Memory and history combine in art at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century. Artists use their personal experiences to bring attention to human rights, social concerns and international tragedies. World events such as terrorism, racism and poor treatment of refugees combine artist and activist. Ai WeiWei, uses his personal experiences to create art that brings attention and empathy to social injustices around the world.
The empathy for refugees, who lack a sense of place and belonging, began early for WeiWei. At one years old WeiWei’s family was sent to a labor camp and then exiled for 16 years because of his poet father’s activities. Returning to China in 1976, WeiWei was eventually able to continue school and then travel to the United States for college. Returning to China, WeiWei’s passion for social justice was evident through his art, writings and activism. Weiwei was detained by the Chinese government for 81 days and unable to leave China for three years afterward because of his strong stance against the government’s brutality and dishonesty. Since his release, WeiWei has been active in his pursuit to publicize inhumanity in the world through documentaries and art installations. Ai Weiwei said, “I’m influenced by my father’s spirit, to speak out the truth and pay the consequences, and always stand on the part of the majority of the people, and not the power, not the government.”1
Weiwei’s piece “Law of the Journey” is a 230-foot inflated raft suspended from the ceiling of the installation space. There are 258 inflatable figures within the raft. There is no color in the piece—all the figures and the raft are black. The figures sitting toward the outside of the raft are larger than the figures toward the center indicating adults and children. The figures have neck pillow floating devices around their necks. The identical figures are 3-4 times larger than life size. There are 2 figures “floating” outside the piece in tire tubes. As a group the uniformed figures through their lack of individuality, size and color show evidence of a strong, united army. It is through the children crammed in the raft’s center, the adults hunched over to protect them and the lost souls outside the raft that the viewer realizes they are actually being confronted by a dense mass of the faceless, the vulnerable and the forgotten.
“Law of the Journey” is the accumulation of the artist’s personal experiences as a displaced person as well as his continued empathy for migrants and refugees. He has visited refugee camps in Greece, the Syrian-Turkey border and the US-Mexico border. “In this time of uncertainty, we need more tolerance, compassion and trust for each other since we all are one. Otherwise, humanity will face an even bigger crisis. There’s no refugee crisis, but only human crisis… In dealing with refugees we’ve lost our very basic values.” WeiWei has said.2 Weiwei uses his platform as a conceptual artist to bring light to injustices around the world that he personally feels attached too.
1. “Ai Weiwei Life is in Danger Every Day,” Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, accessed May 7, 2018, http://channel.louisiana.dk/video/ai-weiwei-life-danger-every-day.
2. Henri Neuendorf, “As Europe’s Refugee Crisis Mounts, Ai Weiwei Brings Massive Lifeboat Installation to Prague,” Art Net, accessed May 7, 2018, https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/ai-weiwei-investigates-migration-at-czech-museum-amid-refugee-related-eu-funding-dispute-889628.