Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 31, 2017

Ai Weiwei and the refugee crisis

Filed under: art,Film,refugees — louisproyect @ 10:21 pm

Until February 11th, 2018 New York City will be hosting a public art exhibit by Ai Weiwei titled “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”, an ironic reference to the refugee crisis that is the subject of his documentary “Human Flow” now playing at the Landmark W. 57th and Angelika theaters in New York.

The exhibit is divided into two types of works. The first are structures such as those seen in this video:

The Public Art Fund, which funded and organized the exhibit, describes the Washington Square and uptown structures as follows:

Ai often visited Washington Square Park when he lived nearby in the 1980s, drawn to its vitality as a hub for creative and political expression. His 37-foot-tall steel cage echoes the iconic form of the marble arch, which commemorates George Washington leading the nation toward democracy. While seeming to create an obstruction, Ai opens a passageway through its center in the silhouette of two united figures. Visitors are able to pass through, reflected in an undulating ribbon of polished stainless steel. Their outline takes its form from Marcel Duchamp’s 1937 Door for Gradiva, created to frame the entrance to Andre Breton’s art gallery in Paris. This is fitting reference to the immigrant conceptual artist since Duchamp used to play chess in Washington Square Park, and once notoriously made his way to the top of the park’s arch with a group of other bohemian poets and artists.

For the entrance to Central Park, Ai has created a giant gilded cage that simultaneously evokes the luxury of Fifth Avenue and the privations of confinement. Visitors are able to enter its central space, which is surrounded by bars and turnstiles. Functioning as a structure of both control and display, the work reveals the complex power dynamics of repressive architecture.

The other structures are described as fences and tend to be less ambitious. All of them are meant as metaphors for the enforced isolation of refugees behind fences. Although it is not obvious at first blush, there is a fence positioned vertically between the two red buildings at 48 East 7th Street that is described as followed on the Public Art website:

Since the 19th century, successive waves of immigrants have settled on the Lower East Side. Many who landed at Ellis Island made it their home. Throughout the city, lamppost banners portray those arrivals, as well as notable exiles and contemporary refugees. Works that combine images and texts about the conditions and experiences of refugees replace bus shelter advertisements. Also in this historic neighborhood, a narrative series at Essex Street Market depicts refugees’ epic journeys, while fence installations at 189 Chrystie Street and 248 Bowery appear unexpectedly, spanning rooftops between buildings.

There are also a series of bus stop shelter installations whose meanings are probably obscure to those waiting for a bus.

Considering the description at Public Art, they would be lost on most people as well:

The artist’s structures installed around ten JCDecaux bus shelters in Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx embellish transportation infrastructure to highlight the fundamental human right of free movement. Making subtle reference to the Art Nouveau curves of Hector Guimard’s famous Paris Metro entrances, Ai brings a new aesthetic to the utilitarian language of metal fencing while incorporating additional public seating for passersby. As a complement to the sculptural installations surrounding this urban street furniture, the artist has also created artworks from documentary images to be displayed on this bus shelter and others city-wide. Like all of the works in the exhibition, it subverts our traditional expectations, here co-opting spaces generally reserved for advertising to call our attention to the dire circumstances faced by millions of displaced people.

Here’s an example of a replacement ad that is part of the bus stop installations:

Finally, there are hundreds of banners that appear on lampposts around the city such as this on Park Avenue between 89th and 90th Street about 5 minutes from my apartment building:

It depicts a refugee on the island of Lesvos, Greece, which has served as the entry point into Europe for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Senegal, Syria, Somalia, Cameroon, and elsewhere. “Human Flow” spends a considerable amount of time on Lesvos, where Weiwei shows great compassion for the refugees. To be honest, I am not sure what effect a banner such as this will have on people living on Park Avenue since they are rightfully described in the 60th and 5th structure as living in a gilded cage. In fact, for all practical purposes, we are living in a new Gilded Era.

