Why did Ai Wei Wei risk public outrage by posing as the iconic drowned child on a pebbled beach?

Why did Ai Wei Wei risk public outrage by posing as the iconic drowned child on a pebbled beach?Photo Credit: Neil Hall/Reuters
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Thousands objected to the publication six months ago of photographs of the three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body lying face down on a Bodrum beach. Alan’s father had attempted to take his family across the two miles separating Turkey and the Greek island of Kos, but their over-crowded dinghy capsized mid-journey. The bodies of Alan and his brother were captured on camera after they washed ashore that September morning. The clamour against the images died down somewhat after they spurred European states to take a more lenient view of refugees coming from Iraq and Syria, but related images soon drew the ire of easily outraged liberals. Charlie Hebdo was targeted after it published satirical cartoonsciting the Kurdi tragedy.

Now, the outrage has returned again, this time aimed at the celebrated Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was photographed by India Today’s Rohit Chawla mimicking Alan’s pose. Weiwei has spent the past weeks helping refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos and preparing a new art project. Chawla and his colleague Gayatri Jayaraman travelled there to profile him as one of those honoured at the inaugural India Today Art Awards.

I met Chawla last week on the opening day of the India Art Fair in Delhi. He looked stressed, having returned from Greece just the previous evening, but seemed satisfied with the presentation of India Today’s booth at the art fair, consisting of portraits of artists the magazine had published over the years. The large Ai Weiwei image was the display’s centrepiece, and stood out thanks not just to its placement and size but also its composition. While most other pictures were conventional studio shots, the Ai Weiwei one showed the artist in an extraordinary pose within an evocative landscape.

Mimicking any martyr or victim is perilous, because the act implies one shares their fate in some fashion. It’s a huge step up from using a French flag filter on one’s Facebook profile in sympathy with the Paris terrorist attacks. Posing as Alan Kurdi has brought upon Ai Weiwei the charge of inflating his own importance at the expense of the individual who actually suffered a cruel end. Even though Ai did not choose the stance, he knew what he was doing by acceding to it, and was complicit in the belittling of Alan Kurdi, if indeed the photograph did belittle him.

Viewing the print at the India Art Fair, I didn’t consider it an insult to the dead child’s memory, partly because it opened up interpretations beyond the most immediate and narrow one by not slavishly imitating the original image. I disagree with Gayatri Jayaraman’s categorisation of it as a “reported news image” as opposed to “art”. In which “reported news image” does a photographer make an appointment with a subject halfway across the world, choose a secluded spot on a freezing, pebbled beach, and echo a recent iconic image in the subject’s pose? There was altogether too much deliberation involved in the exercise for it to be classified as simple reportage rather than art. (The two categories that are in any case separated by a very thick and blurry line.)

Haunting pose

What struck me most in my cursory initial view was that Ai’s body seemed to float just above the pebbles. There was something hauntingly unreal about the entire configuration which I didn’t have time to explore in the hurly burly of the fair. I now realise the effect was caused by an imperfect Photoshop job. Jayaraman’s link in her article to a Vine of the shoot in progress suggests Ai lay on a sheet which was then digitally eliminated. (I couldn’t confirm this because neither Jayaraman nor Chawla had consent to speak with me on the subject.) Accidents and flaws are often propitious in art, and I believe the Photoshopping imbued the picture with an unintended spectral force that raised it far above any ordinary tribute.

This is, of course, one subjective interpretation, which those disturbed by the act will doubtless reject. The question remains; why did Ai Weiwei consent to pose in that fashion despite having no idea how interesting the final product would be? I think it’s because he believes in exploring edgy subjects and ways of living that scramble conventional categories. He is a bona fide dissident, and has scars and a surgery for brain haemorrhage to prove it. He angered Chinese authorities by cataloguing names of students who died in badly constructed school buildings after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He was beaten, prevented from travelling, placed under house arrest, but continued producing provocations. Yet, he hasn’t always had such an antagonistic relationship with the Chinese government. He advised the architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron on the design of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium, a commission that no enemy of the state could have received.

His provocations are often straightforward and sometimes silly. He might brandish handcuffs in a ridiculous version of Gangnam style; or vandalise ancient artefacts by destroying a Han dynasty urn and painting a Coca Cola logo on another; or give the fingerto revered sites like Tiananmen Square as part of a series titled Study of Perspective.

The Venice Biennale is among the world’s most prestigious exhibitions and at the last edition, Ai collaborated on the Iraqi pavilion. The show was inspired by Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, and the artist Isaac Julien directed a marathon reading of all three volumes of the difficult text. At the same time and in the same city, Julien displayed a new video installation commissioned and financed by Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. That’s the contradictory art world Ai belongs to, and is among the most prominent members of.

He recently took time off from working with Syrian refugees to open a show of pretty kite-like sculptures in the upscale Parisian store Le Bon Marché and take Paris Hilton on a private tour of the exhibition. He’s an artist, an activist, and a canny businessman rolled into one. His activism enhances his international stature which enhances the market value of his work. In earlier eras these things would be easy to separate, but it’s unclear now where activism gives way to art, or becomes art, or stops being art, or when provocation rises to the level of interesting art, or descends to the level of a tasteless publicity stunt. Ai Weiwei constantly tests the boundaries of these divisions, and often smashes them like a marvellous old Chinese vase dropped onto a concrete floor.