Ai Weiwei Spotlights Refugee Crisis With Massive Art Installation in Prague

  • PRAGUE, Czech Republic
  • /
  • March 13, 2017

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Ai Weiwei's, Law of the Journey, installation in process.
National Gallery Prague

There’s no refugee crisis, but only human crisis… In dealing with refugees we’ve lost our very basic values, those words articulated by one of the world’s leading contemporary artists, Ai Weiwei, in response to the current humanitarian disaster, resonate the ethical legacy of the most important thinkers of our time. Giving powerful evidence of the shared experience of living in an uprooted world in which we are no longer ‘at home’, they define the role of art as a means to understand our complex reality, to instigate action and provide solace. 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, Ai Weiwei continues.

Installation in process of Ai Weiwei's, Law of the Journey in Prague
National Gallery Prague

After having presented the acclaimed set of sculptures, Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads in 2016, the National Gallery in Prague is set to host the Law of the Journey, the first exhibition (March 17, 2017, to January 7, 2018) in the Czech Republic (and in Central-Eastern Europe) of the distinguished Chinese contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei.

Himself a refugee, Ai has almost entirely focused his work on advocating the refugees’ human rights and documenting their tragic condition throughout the past two years. The humanitarian crisis has become especially dire since 2015 when the influx of refugees into Europe from Syria and elsewhere escalated dramatically. It has been described by the U.N. emergency relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien as ‘a slaughterhouse, a complete meltdown of humanity, the apex of horror’.

During his visits to refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesvos, or at the border between Greece and FYROM, Ai Weiwei conceived a number of art projects devoted to the contemporary global odyssey while filming the documentary Human Flow which will premiere in 2017. A devastating document of forced displacement, the film is ‘a personal journey, an attempt to understand the conditions of humanity in our days’.

The exhibition Law of the Journey is Ai Weiwei’s multi-layered, epic statement on the human condition: an artist’s expression of empathy and moral concern in the face of continuous, uncontrolled destruction and carnage. Hosted in a building of symbolic historical charge – a former 1928 Trade Fair Palace which in 1939–1941 served as an assembly point for Jews before their deportation to the concentration camp in Terezín – it works as a site-specific parable, a form of (public) speech, carrying a transgressive power of cathartic experience, but also a rhetoric of failure, paradox and resignation.

Like Noah’s Ark, a monumental rubber boat is a contemporary vessel of forced exodus, floating hopelessly within the immense, oceanic abyss of the Gallery’s post-industrial, cathedral-like Big Hall. Set for a journey across the unknown and the infinite, an overcrowded life raft carries ‘the vanguard of their people’, as Hannah Arendt described the illegal and the stateless in her seminal 1943 essay, We Refugees: over 300 figures, squeezed within the confines of a temporary shelter, undertake a journey ‘far out into the unnavigated’, fleeing violence and danger.

By this radical gesture of reconstructing a desperate act of plight as an anti-ornament of a humanity in decline, Ai Weiwei pays a powerful tribute to the human tragedy of the present moment as well as to humankind’s eternal desire for home and a sense of a belonging. Law of the Journey is a call for action and condemnation of the ignorance and blindness of the political and civic apparatus. The exhibition’s title alludes to Walter Benjamin’s reading of Franz Kafka’s ‘law of the journey (das Gesetz der Fahrt)’ as ’a route of unexpected reversals and distortions that derange casual connections between origins and destinations, wishes and fulfillments, annunciation of messages and their reception’.

The accompanying selection of Ai Weiwei’s previous works includes Laundromat (2016), a subversive portrait of dispossession and displacement, where the artist continues addressing the refugee crisis; With Flowers (2013–2015), Ai Weiwei’s specific attempt at a commemorative self-portrait in times of confinement; Snake Ceiling (2009), yet another moving monument in Ai Weiwei’s oeuvre, devoted to the 5,000 plus school children who lost their lives during a massive earthquake in China’s Sichuan province in 2008; and a chandelier sculpture Traveling Light (2007), a reflection upon the past and its strength to project the future.

Ai Weiwei (1957) is China’s best-known contemporary artist and one of the most significant artists worldwide. His innovative and provocative works have earned him extensive international recognition, and have also made him an enemy of the Chinese government, which he has often openly criticized. In the 1970s, he became a part of the influential Chinese avant-garde artistic collective the Stars (Xingxing), whose famous 1979 unofficial exhibition was shut down by government officials. Ai immigrated to the USA in 1981, where, living mostly in New York for over a decade, he encountered artworks by Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns. These artists shaped his developing artistic practice by inspiring an interest in readymade sculpture, commercial imagery, and conceptual art.

Some of Ai’s most famous works manipulate and even destroy ancient Chinese artefacts in order to investigate the rapid modernization of China and its relationship with its ancient past (for example, Han Dynasty Urn with Coca Cola Logo, 1994, and Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995). In addition to visual art, Ai has also undertaken a career in architecture and has long been involved in political activism. In 2008, Ai organized a Citizens’ Investigation to uncover the names of every child who lost their lives during the Sichuan earthquake. This led to ongoing friction with the Chinese authorities, culminating with his arrest and secret detention in 2011.

Ai has received a number of prestigious international awards, including the Human Rights Foundation’s 2012 Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, the 2013 Appraiser’s Association Award for Excellence in the Arts, and Amnesty International’s 2015 Ambassador of Conscience Award. Ai’s major solo exhibitions were held at venues around the world, including the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence (2016), Royal Academy of Arts in London (2015), Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin (2014), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC (2012), and Tate Modern in London (2010). During the period 2015–2017, a number of projects related to the international refugee situation were accomplished, exhibited in venues in Athens, Berlin, Vienna, Florence and New York.

Curators: Jiří Fajt & Adam Budak

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