I see this image and I wonder. Questions flood to mind. The decayed state of the art world from the United States to India to China smacks me in the face.

Why was this image created, and why is it circulating? I recognize the international figure as you also do. It’s the celebrated activist and artist, Ai Weiwei, shedding light on the plight of Syrian refugees, and I wonder.

Is this what a bleeding heart with privilege thinks activism or political art looks like today? Is what I am staring at in amazement of its stupidity simply a failure of imagination, an attempt to use one’s privilege strategically in the struggle for social justice gone terribly wrong?

I recall the words of Gayatri Spivak: “history is larger than personal goodwill”; and “conscious raising is bogus … it is a way to avoid doing homework”; and “top-down philanthropy is not much of anything.” She helps me to look at the image and ponder better questions for Ai Weiwei and our community of artists.

Then I anticipate the artist’s freedom of expression and creative license contention, and I wonder whether I should I say more, or not waste my time further. The burden is on me now that I say this image should not exist. Ai Weiwei should apologize, depending on the reasons leading to its creation, which could include any number of things:

– It was an impulse.
– I do not know better.
– I did it for the money.
– I did not have enough time.
– This is not art and it’s not documentation of activism.

Maybe this is not ‘activism’ per se, but ‘political art,’ as if these categorical distinctions were helpful here. You walked on the beach with a photographer, who took a plane to take your picture, where you reenacted a death of a child and that was then edited and printed to be displayed in the commercial India Art Fair. Images circulate on social media and in articles by CNN and other media outfits, and I wonder, again. What do you consider the role of the artist in making political art? One surely must ask, as Grace Lee Boggs once did to remind us of political art worth seeing and experiencing: “What time is it on the clock of the world?”

Have you wondered what is a refugee when there is no nation-state? This question is being asked all around the world today. Is the Syrian refugee crisis not connected to the Arab uprisings, the change in climate, the geopolitical shifts in the Middle East and North Africa region, the continued colonization of Palestine and redrawing of the maps by the West there?

Your ‘art’ falls so flat in the face of all this, and it hurts to see that in the name of art and in the name of activism, the role of the artist remains stagnant and unchanged — a part of the whole, a cog in the machine of this neoliberal capitalist art world that contributes to maintaining the status quo. A world that passively observes us move from crisis to crisis, as if each were unconnected and unrelated, helping to make war and refugees, and displacement, dispossession and climate disaster, neo-colonialism and white supremacy, and crushing debt that knows no borders, all the more palpable … but that is the state of art. I have said before in “#OCCUPYWALLST: A Possible Story“:

Art as we know it is corrupt, exhausted and weak. We see works of postmodern masters sold to bankers for millions of dollars as signs of cultural capital and objects of financial investment. We see shimmering edifices of cultural wealth erected on the backs of hyperexploited labor—the pyramids and coliseums of the twenty-first century. …. We see so-called “social practice,” the well-funded bureaucratization of alienated people’s desire for community. And we see theoretically savvy “discursive platforms” that speak of radical democracy, militant ecology, and even communization, while recoiling at the prospect of deploying their considerable resources, skills, and potentials for the purposes of building a movement. This is no longer acceptable.

We strike art to liberate art from itself. Not to end art, but to unleash its powers of direct action and radical imagination. Art does not dissolve into so-called real life. It revitalizes real life by making it surreal. …. We strike art as training in the practice of freedom. And imagine a never-ending process of experimentation, learning and undoing, resisting and building in the unexplored terrain of an historic rupture.

You want to help refugees. There is no helping without being in tune. You are not in tune. In the words of poet and theorist Fred Moten on solidarity, whom you should read urgently, “The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”

You know?

Nitasha is a member of MTL Collective. She is also a doctoral student in the Department of Media Study at SUNY, Buffalo.

64 replies on “Ai Weiwei’s Photo Reenacting a Child Refugee’s Death Should Not Exist”

  1. Great text and great commentary on the stupidity of so-called ‘Art’ today and well done in condemning this so-called ‘Work’ in particular. This text can be applied to a lot of stuff out there… Congratulations!

    My only advice is to drop the stereotypical (almost cliché) left-wingy-marxist stuff, it’s time for all who wants a better world (and why not a better ‘art world’) to learn from it but move beyond that.

    “Left wing revolutionary goverments” are just a bunch of corrupt motherfuckers who are there just for the money and to perpetrate themselves in power no matter what. That is a lot worst than any pseudo-democratic regime.

    1. Yes, listen to this guy. Don’t strive to understand the wealth of information provided by leftist thinkers. Don’t strive to understand the intersection of Marxism, feminism, art, history, etc. Just stick to the status quo.

      1. Those are your words, not mine.

        I clearly said learn from it. And also I am clearly in agreement with the ideas elaborated in the text.

