Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei is embroiled in a controversy that has damaged his international reputation and threatens to sink his humanitarian activist brand. The Washington Post's Rama Lakshmi sycophantically called it a huge artistic tribute (LINK HERE) when the corpulent art star laid on the beach of the Isle of Lesbos for the media. He was mimicking the now-iconic 2015 photo of the body of refugee toddler Alan Kurdi washed ashore.
This Ai Wei Wei stunt strikes me as crass - gross, even https://t.co/i5uA5kIAoV
— Joshua Foust (@joshuafoust) February 1, 2016
What in the hell was Ai Wei Wei thinking? His brainless fans insist he did this to draw attention to the refugee crisis. Think about the stupidity of this sentiment. After worldwide attention to the crisis coalesced around this harrowing, moving photo, somehow an adult making a glorified selfie is supposed to ... what? What is it supposed to do? Seriously, what is his ham-handed pose supposed to do that the photo of Alan Kudri has not already done? There could not be a soul alive more moved to take action about the refugee crisis from this posed picture of an art star than from that original stark image.
To answer what it was supposed to do, let's look at why Ai Wei Wei was there in the first place. From the same Washington Post article we learn that Ai Wei Wei was "collecting rubber pieces of the boats" from the immigrants fleeing the Middle East. And why was he after this scrap? Sadly, too believably, it is for an art installation project of his. While he might be, as reported, assisting refugees from their boats at the shore, he is definitely there to capitalize on tragedy and turn relics of this agony into art for sale.
Ah, but it is somehow special because that art is conceptual art and it is made by him. Ai Wei Wei's conceptual art will likely be a craftsmanship-free abstract blob that is significant only because it has little chunks of ships that carried the vulnerable into oblivion. This is a conceptual art far removed from that of Marcel Duchamp. When pioneering his art that rejected retinal delight and commitment to craftsmanship, Duchamp also dispensed with art history's fetish for reliquary. For almost 2,000 years, the Catholic Church had venerated the bones and organs and clothing of saints as reliquaries divining power from their mere physical association. Ai Wei Wei's insipid reliquaries derived from tragedy tourism revive this long-ignored vein of pre-modernist conceptual art, and conveniently mannered in the international art fair style for quick consumption.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The West loved Ai Wei Wei when he was persecuted by the Peoples Republic of China, hailing him as a one-dimensional icon of art as activism. With this refugee crisis, Ai Wei Wei has the perfect opportunity to ask his motherland to take in Muslim refugees, to integrate them with the Muslim Uyghur minority in China's southwest provinces. But something this sophisticated and confrontational would earn him a death sentence. His saintly posture guilt-trips the West while his former incarcerator uses him as a propaganda tool and as the brand leader for the export-only Chinese contemporary art market.
There are words to describe a person who shows up at places where the media are covering tragedy. There is terminology to describe people who insert themselves into crises without any previous or future commitments. None of those words are artist. None of that terminology includes art. But there is a word to sum up what Ai Wei Wei did when he mocked tragedy and used the death of a young boy as a prop of self-promotion. That word is disappointment, and it can scar one for life.