I had mixed reactions to the two structures I filmed above. In Washington Square, I asked a number of people what they thought about the structure and the refugee crisis. An Australian tourist taking iPhone snapshots replied that they had problems with refugees there and left it at that. A New Yorker and self-described lesbian told me that she had no idea what the structure meant and had no idea that there was a city-wide exhibit by Ai Weiwei on the refugee crisis. Others appeared to be the typical selfie-taking tourists and not worth wasting time on. The most considered response was from a German woman tourist who thought the whole thing was unfortunate and was leading to big problems in her country because it pitted poor Germans against the newcomers who blamed the refugees for a cut in their own benefits. The whole encounter in Washington Square left me depressed.

It was a different story uptown. I spotted a couple looking to be in their sixties inside the gilded cage who turned out to be literature professors from St. Paul’s University in Japan on vacation here. He was a transplanted New Yorker and she was originally from Japan. He did most of the talking and sounded like someone who wrote for Salon. They were both deeply sympathetic to Ai Weiwei and outraged by the tsunami of xenophobia sweeping the planet. I suppose that their viewing of Ai Weiwei’s work was the polar opposite of the selfie-taking tourists in the Village. The two takes illustrate the great divide worldwide, which is not so much between the left and the right but between those who still have a heart and brain versus the great Idiocracy.

A few words about “Human Flow”.

I attended a press screening a couple of months ago but never got around to writing a review, mostly because I have been so burnt out over the refugee crisis, particularly how it affects Syrians. I have easily written a dozen film reviews about the refugee crisis in both narrative and documentary genres. I was just at a loss for words after seeing “Human Flow”.

Returning to it now, I can recommend it as a powerful work even if it can leave you exhausted (especially at 140 minutes.) It is a world tour of the refugee crisis with stops in Lesvos as mentioned above, the Mexican border, Rohingya and Palestinian refugee camps.

Throughout it all, Weiwei interacts with the refugees trying to mix compassion with his own self-deprecating humor. It is a film worth seeing, especially if you have not seen one on the refugee crisis before.

Keeping in mind that Nazism was made possible by the scapegoating of Jewish refugees from an economically devastated Eastern Europe who flooded into Germany in the 1920s, “Human Flow” is deeply relevant to our period.

Given Ai Weiwei’s take on the super-rich on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I wonder what he would say about Xi Jinping, the current “socialist” leader of China. As an expatriate from China who is deeply familiar with the hypocrisy of its billionaire Communists, I only hope that he will find time to hold their feet to the fire in his next public art exhibit.

Ai Weiwei’s father was Ai Qing, one of China’s leading poets and a powerful figure in the Communist Party. In 1957 he made the mistake of opposing the persecution of Ding Ling, another Communist leader and writer, during an “anti-rightist” campaign. Accused now of “rightism”, Ai Qing was banished to a state farm and his work went unpublished for another 20 years.

Obviously, Ai Weiwei inherited both his father’s talent as well as the courage of his convictions. He was the chief architect for the 2008 Olympics stadium in Beijing that he eventually disavowed. In a statement, he not only attacked China for cracking down on dissidents but—warming the cockles of my heart—lashed out at Stephen Spielberg for his cozy connections to the CP bosses: “All the shitty directors in the world are involved. It’s disgusting. I don’t like anyone who shamelessly abuses their profession, who makes no moral judgment. It is mindless.”

Like the late Roger Ebert, Ai Weiwei became totally involved with the Internet to get out his ideas, both through blogging and Tweeter. After a mammoth earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 that cost the lives of more than 5000 children due to shoddy construction, he created a work in their memory that like Maya Ling’s Vietnam Memorial is simply a list of their names. He used Twitter to gather together the names of the children.

A year later the Chinese cops conducted a raid on his apartment and beat him so badly that he required emergency brain surgery.

Not content to use physical violence, the state has also tried to pressure him into keeping quiet through legal persecution over alleged tax evasion. If you enter aiweiwei.com as a URL, you will be directed to fakecase.com that has the facts on the latest round of repression. On April 6, 2011, Xinhua News Agency reported: “Ai Weiwei is suspected of economic crimes and is now being investigated according to the law.” Considering the amount of corruption at the highest levels that the top officials of the CP are engaged in, it is a stunning exercise of chutzpah for the state to single him out for obviously trumped-up charges.