        Your comment is absurd, where am I supporting the status quo? that’s the problem with pseudo leftist fanatics, if what they hear or read doesn’t have the cliché phrases they are expecting their mind just blocks and concludes that one is a right wing demon…. by the way thanks for proving my point.

        1. This is the point of view critisized here. Opinion without content. Outrage with no context or program. Boring assertions that are vague enough to sound politically smart but not poignant or smart enough to do anything with.

          1. Maybe it sounded as if I was dismissing everything that was challenging, everything ‘leftist’. My mistake. To be precise, my issue or point is ONLY with a small part of the text, where it reads:

            “a part of the whole, a cog in the machine of this neoliberal capitalist art world that contributes to maintaining the status quo. A world that passively observes us move from crisis to crisis, as if each were unconnected and unrelated, helping to make war and refugees, and displacement, dispossession and climate disaster, neo-colonialism and white supremacy, and crushing debt that knows no borders, all the more palpable”

            I would get rid of the words “neoliberal capitalist” and “neo-colonialism and white supremacy” not because there is no such thing as a neoliberal agenda or we don’t live in a world where white people have an advantage, or third world countries are not suffering a new way of colonialism, but to go around spreading hate against the status quo does no good at all, that is where oppressive ‘left wing’ dictatorships and terrorist groups are coming from and the main tool they use to control and subjugate their ‘people’.

            So I’m not asking for one to say that we live in a democratic world and that non-whites are not victims of systematic racism and that international economic relations are not most of the time favouring the first world. I’m just asking to drop the hate fueled attack on the system.

            So here is the paragraph again without the wording in question:

            “a part of the whole, a cog in the machine of this art world that contributes to maintaining the status quo. A world that passively observes us move from crisis to crisis, as if each were unconnected and unrelated, helping to make war and refugees, and displacement, dispossession and climate disaster, and crushing debt that knows no borders, all the more palpable”

            Now, are we loosing the main purpose and idea of the text by dropping that? is the text less revolutionary because of that?

          2. You are asking to remove the politica from this-specifically because they are politics that you oppose. Yes, we are losing the main purpose of the article by removing a political intent (and critisism of the lack thereof in this piece). Yes, removing politics does make something less revolutionary. Infact, it makes it not revolutionary at all.

          3. I don’t oppose left (gender equality, race equality, anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, class strugle) agendas at all. In fact I support them.

            You are saying that name calling (burgoise, white suprematist, infidels) is politica, I disagree. Politica, or political debate and ideas can be spread in many forms and without the use of cliché words. For example a transgresive ‘political’ artwork doesn’t necessarily have to state in a literal way “I’M ANTICAPITALIST! I”M A FEMINIST! FUCK THE POLICE! FUCK WHITE PEOPLE! FUCK THE EMPIRE”

            Does it? Isn’t that exactly what is being commodified and mass consumed today? One wonders if the commodification of “political” works is not really the works own fault.

  2. For a long time I’ve wondered at just what the point of so much political art is when it has such minimal political impact. Beyond freedom of speech issues (which, to be fair, Wei Wei has taken significant risk with) what progressive societal impact is art capable of creating?

    I’d suggest that the societal use of art may be to transform the aesthetic of that society. But in the Westernized world the media is now capable of commodifying virtually any aesthetic. Punk rock’s for sale at the local Hot Topic. Dubuffet’s paintings have been canonized into $$$ art history $$$.

    Personally, I’d like to see artists move toward creating work that focuses more on intimate, personal, subjective experience rather than social analytics. Creating art that “explores / examines / responds to the plight of. . .” such and such a people usually only serves to salve the conscience of the artist and the buyer.

    1. The artist does seem to have gotten people riled up for a few minutes. I know lots of people who create intimate, personal, subjective art and almost no one pays any attention to it unless it is supposed to be saleable at a high price to the same elites who tore up the Middle East for fun and profit.

  3. There has never been any serendipity in the artwork of AI Weiwei. The sensationalism always trumps any real import, urgency, or agency. This most recent gesture is the worst offense yet and this brief essay by Dhillon is pitch perfect.

  4. Nice take down of an over-rated artist. Wahh Wahh Wei Wei cashes in on misery again.Sadly, collectors are probably scrounging to buy the image for future profit-taking.

  5. I am confused – hasn’t anyone that has seen the news from any outlet already seen the actual image? How is this shedding any light?

    1. It’s making a lot of people angry. I believe this was the artist’s purpose. He is probably angry himself, and if so, he successfully conveyed his emotion to his audience. As for the photograph itself being trite, clichéed, of low formal values, and so on, the same is true of that which was parodied.

      Now we can go on to the next item.

  6. I agree with this writer 100%. What a refreshing piece of truth, for once — rather than her spouting some sappy, faux outrage at critics of Weiwei who is obviously pandering to the PC cause du jour.

