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Ai Weiwei and the Superficial Politics of Victimhood

The image of Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei lying prostrate on a stony beach in Greece, recreating the now iconic photo of drowned Syrian infant Alan Kurdi, has predictably gone viral and generated fierce argument about the role of art and politics.

The problem with an image of this sort is that its meaning is endlessly debatable.

The image of Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei lying prostrate on a stony beach in Greece, recreating the now iconic photo of drowned Syrian infant Alan Kurdi, has predictably gone viral and generated fierce argument about the role of art and politics. For some the artist can do no wrong and the latest image is ‘powerful’ – a ‘provocation’ and a reminder of the plight of refugees. Others have been critical, with Niru Ratnam in the Spectator seeing the artist’s efforts as ‘crude thoughtless and egotistical’. In the Guardian, critic Toby Fehily called it a ‘misstep’ and asked why Ai Weiwei had not cancelled his blockbuster exhibition at Melbourne’s NGV, given the Governments ongoing policy of offshore detention of child refugees in Nauru.

The problem with an image of this sort is that its meaning is endlessly debatable. It’s possible to see Ai Weiwei’s gesture as simply a media stunt, a narcissistic attention grab, or a superficial politics that trades on recent tragedy. Conversely it’s possible to argue that the restaged image, with the artist in place of the small boy, says something about the nature of contemporary grief, where public sentiment attaches itself briefly to an image of loss, to someone’s devastation, then moves on. That there is something off-putting about a famous artist putting himself in the position of a boy who temporarily mobilised public emotion might well be the point. Think of the way media audiences are so ready to identify with people and causes in a way that suggests action but costs nothing – je suis Charlie, I’ll ride with you, and other modes of hashtag politics and digital slacktivism. These work through fleeting modes of identification and hollow solidarity with others we have never met, ideas whose implications are left unexamined. In a sense Ai Weiwei might be frustrating these efforts at identification by polluting the image that moved so many people and politicians, for a moment at least, before they returned to the same cruel and brutal refugee policies as before.

Yet to see this possibility in Ai Weiwei’s image is to engage in a reflexivity that the image does not easily invite. Moreover the artist’s statements over his reconstruction of Kurdi’s death have been disappointingly naïve – vague humanistic pronouncements about the different worlds of corrupt adults and innocent children, the emotional impact of standing at the shore where refugees arrive and so on. By highlighting the emotions and keeping the politics vague he evokes the worst aspects of his work – superficial political slogans and humanistic sentiments – and in this sense he replicates the very logic of victimhood that frustrates a deeper politics.

To the extent that the ‘other’ is able to generate sympathy or emotion in the West, this is due to their being depicted as passive – the abandoned child, the adult whose life is reduced to nothing. In such modes the other is robbed of agency – while the audience can feel something in the act of being ‘moved’ by another’s plight – never really being confronted by their demands or recognizing any complicity in the process. The West’s role in the creation of refugees and humanitarian crises though wars and military intervention is obscured in the invitation to make an emotional connection with the helpless victim. Meanwhile the figure of the terrorist is offered as a force of primitive evil or religious mania – divorced from the social or historical contexts that produce such figures.

In this sense how much more confronting would it be to have someone like Ai Weiwei adopt the identity of someone not so easy to like – a people smuggler or perhaps even a Syrian combatant? The jarring between the familiar and other, artistic celebrity and pariah might invite a more thorough-going questioning as to how such people end up like they are – and the West’s role in creating them. Such an image would be risky of course but it might have the capacity to force an audience to question the consequences of practising an emotional politics blind to the larger workings of power.

– Simon Cooper

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