Rather than placing his work in the public square (why isn’t Instagram enough?), Ai turns time and again to the gallery, department store, or art fair. Further, while Ai’s work is a misguided act of solidarity, the artist fails to consider that by posing as Alan Kurdi, he effectively suggests that the image of a dead three-year-old isn’t sufficiently shocking to us, that we need instead an image of a middle-aged, wealthy and powerful man to confer the real tragedy of the refugees’ plight.

Now my point is: are we really forced to interpret his reenactment as an act that devaluates and humiliates both the life of Aylan Kurdi and the strength of the original photograph? Can’t the obvious theatricality of the moment be also a critic on all of us? Wasn’t the original image staged? And do ‘staged’ and ‘faked’ mean the same? If it was in fact staged (as Katie Hopkins claims to have been), does that theatricality changes the truthfulness of such reality?

Ai Weiwei’s art is political. His art is engaged, so trying to separate his art and his activism is pointless. That’s not to say that his doing is always without interest, although the biggest problem I see lies in the mind of the observer

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Ai Weiwei’s photograph, via Instagram.
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Ai Weiwei’s photograh, via Instagram.

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