  7. if you are not shocked by this… this art was not meant for you.
    This is ‘shock art’. Shock art is aimed at the numbed masses….those that have already seen the horrific image of the original child….& have filed it away in their minds as simply ‘media’. The poor refugee child has already been a tool used by corporate and social media as click-bait…. Ai is speaking out against that….
    Ai wants to shock us, & remind us that the original photo is the true horror & shame on all the outlets who used it for profit!

  8. The writer although make some important criticism of the art world as it is, fails to demonstrate the reasons for which Ai Weiwei should be declared as guilty as charged and be placed in front of a wall of harsh criticism. Let us remember Ai Weiwei”s withdrawing of his works from a Danish exhibition in protest of the anti=immigrant legislation passed there. Moreover, does Ai Weiwei fails to make us to remember the drowned Kurdish refugee Alan Kurdi and also, to think about the reasons for his plight and his death? No. By ıdentifiying himself with Kurdi, AW also makes the point that Alan Kurdi’s future is stolen away from him. It is certainly not a publicity stunt or an act of vanity. We should also remember the fact that two days ago, more than 10 children drowned while trying to pass the Aegean see. I think it is time to ask Nitisha Dillon: what does it mean in her personal experience : ‘being in tune’ with the refugees?

  9. The photo itself is marginally good
    (if you like that kind of Ansel Adams’ landscape thingie).
    The political message is terribly misleading because it only addresses one aspect of the aftermath of the crime against humanity taking place in the Middle East right now, and extending to many places in Europe, where local women and even children are assaulted physically by refugees.


  10. My irreverent response to all the chest-beating from critics and defenders on both sides: https://youtu.be/mjNcV0KAOkQ

    Art has not been about acceptable and even respectable. Not at least all the time. If something like this provokes such a guttural response in people, I’d say it must be working as art (as an abstract concept) intended.

  11. Dillon’s article is pointing out a condition of atrocious artistic laziness, accepted widely as ‘activism’. In this particular instance Wei Wei couldn’t foresee that the nth decrying of unassailable sentiment would produce a feeling of nauseating bad taste.

  12. I wonder if this work is self-consciously trite in order to provoke the public outrage and important reflection embodied by this article. Could Ai Wei Wei be commenting on the formulaic and ultimately ineffectual “activist” intent and interpretation of so much contemporary art? The image is so lazy, so grotesque and patronizing…its shallowness is unmistakeable, and it seems too obvious to have been done with the sincerity that this critic attributes to it.

  13. any chance the artist has turned his criticism from his own country to the West- the all powerful and rich part of the world that created the worst humanitarian disaster since WW2?
    Wasn t it our bombs, our missiles and guns, our training, our drones, even now our planes that have overthrown Libya, (and Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan), and left them like Detroit and Chicago, but a whole nation in that state?
    Wasn t it our govt’s (US, Britain, France) who decided that the way to solve the problem was to bomb Syria some more (an illegal crime: bombing a sovereign nation, but we don t care about that).
    Aren t these people risking the lives of their kids because their homes towns and villages were wiped out by us , or by the people we’ve armed and trained because we decided their govt’s should be toppled.
    -any chance this might be a topic of consideration in our big self absorbed election season?….nah…we don t care about what we, our big banks, big weapons contractors and big oil companies do to the rest of the world.
    Could this be what this outrageous pic is about?
    Is our response; a moment of sentimental angst about a dead drowned kid washed ashore, (all of which keeps repeating itself btw), at all meaningful, or even worthy of our sanctimonious finger-wagging at the rest of the naughty world?
    Wei Wei is in Greece, on Lesbos, the epicenter of the worst humanitarian crisis since WW2, not hanging out in ny or miami going to art openings and monitoring auction results , discussing post deconstructivist, post feminist art theory….
    It certainly is an attention grabbing gesture, consistent with his middle finger photo s…..makes me wonder what my purpose is, what the value of what I do is, the value of my art is…

    1. I find this apologia “in tune” with my sense of the moment in AWW’s reinactment. He is is literally on the edge between land and sea…the only margin of earthly existence. His work expresses a kind of moral “dope slap” in the face of chaos…to the artists trying to find a way to “Wei”-in on the inchoate horrors of modern times he is a silent witness to our ethical confusion.

  14. I didn’t see the photograph as a comment on the refugee crisis. I saw it as a comment on the reaction to the photograph of the dead child having become a meme on social media. People shared the photo and bemoaned the child’s death and then moved on to the next thing on their news feeds. When I first saw Ai Weiwei’s photo I thought it was in very bad taste and was an inappropriate response to the child’s death, but then I thought about all the inappropriate/useless responses to the child’s death and wondered if I was meant to be repulsed by his image. What do our reactions to the images we see on social media tell us about ourselves, including our reaction to this one?

