Images of flight and change energize a new exhibition by Ai Weiwei | Arts | DW | 14.07.2016
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Images of flight and change energize a new exhibition by Ai Weiwei

Lifejackets abandoned by migrants on beaches and a Chinese temple are the centerpieces of "translocation - transformation" in Vienna. The exhibition is informed by the Chinese artist's first-hand experience as a refugee.

From a distance, they look like water lilies: 1,005 used lifejackets, left behind by refugees on beaches in Greece. Arranged on 201 floating rings in Belvedere Park, they form the letter "F," which stands for "Flüchtling," the German word for "refugee."

Expressing sheer desperation, the image is Ai Weiwei's plea for more humanity on the issue. "It says so much about our times," said the activist artist at the opening of the exhibition, "translocation - transformation," in Vienna on Wednesday (13.07.2016).

Attention-getting artist

"I never would have thought that at age 55, I'd learn a new lesson in humanity," commented Alfred Weidinger. Clearly moved, the exhibition's curator pointed to Ai Weiwei's activism on behalf of refugees and described the uproar directed at the artist after he'd photographically reconstructed the now-iconic image of a dead refugee boy on a beach.

Critics accused Ai of exploiting the plight of refugees for his own purposes, and commentaries like "a scandal," "too blunt" and "to hell with Ai Weiwei" proliferated on Facebook and Twitter.

The 58-year-old has lived with his partner and son in Berlin during the past year. The move came after four years of house arrest in Beijing, during which he was able to organize numerous exhibitions in Western museums, often with content critical of the Chinese regime. called him "China's most dangerous man," and Art Review magazine dubbed him "the most powerful artist in the world."

Mixed reviews

In an article titled "Our Favorite Chinese," Germany's weekly "Die Zeit" noted that Ai Weiwei's artworks were made for export to the West. When they criticized capitalism, it was reliably the Chinese state-organized variety, and "State-organized spying is always Chinese spying, not that done by the NSA." The newspaper explained the artist's popularity thus: "If you love him, you're on the safe side. In his art, the world becomes understandable again."

Ai Weiwei in Gaza. (c) Reuters/M. Salem

Ai Weiwei working on a documentary with young Palestinian women in Gaza

At the end of his house arrest and his journey to Europe, the regime critic began to speak of the Chinese government in more conciliatory terms - for which he was sharply criticized by other Chinese civil rights activists.

Artist and refugee

Now a professor at Berlin's University of the Arts, Ai Weiwei has devoted art projects and documentary films to the refugee crisis. That, he says, comes naturally, as his art and activism are informed by personal experience: "I grew up in refugee camps while my father was forced to clean public toilets." In statements released before the opening of the new exhibition in Vienna, the artist declared that he knew what it is like to be discriminated against and oppressed.

In February 2016, Ai Weiwei decorated pillars of Berlin's Konzerthaus at the Gendarme Market - also with lifejackets collected on Greek beaches. A month later, he had a white grand piano transported into the mud of the Greek refugee camp at Idomeni, on which a Syrian pianist gave a recital. On the island of Lesbos, Ai is currently planning a memorial for migrants who died in transit.

Art gigantic - and small

Other objects to be seen at the Vienna exhibition until November 20 also contain messages, albeit more subtle ones. In one instance, an ancient Chinese ancestors' hall was dissected into 1,300 pieces and shipped to Vienna. The 14-meter-high (46-foot) wooden structure from the late Ming Dynasty (1388-1644) was then reassembled in the "21er Haus" (House 21). Once belonging to a family of tea merchants expelled during China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the temple is now on display outside China for the first time.

The central artifact of the audacious project thus had a geographical goal - but equally important, said curator Alfred Weidinger, was the journey. To emphasize this, he'd set up a website where people could trace that journey via GPS.

Exhibition of colorful life vests in Vienna's Belvedere park. Copyright: picture alliance/dpa/C. Bruna

Beautiful image with a serious background

On display are not only monumental but also miniature objects - including a tiny house constructed of tea leaves, itself standing on a tea leaf, in a nod to Ai Weiwei's Chinese heritage.

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