Backlash against Ai Weiwei highlights our difficulty interpreting complex issues on our iPhones
Artist's tribute to Alan Kurdi unequivocally drives home his solidarity with refugees
Meanwhile, news that the bodies of nine migrants, including two babies, have been found off the coast of Turkey has failed to cause a stir on social media or on major news sites. Photographs of body bags and drowned children continue to appear, but none have roused public sympathy the way the viral image of Alan Kurdi did last September. Which is presumably why Weiwei, unperturbed by the hostile reaction to his actions in Lesbos last week, has accepted 14,000 lifejackets from Lesbos’ mayor in order to create an artwork that might hold the world’s attention for longer than a couple of days.
Rightly or wrongly, Weiwei employed no less than a sledgehammer to drive home his initial message of solidarity with refugees, but perhaps this says more about us than it does him. That it took the original harrowing image of Kurdi to soften public opinion about the crisis in the first place demonstrates what the artist was up against if he was going to be heard at all. While the decision to carry out the pose was spontaneous, as the artist told CNN, the action nevertheless raised important points about the refugee crisis and media engagement with it. Predictably, our fickle and mostly indifferent press moved on last year – and so did we. For a short time, Weiwei has forced the media spotlight back onto this critical issue while sacrificing his own image.
In the immediate aftermath of Weiwei’s photo going viral, social media users were quick to label the action as 'crude', 'disrespectful' and a 'publicity stunt'. The Guardian’s David Batty tweeted that it was 'lazy, cheap, crass' and a more measured analysis from Toby Fehily five days later maintained that it was a 'misfire'. An article published by AL Jazeera boldly stated that the photo would be the end of Weiwei as an artist.
Given Weiwei’s noble intent for the work, just why did the picture provoke such vitriol? Some of the most powerful artworks seeking to humanise the refugee crisis have appropriated their plight to force an empathetic viewpoint. Works such as 'Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi' by Mike Parr, 'America’s Family Prison' by Regina Jose Galindo and Adrian Paci’s 'Centro di Permanenza temporanea' are all works that are stunningly effective in doing so. Why does such explosive indignation occur only when a personal tragedy, rather than a universal tragedy, is used as a catalyst for change? We all know refugees young and old are drowning; perhaps if the original images relating to the catastrophes had never surfaced we’d have let Weiwei off the hook?
I think it is in part down to Weiwei’s complicity in allowing the image to go viral. Attention seeking acts like these are often self-serving: a bid by an amateur to get famous fast. But Weiwei is already extremely successful. This superstar of the contemporary art world has far more to lose than gain by 'exploiting' such an issue. It is ironic that the very people accusing Weiwei of conducting a publicity stunt are themselves using the opportunity to project a morally superior self by condemning the photo.
No – the reason Weiwei continues to use the medium of the Internet to express his ideas is because he knows that good art is of its time. Art nowadays is shrewd and antagonistic, just like the aggressively consumerist, image-saturated world we live in. Information has to be digestible and easy, so it makes sense for Weiwei to make art that is without nuance. An avid Twitter and Instagram user, Weiwei knows the power and absurdity of social media. His insatiable use of Instagram in Lesbos has been particularly apt recently: by posting an endless stream of pictures of the refugees’ plight, he infiltrates thousands of feeds across the world otherwise portraying idealized versions of people's lives. Instagram is a space where we turn a blind eye to the real world: Weiwei won’t let us.
It is the two-dimensionality of debate online that hasn't allowed for a balanced response to Weiwei’s political statement. Clickbait-heavy journalism in its current form breeds an obsession with forming opinions at breakneck speed that are absolute: an artist is a martyr or is disgusting; a mediocre show is out of this world or dreadful; absolutely all upcoming events are 'exciting'. Though boring, reality can’t always be summarised in a few smart words. If only to address the imbalance of opinion being espoused about Weiwei, I’ll stick my neck out and say his work in Lesbos is quite good.