  15. It’s okay to make bad art. I do not see this as activism, or, if it is, it’s ineffective as activism.

  16. To say that a piece of art shouldn’t exist is a type of censorship imperative, a form of entitlement on the part of the author. I get the arguments, but the very tone of the piece is coercive and self-righteous. I almost never comment here, but there you have it. Perhaps I should add that my mother was a refugee in the 1960’s and lived in a UN sponsored camp for almost three years. My perspective is therefore, colored by that.

  17. How censorious to say an image should not exist. What about freedom of expression? One has a right to be wrong. If this even is wrong. I would argue it is the image of Aylan on the beach that “should not exist,” because it never should have been. That we accept that but reject this speaks volumes.

    If I’ve learned anything from Spivak it is that a fixed position on morality is a trap that one should back out of as quickly as one came in. This post and others like it, ie Karen Archey who seems to have told everyone what the correct orthodoxy is regarding this image, are all about assuring us that though we participate in the same corrupt systems as everyone else, we are morally superior to this bloviating celebrity, that he’s an ambulance chaser but we are somehow paramedics (at our computers in our comfy first world homes). Write this from the beach in Lesbos and I might buy it. As is, I call bullshit on the art world outrage.

    Academic artists are angry that Ai has circumvented them and made an image that speaks to the crass masses – the collectors, the browsers, the TV watchers. Yeah it’s crude. It’s not subtle. It’s not for you, art world insiders. People need to question the motivations of their outrage. I think it’s much more about disgust at Ai’s celebrity having transcended the insider clique at the same moment that the insiders no longer run the art market, a circumstance this whole bogus “controversy” makes clear.

    Helping refugees is about more than fishing people out of the ocean, which Ai has also done. It’s about shaming the so-called liberal governments that keep allowing this to happen. That’s what this is for. It’s for the oligarchs and the bureaucrats. We can be angry that those people exist and have control but let’s be clear what we are angry about.

    1. No one is erasing this image. No one is censoring it. But someone can imagine other scenarios. That’s what ideas are. He is saying this should exist. People can argue, NO. He is the one in the position of power.

      His image depends on having seen the original. As a friend remarked to me: “Understanding Ai Weiwei’s stunt depends entirely on having seen, remembered, and been affected by the image of Aylan Kurdi. So in that case – how the hell is he shedding light on the plight of refugees if you have to already know about the plight of refugees to understand what he is doing? Because of that, this image reads MUCH more like he is comparing himself to Aylan and the other children who have been killed. Which is gross. (And yes, I understand that he himself is a political refugee and I do think there is a possibility for an interesting conversation or interesting work contrasting his situation as a refugee who is also an international cause celebre with these kids- who only get noticed by the bulk of the world when they die, but I think the stunt he’s chosen to do instead is facile and gross).”

      1. I think he’s making a point that having seen the image, we’ve wrung our hands and failed to act, because we treat stateless people as disposable. Ai is a stateless person and we treat him as valuable. So he’s redirecting our attention back to what we noticed then forgot about 6 months ago while a dozen more kids drowned just this week.

        1. He’s not stateless, that’s part of the point. Aylan was truly stateless. Being rejected makes you an exile, not a refugee. I guess that’s part of the disconnect people are seeing.

          1. Seems like splitting hairs to me. Many Europeans are arguing that Syrians are refugees by choice. He does still have a studio in Beijing I believe but I am not at all certain he feels safe returning to China.

          2. He was imprisoned by his government on the basis of speech and now he lives in Germany. So he hasn’t liquidated his Beijing assets. That’s dangerously close to the Danes demanding refugees give up all their assets to be admitted.

          3. Refugees were not asked to give up all their assets, a simplistic headline that Ai Weiwei promoted. They were asked to contribute assets over x amount to pay for housing etc. and were not asked to give up any items of sentimental, personal, religious value. As a taxpayer, that makes sense; is fair for the tax payer and the refugee. No refugees were turned away for lack of funds.

      2. Dear Hrag Vartanian,

        I don’t believe that this photo depends on our having seen the photo of Aylan Kurdi.

        Let’s take a moment to look at it simply as a photograph. Let us take a ‘new critical’ approach and ask: What do we see?

        I will not suggest an interpretation in this brief inventory, so . . . without being exhaustive, I see a photograph with excellant contrast and clarity. I see a man lying on a beach, head and shoulders pointing toward the open sea. The horizon line, the tide line, and the line at the back edge of the beach (beneath the trees) all meet at a distant point. The trees lean away from the rest of the picture. I also see the lines formed by the clouds converging toward a point in the opposite direction (though not quite there). And, I see the man’s body slightly echoing the hills in the far distance, seemingly ‘beyond’ the horizon.

