PRAGUE — “Everything is art. Everything is politics.” These words of Ai Weiwei, the enigmatic dissident Chinese political artist, loom like a specter over his latest solo exhibition at the National Gallery in Prague, Law of the Journey. The exhibition’s title alludes to Walter Benjamin’s reading of Franz Kafka’s “law of the journey” 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.” Conceived in response to the current refugee crisis and subsequent humanitarian disaster, the exhibition is rooted in Ai’s research over the last two years while on location at refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesbos, where he set up a makeshift studio in 2016. There, the artist devoted much of his time to interacting with those fleeing the increasingly dire wars and conflicts raging today, from Syria to Afghanistan.
Accordingly, the exhibition functions as an artistic response to the refugee crisis that has become especially acute since 2015. Over the last several years, Ai has been using his platform as one of the most recognizable names in contemporary art to bring to light issues involving human rights, displacement, famine, and natural disasters; however, many see Ai’s appropriation of one crisis after another as problematic, and his exhibitions have been laden with considerable controversy. Some of the most notorious of these incidents were his February 2016 reenactment of the photo of drowned Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi and the “offensively tasteless” gesture he made last year by asking socialites to don emergency blankets at a posh film gala in Berlin.
Nevertheless, Ai has remained stubbornly present and physically embedded on the front lines of the refugee crisis, where he has culled material for constructing often monumental works that continue to resonate with socially aware Western audiences.
Law of the Journey remains within this vein. It includes a newly commissioned installation, also called “Law of the Journey” (2017), that consists of a giant rubber boat with nearly 300 androgynous figures huddled inside, suspended several feet above the gallery’s post-industrial, Turbine-esque main hall — a room that is itself imbued with symbolic importance: Between 1939 and 1941 it served as a transit point for Jews prior to their deportation to the concentration camp in Terezín, located only 60 miles northwest of Prague. The vessel is the artist’s reconstruction of the overcrowded boats used by smugglers to bring refugees onto European shores.
The exhibition takes up most of the gallery’s two floors and also includes some of the artist’s earlier works, like “Laundromat” (2016), an installation that debuted last year at Jeffrey Deitch Projects in New York, made of discarded garments and shoes Ai sourced from the Greek refugee camps. This work consists of coat hangers hung with the refugees’ garments as well as shoes neatly spread across the gallery floor, reminiscent of installations in the concentration camp–turned–memorial museum at Auschwitz. In addition, Ai’s film The Idomeni Story (2016) documents refugees’ lives on the small Greek island with mid- and long-range shots in hyper-clear HD, giving the viewer an intimate glimpse of their grim reality.
Some of Ai’s more well-known ceramics are also on display, including “Han Dynasty Urn with Coca Cola Logo” (1994), alongside newer projects like “Newsfeed” (2015–16) — thousands of messages shared in a private WhatsApp group started by the artist to monitor Frontex patrols, the European border agency charged with policing refugee entry points, which have been compiled in printed form and arranged across the gallery floor.
With these and other artistic interventions, Ai has attempted to reconstruct the horrible realities of today’s refugees. While one could argue that in doing so, he has merely aestheticized crisis to the benefit of his own brand as a socially engaged contemporary artist, there is undoubtedly a deeper and more salient point at hand: Obsessed with humanitarianism, empathy, and concomitant desires for freedom and peace, Ai invites his viewers to immigrate from ignorance to understanding, using his art as a vehicle for action, awareness, and activism. Those who claim that this is ethically objectionable ignore the reality of the political dilemma we all face when choosing between engagement and disengagement with current events. Art does not live in a bubble, nor can it be separated from ideology, economics or ethics. This is a point that Ai — whether you love him or hate him — continuously hammers home.
Law of the Journey continues at Prague’s National Gallery, Trade Fair Palace Location (Veletržní palác, Dukelských hrdinů 47, Prague 7) through January 7, 2018.