What does the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei hope to do by replicating the image of the 3-year-old’s demise on a Lesbos beach?
The 58-year-old artist—infamously detained and banned from exhibiting his work by the Chinese authorities, and subsequently something of a political and cultural hero—has been spending time on the Greek island, monitoring the plight of refugees.
“It’s an idea that came quite spontaneously,” Weiwei told CNN.
“The photographer [Rohit Chawla] and journalist [from India Today] asked me to pose for a photo near the beach and to close my eyes. We had talked about the image of the boy, so I had that on my mind.”
“You see so many children come off these boats. They are like angels—they are the most vulnerable. You can see the world has put them in extreme, hopeless conditions. There are two worlds—a world of adults and a world of babies, and they are not connected.
“I was standing there and I could feel my body shaking with the wind—you feel death in the wind. You are taken by some kind of emotions that you can only have when you are there. So for me to be in the same position [as Kurdi], is to suggest our condition can be so far from human concerns in today’s politics.”
But while his intentions are admirable, many things ring discordant about Ai’s image. First, in no way at all can his and Kurdi’s situations be seen as equivalent. Kurdi was a defenseless 3-year-old boy, while Ai is an internationally known and lauded artist.
Of course, in the moment—with wind and cold whipping around one’s body and with an artist’s imagination—one could imagine oneself as akin to a refugee. Ai has watched refugees and their suffering and endurance for months.
But identification and impersonation are separate, and Ai is an artist, an observer, and not a participant.
However keenly Ai feels for the refugees—and one wonders if his own experience of state persecution has intensified such an identification—he has also been photographing them, and using them as artistic inspiration. Like many a documentarian, he is negotiating the blurred lines between empathy and artistic engagement.
Ai’s image is also conceptually weak: It is an image in testament to another image—an original image that stands on its own in terms of sheer horror and impact, and which doesn’t need any further visual underscoring by a bad copy.
The original image was so shocking because Kurdi was so small and his death so stark. There is an unbridgeable gap between it, and the image of a large-bodied, 58-year-old man in a much more gently somnambulant pose. The two images couldn’t be more different in their emotional impact.
Kurdi’s image stands on its own in its horror, and its winding emotional punch; it does not need replica images or echo-images.
There is also something oddly egotistical in Ai’s decision to ape it to make his own political point. Was his thinking: The original picture is world famous, so am I, let’s create a shocking image combining both?
The problem with seeking to maximize publicity in such a way is that the original picture featured a small child, a small dead child, head down in the surf, physically dead. An adult policeman loomed above this child, looking sadly down, and then, cradling him tenderly, scooped him up.
Everything about the reality of that picture was also its horror.
Ai’s black-and-white pastiche is tasteful in comparison: The shock of it isn’t in what it shows, but in the decorous way it is composed, and how impossibly short its stylized solemnity falls in comparison to the original.
The horror of that original picture starkly symbolized the plight of Syrian refugees, whereas Ai’s copy is bloodless, self-consciously arty and artistic, and certainly more winsome than piercing.
However, we should not doubt Ai’s passionate beliefs around the refugee issue. He has been posting pictures of refugees and refugee life from Lesbos for some time.
The photograph of him playing dead on the beach followed Ai already closing one of his exhibitions in Denmark in protest at that country’s plan to take cash and valuables from refugees.
“My moments with refugees in the past months have been intense,” the artist told the Guardian, before the picture became public. “I see thousands come daily, children, babies, pregnant women, old ladies, a young boy with one arm.
“They come with nothing, barefoot, in such cold, they have to walk across the rocky beach. Then you have this news; it made me feel very angry.
“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.”
Ai’s anger is indisputably righteous and genuinely and keenly felt. Another image featured the artist himself holding a sign reading, “Safe Passage,” which was then held by some refugees too.
But in his bizarre beach-lying ego trip, Ai also demonstrates what can happen when artists blunder too unthinkingly into big political issues. Instead of highlighting their cause, in their effort to shock, they can undermine it.
Indeed, this is the biggest problem with Ai’s beach picture: it is all about him, and not about refugees, or the refugee crisis. It’s a pretty picture, whereas the picture of poor Aylan Kurdi—and all it stood for—was anything but.