        These are all elements crying for an interpretation, but that is not the point.

        For those of us who HAVE seen the photo of Aylan Kurdi, it is difficult NOT to make an emotionally charged association between the two images. However, while it’s true that Ai Weiwei’s body is lying in virtually the same position as the boy in the original photograph, it is hard for me to think that Ai Weiwei is in any way “comparing himself to Aylan or other children who have been killed.” I don’t even know what such a ‘comparison’ might be. Cerainly, ‘death’ does not very directly parallel ‘political refugee’. So what might the comparison be?

        I cannot know what Ai Weiwei was trying to do, but perhaps he was eager to keep the image before our eyes (lest we forget, and move on to the next news cycle), or perhaps he means to universalize a horrible event that might touch any of us at any moment, and ask us seriously to take stock of that possibility, and take some responsibility for it. I don’t know . . .

  18. While I have a huge problem with the aimless emotion of most liberals who claim to be for the cause, but have no idea of the stakes of the cause, or of the feelings and experience of the groups they think they sympathize with, Dhillon, girl, you are off-base on this because your argument is based on several dumb premises.

    ‘Activism’ and ‘political art’ cannot be arbitrarily conflated. The distinction between those two terms are absolutely helpful here, and sarcastically blowing the distinction off seems to me to be indicative of a misunderstanding of the roles of those two people in relation to the world.

    The next sentence and the ensuing diatribe is equally dumb if not intentionally misleading rhetoric because Wei Wei has said publicly that the picture was spontaneous. I think it was intentional because you mention the CNN coverage in the next sentence, in that coverage he says it was spontaneous.

    In that same interview, he said ‘So for me to be in the same position [as Kurdi], is to suggest our condition can be so far from human concerns in today’s politics.’ Which answers all of the questions in the next paragraph. Of course everything is connected, as is Wei Wei as a human and as a singular human that has been compartmentalized into ‘important political artist.’

    The paragraph after that suggests that you have no idea who Wei Wei is or what he has been through. And again you take activist and political artist and lump them into a giant bolus, which is bogus.

    Art as YOU know it is corrupt, exhausted and weak. For those of us who are truly connected to the cause, there is nothing more powerful and pregnant with potential than art. Art is soul, you know this. But here, you confuse art with famous and expensive work. Art is distinct from the art market.

    In response to the rest, again, ‘So for me to be in the same position [as Kurdi], is to suggest our condition can be so far from human concerns in today’s politics.’ – This from a man who was a political prisoner in his own land.

    While I think the liberal dilemma is of the utmost importance and that many liberals need to understand they are frauds and are confused about their role, people like Wei Wei are important and valuable because he gets all of these fake ass “educated” well heeled white people who want to be considered as connected to the cause talking. And I believe that it came from his heart, that is was spontaneous. Because of it, these motherfuckers will come up off some dough and talk about the shitty stuff that is happening because Wei Wei said something, and maybe then they will become wise. At the same time, top-down philanthropy is not nothing, not even in theory. The people in the ‘hood, the people that grew up as refugees, the people in the street for whom you don’t even afford the ability to have a say in the state of art, will tell you it is at least something. At least Hyperallergic is writing about it.

  19. I personally don’t blame Ai WeiWei. He does his thing and we’re all welcome to like or dislike his work freely. This is much more than can be said for people in most – if not all Muslim/Arab countries out there. So we really should not be taking his freedom to be a douche, and ours to call him on it, for granted.
    This is of no consequence of course to Nitasha Dhillon, a renowned and vociferous anti-Semite, who cares little to nothing about the serious problems facing the Middle East, but who instead, has chosen this incident to promote her anti-Semitic (in the guise of anti-Israel) goals. So sad to see Hyperallergic demean itself with this nonsensical “article”.

  20. I must take exception to Ms. Dhillon’s purposes in arguing that activism is superior to making images, that only some images qualify as art, and that Ai Wei Wei must apologize both for not being an activist of whom she would approve and for making an image of which she also disapproves. To the best of my knowledge, Ms. Dhillon is herself an independent Whitney fellow, and may also qualify to be described as “a bleeding heart with privilege,” as she describes the artist. She seems to be saying that only an image of someone actually victimized would suit her tastes. Absent from her analysis is any understanding of art’s ability to engender empathy. This occurs when artists employ metaphor that viewers can understand, to feel themselves into a situation, an insight, a revelation. On these grounds, Ai Wei Wei has succeeded masterfully. A major part of the pathos of the original photograph was the horrifying idea that this child who perished could be my child. Wei Wei posing himself as the drowned person drives home the further revelation: that could be me. By so identifying, I am moved to take action in ways that Ms Dhillon’s critique misses.