For $2.99 you can watch a great documentary on Ai Weiwei titled “Never Sorry”. Never Sorry? Doesn’t that mean something like Unrepentant?

1 Comment »

  1. Hello Louis Proyect,
    I’m submitting a rather caustic review concerning Weiwei’s Berlin installation. Rather than protesting the refugee crisis, I find him colluding with governments in offering tepid protests against ruling class crimes – protests which cause only mild liberal frisson, while pointing accusing fingers at … no one. His harassment by authorities proves only that they have chosen him as the official dissenter, nice and safe. Not good enough! say I!
    Best regards,
    Doug Williams

    People’s Choice: Ai Weiwei or The Highway?
    Posted on February 26, 2016 by Doug Williams
    “Ai Weiwei Wraps the Columns of Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 Salvaged Refugee Life Vests!”

    I’m generally against aestheticizing human suffering (pace Picasso) in the name of politics: efforts other than revolutionary slogans scrawled by proletarian artists on alley walls seem patronizing and smug. Has expensive “conceptual art” ever adequately addressed crimes against humanity? I think any creative gesture that fails to make current world leaders run for cover is simultaneously collaborationist and a defence of the status quo. This “work” by Ai Weiwei will be of little comfort to surviving parents of drowned children, nor will it threaten or deter those responsible for the crimes it purports to address.

    But it will give succour to a layer of well-to-do aesthetes who imagine that daring “engagement” with the un-named enemies of humanity has been achieved on their behalf. “Speak truth to power” is sometimes their credo, their having failed to notice – despite repeated hints – that power doesn’t give a shit. The installation’s impotence as a political act is beneath measure, with appeal only to art-world toads who engage in a nihilist and self-referential “analysis” of such works. Radical protest at the plight of refugees is sorely needed, but this stuff is not it.

    The worst thing about this expensive, media-celebrated installation is that it allows the ruling class and the rich to “own” public sympathy for the victims of the refugee crisis. “See?” says the art, “We’re all shedding tears together for the victims of this very troubled world.” The notion shifts the blame from the powerful – who are the authors of the crises that make people flee their homes and countries – to “our flawed common humanity.”

    I’m thoroughly fed up with Weiwei’s public installations that, in the words of one apologist, “engage with policy.” Modest levels of a tepid “Refugee Awareness” may result, but mass protests will be absent, because installations such as this help to dampen public rage. Given the daily crimes committed by the powerful class that rules us, can you honestly believe that they do anything but laugh at this fatuous “artistic” gesture? Hell no! They’ll even pay for it!

    The installation’s intellectual-symbolic quality manages to insulate its elite supporters from accusations of genuine radical outcry, lest it tarnish their reputations and jeopardize their incomes. As for the German and international film glitterati who confront this “art” on their way into the Konzerthaus, I doubt that it has the slightest impact, other than engendering contempt for those who would remind them of their criminal collusion.

    Appreciation of Ai Weiwei’s installation is predicated on belief that governments are working tirelessly to solve the refugee crisis and end war. But the opposite is true: immigrants are being permitted entry to host countries because capitalism wants cheap, non-union, thankful-to-be-here labour. War is great for business.

    Does Weiwei’s installation express moral outrage and genuine sympathy for drowning victims? The act of hanging their life preservers on high pillars – the way medieval victors hanged bodies from battlements and heads on poles – can be interpreted differently. I suspect that in neoliberalism’s war on the poor and defenceless, the installation is emblematic of victory over ethical politics, humane standards, and the struggle for a just world.

    But things are due to change. As we said in the 1960s, “Ethics is the aesthetic of the future.”

    https://douglasglwilliams.wordpress.com/blah-blah/

    Comment by Doug Williams — November 1, 2017 @ 1:03 am


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