Sometimes it feels like Ai Wei Wei’s prolific Instagram presence might threaten to undermine his vast body of work. One of the world’s most recognisable dissidents, he is arguably more well known for his use of social media to counter the Chinese government’s tactics during his detainment than he is his artwork.
For four years, a deceptively mundane stream of Instagram images were offered by the handle @aiww – screen grabs of Skype sessions with his six year old son, pictures of friends and assistants, pretty flowers, bicycles, streetscapes… We soon realised that these pictures were anything but ordinary, each one a subtle protest against China’s heavy handed surveillance of its citizens. Deciphering his cryptic messages became a game for his most dedicated followers, as they scrambled to be the first to decode the image. Rather than restricting his reach on the world, the Chinese government’s actions made a martyr out of Ai Wei Wei – one who engaged with his audience in a way that was witty, humorous and surprisingly candid. His ability to expose political nastiness to the outside world, under the nose of a country that infamously sanctions its citizens’ internet usage, was intriguing. And although Ai Wei Wei continued to conceive of and exhibit art globally during this time, it was this voyeuristic look inside his ongoing detainment that ensured he became the art world’s megastar. But now, a year after the Chinese government returned his passport, it’s time for his physical artwork to prove it has the ability to sustain his reputation.
Ai Wei Wei’s political activism hasn’t diminished since being granted permission to travel outside of China but it has changed focus, centring now on the global plight of refugees. Not long after his own tribulations ended, he set up a studio on the Greek island of Lesbos and began documenting the Syrian refugee crisis right at the point where asylum seekers were coming ashore from Turkey.
Again using Instagram as a conduit, he captured the faces of people arriving, their belongings, how they clung to each other as they disembarked their boats, and the joy as they reached land. He documented the processing queues, the aide workers, and the fear and anger experienced by everyone involved. Again, he relied on our voyeuristic tendencies to send the images viral.
Then came the highly controversial recreation of the photo that distressed the world, that of Alyan Kurdi’s tiny body washed up on a Turkish beach. It caused a furore, with Ai labelled as everything from disgusting to degenerate and back again. His supporters applauded his bravery, but not everyone was convinced of his motives.
In Berlin, he unveiled an installation at the city’s Konzerthaus that saw its columns wrapped in 14,000 discarded life vests retrieved from the shores of Lesbos. Created for the Cinema for Peace gala held in February 2016, it went some way to highlighting the vast number of refugees that had passed through the island, though photos on Ai’s Instagram account showed just how many more weren’t used.
Now, back in Greece, Ai Wei Wei has opened an exhibition simply titled ‘Ai Wei Wei at Cycladic’, his first major exhibition in the country, and the first time his work has been shown in an archaeological museum.
The result of a close collaboration between Ai Wei Wei and the Museum of Cycladic Art, the exhibition places significant works from the artist’s career amongst the museum’s renowned collection of Aegean art. One of these works, a five foot tall sculpture called ‘Standing Figure’ (2016), is Ai’s most recent attempt to articulate his opinion of governmental solidarity for refugees.
Quoted on the exhibition’s opening night, Ai Wei Wei explained further:
“We have to protect humanity. Through my art I’m trying to give a voice to people who might never be heard…I think it’s terrible that European governments are pushing refugees into Turkey. As an artist you use your emotions to communicate information to the world.”
Also included are earlier works utilising materials such as wood and marble, that draw a neat parallel between Ai Wei Wei’s practice and that of his Cycladic counterparts. Viewed as another of his symbolic images, it serves to further highlight Ai’s message of interconnectedness and reliance.
Ai Wei Wei has made an art form out of using social media to explore his ideas and transmit the results to his audience, but with ‘Ai Wei Wei at Cycladic’ he proves he’s more than just another social media junkie. The messages contained in his artworks are equally as confronting as those within his Instagram account, and in a week where international media sources are reporting in excess of 700 asylum seeker deaths in the Mediterranean alone, it is vital we understand them.
‘Ai Wei Wei at Cycladic’ runs until October 30th, 2016. For more information, check out the Cycladic Art Museum, Greece.