  21. In light of Ai Weiwei’s biography, something seems off about this grad student scolding the artist, saying he’s not in tune, and demanding that he apologize. You’ll find some highlights of Ai’s bio in the post below (cut and pasted from various sources).

    The short version: Ai has been beaten by police (from which he suffered a brain hemorrhage) , imprisoned (for 3 months), and placed under constant surveillance by the Chinese government for years because of his willingness to speak out, through his art, against injustice.

    I’m not sure what to make of the photograph, but saying it comes from someone who’s “out of tune” and abusing his privilege is, beyond a doubt, wrong.

    My point is, instead jumping to get an opinion—any opinion—published, we should at least give Ai Weiwei the consideration he’s earned. If ultimately folks decide the he blew it in this case, fine, but let’s take it the direction of thoughtful conversation, not finger-wagging condemnation.

    1. “Ten days after the 8.0-magnitude earthquake took place in Sichuan province on 12 May 2008, Ai WeiWei led a team to survey and film the post-quake conditions in various disaster zones.

      In response to the government’s lack of transparency in revealing names of students who perished in the earthquake due to substandard school campus constructions, Ai recruited volunteers online and launched a “Citizens’ Investigation” to compile names and information of the student victims.

      On 20 March 2009, he posted a blog titled “Citizens’ Investigation” and wrote: “To remember the departed, to show concern for life, to take responsibility, and for the potential happiness of the survivors, we are initiating a “Citizens’ Investigation.” We will seek out the names of each departed child, and we will remember them.”

      By April 2009, the list had accumulated 5,385 names..

      In August 2009, Ai was beaten by the police for trying to testify for Tan Zuoren, a fellow investigator of the shoddy construction and student casualties in the earthquake. A month later, Ai was diagnosed to be suffering internal bleeding in a hospital in Munich, Germany, and the doctor arranged for emergency brain surgery. The cerebral hemorrhage is believed to be linked to the police attack.

      In an attempt to force Ai to leave the country, two accounts used by him had been hacked in a sophisticated attack on Google in China dubbed Operation Aurora, their contents read and copied; his bank accounts were investigated by state security agents who claimed he was under investigation for “unspecified suspected crimes”.


      2011 arrest

      On 3 April 2011, Ai was arrested at Beijing Capital International Airport just before catching a flight to Hong Kong and his studio facilities were searched.[42] A police contingent of approximately 50 officers came to his studio, threw a cordon around it and searched the premises. They took away laptops and the hard drive from the main computer; along with Ai, police also detained eight staff members and Ai’s wife, Lu Qing. Police also visited the mother of Ai’s two-year-old son.[43] While state media originally reported on 6 April that Ai was arrested at the airport because “his departure procedures were incomplete,”[44] the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on 7 April that Ai was arrested under investigation for alleged economic crimes.[45] Then, on 8 April, police returned to Ai’s workshop to examine his financial affairs.[46] On 9 April, Ai’s accountant, as well as studio partner Liu Zhenggang and driver Zhang Jingsong, disappeared,[47] while Ai’s assistant Wen Tao has remained missing since Ai’s arrest on 3 April.

      On 22 June 2011, the Chinese authorities released Ai from jail after almost three months’ detention on charges of tax evasion. After his release, his sister gave some details about his detention condition to the press, explaining that he was subjected to a kind of psychological torture: he was detained in a tiny room with constant light, and two guards were set very close to him at all times, and watched him constantly. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, he was prohibited from leaving Beijing without permission for one year.


      On 21 June 2012, Ai’s bail was lifted. Although he is allowed to leave Beijing, the police informed him that he is still prohibited from traveling to other countries because he is “suspected of other crimes.” Until 2015, he remained under heavy surveillance and restrictions of movement. In July 2015, he was given a passport….

  22. I imagine it was one of those great ideas that always sound good around three AM when scribbled on the back of a bar napkin.

  23. This is the same as Hollywood regime’s White male/Christian-Judaic chauvinist’s mass media promo of William Hung’s “art”. Good candidate for the White Oscars.

  24. Just keep talking about it. Nothing else matters as long as we keep orbiting the horrific consequences of our cultural apathy.

  25. “Is this what a bleeding heart with privilege thinks activism or political art looks like today?” Ai Weiwei was “disappeared” by the Chinese government for his activism there. If nothing else, to shine a light on these travesties… I hope that’s what activism and political art looks like today. Otherwise we’re fucked.

  26. Also, I find it hypocritical for a writer to suggest that “The burden is on me now that I say this image should not exist.” What a burden to write some inflammatory words in order to get an article ahead of all the other writers on staff. To then link us to your other article “#OCCUPYWALLST: A Possible Story“ (your welcome, royalties are optional) What burden? Isn’t the real burden on the refugees? Isn’t the real burden as Fred Moten put it, on us? Read your own stolen quote! Is he not, quite literally, doing as Mr. Moten is asking us to do? “To recognize that it’s killing him too.” That we’ve let our world slip into this terrible state? How is this article any less the work of en egotist than the artist you’re so quick to critique? You want to link an article for readers? Give us an article that has revealed to the Chinese people the injustice of silencing an artist, give us an article that has changed a government from one that takes your passport for speaking out to one that gives it back.

