A child with his thumbs up. A few scenic views of the ocean. A rubber dinghy. Some shots of two blokes – one of whom has his eyes closed. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Ai Weiwei’s latest exhibit at Humanity House in The Hague is akin to feigning interest in your uncle’s holiday snaps.
In fact, you wouldn’t be far from the mark. “Since his first visit to the Greek island of Lesbos in December 2015, the Instagram feed of Ai Weiwei and his team has become something of a real-time news service”, reads the exhibition’s introductory text. They depart, however, from being any old Insta feed in that the 16,500 iPhone stills covering the walls are the ‘travel’ snaps of refugees through Germany, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Gaza and Kenya.
Ai Weiwei, internationally renowned contemporary artist, is not one to shun the banality of social media. In fact, he began blogging in 2005, only to have his blog shut down in 2009. He turned to Twitter, claiming to have spent up to eight hours a day on the site. Due to his criticisms of the Chinese government he has been imprisoned, beaten, placed under house arrest, had his studio destroyed, and been under heavy surveillance. Numerous art galleries, including the Tate Modern, visually joined in the call for his release from prison in 2011.
Though Ai Weiwei is undiscerning in his platforms, his message is unchanging: the struggle against injustice.
Given his preamble, and his subject matter, I entered the exhibit just off Prinsegracht expecting to be profoundly moved. I scoured the pictures for meaning – a sodden bible, children playing on an iron fence, “movement of freedom” sprayed onto a wall. And yet, amidst the ubiquitous ‘wefies’ and five-shot-overkill of each scene, it was hard to find the headspace to search at all.
“As a political refugee, Ai Weiwei feels an affinity with the growing numbers of migrant who are trying to reach Europe”, I read the introductory text again. Proximity, yes – but affinity?
Like so many social media feeds, meaning is so fleeting, and there’s precious time for depth. Perhaps, I realise, this is the point. I came to the exhibition looking for connection with a crisis beyond my experience; watching refugees – who’ve just crossed an ocean with nothing except their clothes – grin for a photo or flick the V for Victory bemusingly co-opted by the selfie-generation, I realise we humans are pitifully united in our relentless, defiant, foolish, determination to smile and pose.
Across a smuggler-trafficked-nightmare of dissimilarity, yes, we have related. Joshua Parfitt 20th December 2017
Ai Weiwei’s RELATING TO REFUGEES continues until 31st December