Sunday, January 31, 2016

From forced artistic migrant to dark/slum tourist? Reconsidering Ai Wei Wei’s artistic-activist mobility

Little introduction is necessary to Ai Weiwei: discussed in the international press and the global blogosphere as an activist, in personal interviews he displays a mobile identity as a professional and a travel imaginary and style as an artist. Son of one of China's most famous poets (Ai Qing) that was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, he carried his father’s activism through his artwork, prompting the Chinese authorities to imprison him and the government to confiscate his passport for several months. To date, the politics of Weiwei’s artwork, which, despite the CCP’s hostility retain a left-wing sentiment, complement his digital activism: for a long time he maintained a blog from which he critiqued the government until his arrest on 3 April 2011 on allegations of financial misdemeanours. Blogs and websites supporting the communist regime airbrushed his Olympic contribution (the Bird’s Nest conceptualisation is attributed to him), presenting him as a difficult individual, a liar and a trouble-maker without a cause (Chen, 18 August 2007). His more recent release allowed him to travel the world again, setting up new art projects and slowly resuming his combating politics on and offline. Amongst those, his recent announcement that he will set up a studio on the Greek island of Lesbos, where he also calls for the construction of a monument dedicated to migrants and refugees, generated international commentary. Posing today next a UNHCR worker, he promises that his studios in Beijing and Berlin would be involved in the production of new material focusing on the crisis, and that the Lesbos studio would be occupied by six to ten of his students (Neunedorf, 4 January 2016).

The world needs such individuals committed to the values of human dignity and freedom, even when we proceed to consider the limitations of any formalised discourse on human rights. But when such commitment develops in international policy coordination voids, it can transform into an exploitation tool. Note that I am not interested in challenging the artist’s status as a global humanitarian icon, only to highlight the complexity in which his humanitarian actions exist and develop. This complexity extends to the position of the nation-state in which his current activism takes place, especially with regards to the Grexit from the EU, as well as wider neoliberal articulations of unfettered mobility and creative work in a borderless world.

Weiwei’s involvement in the politics of Lesbos, currently one of the main entry points to Europe for refugees, especially from war-ridden countries such as Syria, involves sharing images on Instagram from the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island to expose the migrants' difficult living conditions, as well as a video of aid workers helping people off a rubber dinghy as they arrive from Turkey to the Greek island. It seems harmless, right? The twist in the story is how Weiwei’s gesture prompted other unregulated initiatives, including the one orchestrated by, a global community campaigning in 15 languages, served by a core team on 6 continents and thousands of volunteers, to circulate a petition online. The petition, which is accompanied by images of a Jesus-like volunteer saving a child from the sea, is addressed to the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee and states the following:

Ordinary residents of Greek islands and other volunteers have been on the front lines of Europe’s refugee crisis for months, opening up their hearts and homes to save hundreds of thousands fleeing war and terror. For their compassion and courage, for treating those in danger with humanity, and for setting an example for the rest of the world to follow, we citizens from around the world, nominate these brave women and men for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Again, this looks commendable. But the petition seems to be signed by every Greek and Cypriot, and shared by Greeks abroad and from Greece with a hint of ethno-nationalist pride hard to miss. The petition circulates via social media such as Facebook and Google+ and is supported by the British newspaper The Guardian. Together, the ethno-nationalist subtext of such ‘democratising’ gestures and the foreign discourse on the mobilities of the disenfranchised do an amazing job at changing the global profile of the island: constant news about the massive influx of refugees has driven away the tourists that Lesbos used to attract due to its rich heritage and clear beaches, turning the island now into a much larger and more compassionate Lampedusa (Squires, 23 February 2015). With Greece cracking under the burden of a massive debt that drove even the left-wing government of SYRIZA to adopt unsustainable domestic policies, this combination of sorry nationalist resentment (‘our common people are saviours of less fortunate humans than themselves’) and of slum tourism (‘local volunteers display resilience to their own woes and their heroism merits rewarding’), consolidates continuations between what tourist theory discusses as thanatopsis and thanatourism, tourism to sites of misery and death (Seaton, 1996). In other words, like Weiwei’s photo elicitations of human misery, the petition allows signatories to feel good for contributing to a cause from afar, as digital tourists to the Moria camp, through practices of confronting/looking at (ópsis) the death (thánatos) of others (refugees).

Did Weiwei set the wheel of such consumption spectacle in motion? Perhaps not, perhaps he did. What is certainly interesting is that he was allowed to enter one of the most affected (by a combined global migration and recession crisis) domains, in a crippled state, lacking coordinated policing, so as to set up shop for humanitarian and artistic pursuits. Like most well-meaning slum tourists, who enter dark domains of national memory (Lesbos was also one of the main entry points to the Greek state for Anatolian Greek populations fleeing Turkish massacres after the end of the last Greek-Turkish War of 1919-1922), his actions (art complete with activism) can now fill in the gap left behind by Greek domestic institutions looking after the welfare of citizens and guests (Favell, 2015: 166). Not only can he make Lesbos and Greece internationally famous as humanitarian hotspots that 'survive' the worst economic storm of the last two centuries, he can also invite more deregulated business to thrive. Does Lesbos’ economic and socio-cultural future rest with slum tourism operators attracting global volunteers to visit the pain of others? Or does it rest with a photogenic narrative of emotional and political darkness staged ‘from afar’, for the benefit of global media conglomerates? Where are the institutions that can manage such artistic, digital and activist flows? And does Ai Weiwei enjoy his casting as a signifier of the new Grand Tourist, the romantic artistic-activist traveller, who wants to ‘do good’ but ends up doing more than that?  Only he knows.

Seaton, A.V. (1996) ‘Guided by the dark: From thanatopsis to thanatourism’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2 (4): 234-44. (undated) ‘Nobel Peace Prize for Greek Islanders’. HTTP: (accessed 31 January 2016).
Squires, N. (23 February 2015)The shocking abuse refugees endure at the hands of people smugglers in Libya’, The Telegraph. HTTP: (accessed: 31 January 2016)
Chen, P. (18 August 2007) ‘Ai Weiwei hates his Bird’s Nest’, Shanghaiist. HTTP: (accessed: 18 April 2011).
Favell, A. (2015) ‘Echigo-Tsumari and the art of the possible: The Fram Kitagawa philosophy in theory and practice’, in F. Kitagawa (ed.) Art Place Japan. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 143-173.
Neuendorf, H. (4 January 2016) ‘Ai Weiwei Sets Up Lesbos Studio and Calls for Monument Dedicated to Refugees’, Art News. HTTP: (accessed: 31 January 2016).

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