  27. I’m not a serial commenter, but I’m moved to offer that both the regressive/repressive premise (“This should not exist!”) and the writing here are as uninspired, critically slack, and literalist as the writer accuses the artist of being. And calling in the fairy godmother of subaltern studies by way of some hastily whacked-together Spivak quotes doesn’t help: Spivak’s presence does little to convince me of the epistemological violence of the work, but it does suggest that the writer is sputtering mad and not quite yet sure what to do with that anger as she sets pen to paper. Rather than finding an interesting way to sublimate her outrage and engage us with the work, she invokes the writing of others to ride on their moral superiority coattails. Is “Who speaks for the subaltern?” even still the most interesting or pertinent question to ask? (and could that be the question Wei Wei is engaging us in ?) In the face of too many local and global man-made disasters, this is all just a bunch of intellectual wankery, too, isn’t it: an undeniable privilege in an incredibly privileged space, and as we write, many others are suffering, they are dying, yes, right this very moment. It might give the writer a bit more credibility if she’d flagged her own relative position of privilege rather than bury it in her moral outrage, and if she’d more deeply probed the provocations of the image (thank you, Rachel Bonner, whose comment I just read).

  28. I could not disagree more. Ai Wei Wei is saying, very eloquently, that he could be that refugee child laying dead as well as almost anyone on Earth outside the 1%. That the state of the world is chaos and profiteering by adolescent monsters man-childs left without check or balance. That humans need to realize we need a stop to Vampire Capitalism and the war machines it drives into every corner of the earth facilitated by a hegemonic corporate media Matrix.

    I will compare this work to a show in the US where the artist brought in a model of Ferguson’s Michael Brown’s dead body and a tape of a post-modern dialog lecture. I condemned this work in Guardian Comments in the highest terms because it totally exploited tragedy without a hint of statement condemning or bringing a higher consciousness about Police State fronting for the Banksters neoliberal empire, or anything connecting the human battle against elite power.

    This world is subsumed in the Spectacle cast by the 1%’s media and communications to cover the evil, block opposition, and grease the continuing abomination at all cost. Work like Ai Wei Wei’s bring to consciousness through the haze of consumer culture that Life is what is important not the 1%’s “things”, which include, apparently, human beings like that small child, Ai Wei Wei or any one of the 99%.

    “And we see theoretically savvy “discursive platforms” that speak of
    radical democracy, militant ecology, and even communization, while
    recoiling at the prospect of deploying their considerable resources,
    skills, and potentials for the purposes of building a movement.”

    A “movement”? We don’t need a movement, we need a new society. And we are not going to get there with talk but with action. We need the 99% of this Earth on the same page and ready to act to stop these petty tyrants tearing the planet in two. Occupy was there to start the process but without the rest of the 99% ready, we will proceed no where. And no matter what resources you may see in the oppositions, among them Ai Wei Wei and millions more of us, we will never have the support of capital or the 1% who subvert us at every turn. Criticizing good art at doing this task of getting everyone on board is counter-productive.

  29. Oh, and i love how Nitasha’s article self-quotes from inclusion in a “trade” paperback that costs $55.00, almost $1/page. How proletariat is that?

  30. This essay should not exist. The attitudes in this essay are far more caustic and destructive than any of the assertions you’ve thrust here.

  31. Like Marina Abramovic, Ai Wei Wei has moved from artist to celebrity so the context for his work has now shifted. I don’t believe him exempt from criticism because of his past credentials. Anyone can make the occasional bad work and as others have stated, this work is lazy. I’m not persuaded that it functions as a critique of the original image’s reception and dissemination. The briefest reading of the photo’s formal qualities tells me it seeks a literal photojournalistic gravitas – the black and white, the heavy contrast, the darkened sky, the dramatic wide angle are all tropes of either camera club photography (which it obviously doesn’t aspire to) or war-zone photojournalism, which it clearly does aspire to. I would have found this both more affecting and more critical as an Instagram post with a filter on it.

  32. If Mr Wei Wei is trying to say something about the loss of humanity in the refugee crisis, then given what’s actually going on in the world to help, this is pretty much a fail. Perhaps he should be directing his outrage at the groups currently reducing Syria to an irretrievable pile of rubble.

  33. The reason why this image shouldn’t exist is not that Ai Wei Wei shouldn’t have made it but that the scene existed in the first place or that the original photographer took it in the second place and that media published it even further up the chain. The tragedy is not that Ai Wei Wei has decided to enter this chain, but that this chain exists in the first place. The person that has written this article have their head so much up their ass and the ass of the art world’s discourse, that when Ai Wei Wei points at the moon all they can see is his finger.

  34. I’m not joining your “movement” Ms. Dillon. As you know (but dismiss casually for reasons of political correctness that I suspect are confounding to those less well-steeped in leftist thinking), Ai Weiwei is working with refugees in Lesbos, not just modeling as one in the photo:

    “When I said to him, ‘I will meet you at your studio,’ Ai Weiwei
    answered, “the seashore is my studio,” said Gayatri Jayaraman, the
    magazine senior editor who interviewed him.

    Jayaraman said Ai stood on the seashore waiting for the boats filled with
    refugees and assisted them as they get off. He was collecting rubber
    pieces of the boats for an art installation project.”

    Yes, I know the above is from the Washington Post, owned by Jeff Bezos, also owner of Amazon, an oppressor of exploited workers across the globe.

    I looked at the photo in question and thought, “have I seen that photo” (as in the original one that Ai Weiwei and collaborators are mimicking)? I searched for the original and saw it for the first time and felt my heart sink. It is a powerful image. A toddler in contemporary “Western” style clothing, dead on the beach with a person in official clothing, perhaps taking a photo of the toddler as someone is taking his photo.” It is at once contemporary and ancient.

    I looked again at Ai Weiwei’s mimicry, and thought — given what I know about his personal involvement helping refugees — he’s simply expressing empathy. He lies down on the beach to feel as close to death as he can. Not a great photograph necessarily, but simply a reminder that photographs are a reminder.

    You wrote, “We strike art to liberate art from itself. Not to end art, but to
    unleash its powers of direct action and radical imagination. Art does
    not dissolve into so-called real life. It revitalizes real life by
    making it surreal. …. We strike art as training in the practice of
    freedom. And imagine a never-ending process of experimentation, learning
    and undoing, resisting and building in the unexplored terrain of an
    historic rupture.”

    I could take your words and put them in the Washington Post article as a quote from a well-known arts reviewer and suddenly they would become a positive description of what Ai Weiwei is doing rather than a critique of what you believe he is not doing.

    Maybe Ai Weiwei is not as directly involved with whatever “action” it is that you are referring to above. But at least he’s involved actively reducing suffering in this world (by the way, the clock says the time is now), in this “so-called real life” that his surreal photograph has helped me see a bit more clearly.
    Yes, the Middle East is still reeling from the aftermath of European colonization, Sykes-Picot and onwards to the recent war on Iraq and Afghanistan and now the devastating involvement of a host of nations in the proxy war that is killing Syrians. I suppose your imperative for “direct action” applied to this case would mean that Ai Weiwei should at least educate us about the sordid history of involvement by Western powers in the region, rather than simply mollify our Western conscience. By inference you are implicating Ai Weiwei, a successful artist collected by art buyers globally, in a conspiracy to cover up this history. I am very familiar with this accusation and have some sympathy for it.

    So why do I say, “I will not join your movement?” I’m sure you know what Emma Goldman, the infamous Jewish American anarchist, said about certain “revolutions”? That is why. Give Ai Weiwei a break. He is doing the best he can, just as we all are.

  35. The modern art world has become a farce! More attention is given to artists who go beyond the scope of art to attempt to gain recognition for what truly isn’t art. Seeking to openly offend as many people as they can instead of actually being creative is the trend. Few true creators exist in todays society that can actually warrant be called artists. He may be protesting or whatever but as for myself I see it as just a bid for attention. It is just a photo which IMO is just copying not creating!

  36. After digesting some of my brain thoughts around this image, I appreciate Ai Weiwei doing this and creating trending status on social media because the common folk is now getting to engage in the dialog as to what art should look like and be, diminishing the power of the high art world…bringing everything to a very humanistic level. And asking those questions about change and necessity. Basically what I am saying is that your common man or woman can now look at Ai Weiwei and say “fuck that guy, he don’t make art” or, “that man makes money doing what?” Ai Wiewei, try harder, you are human now. And realistically, I don’t think Ai Weiwei is Buddhist enough to understand what he is doing, because his liberation for others requires him to become equal to others…which means no attachment to what he has created…and he should say that; and what he has given, should have no monetary value and seen as charity. For more information about these types of thoughts read Red Pine’s interpretation of the Diamond Sutra.

  37. Ai WeiWei had the courage if not recklessness to put himself instead of that known dead child in the foto he had taken. He identified with her and had the courage to put himself in the place of that little girl. If he profits from it, I do believe he will give back to the rest of us. The author here has to re-examine his/her own priorities before too much more time passes by. Your own bitterness has made you myopic.

Comments are closed.