Regarding the Appropriation of the Pain of Others

Text: Paula Korte

This spring seems to have had one favourite topic over others on the cultural field: that of appropriation. In May Jenni Hiltunen’s video piece Grind (2014) was at the centre of a heated debate about the appropriation of the Sami people’s cultural symbols [1], whilst the Navajo Indians lost a court case against Urban Outfitters for the unlawful use of the Navajo name and designs, which are all trademarked [2]. The strong emotions that accompany the reactions of those whose cultures are being appropriated often speak of the repressive and pejorative history that shadows the lives of so many minorities.

But appropriation is nothing new to art, considering that Classical Roman sculpture was a straightforward adaptation of the Greek style. In a world that is one enormous, merry hermeneutic circle, where everything has already been done, it is but inevitable that influences will be taken and that at times, very little will even be done to conceal the source of inspiration. Over time, appropriation in the arts has taken on ever more complex forms. With the dawn of avant-garde everyday objects were appropriated, and by being placed in a new context became works of art, the ready-mades. With the boundaries of representation breaking down in a postmodern era of “everything goes”, appropriation has developed into both a subtle and an overtly bold practice: think of Cindy Sherman taking on the roles of female protagonists in b-list movies in her Untitled Film Stills and Sherrie Levine re-photographing Walker Evans’ photographs one to one, so as to claim them her own. It seemed that every avenue of appropriation had been explored, until a few months ago when Chinese artist Ai Weiwei released a self-portrait where he poses as Alan Kurdi, the little Syrian refugee whose life ended in the murky waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Screenshot from Ai Weiwei’s Instagram
Despite the mixed reception Ai Weiwei’s self-portrait attracted [3], the artist has continued to work with the subject matter of refugees and the ongoing humanitarian crisis on the Mediterranean islands. A keen sharer on social media, Ai Weiwei’s Instagram has been flooded with footage from Greece and especially from the camp on the island of Lesbos (where he also staged the self-portrait, even though the tragedy had actually happened in Turkey). Now the artist seems to have distilled his experiences into new sculptural pieces, imagery of which have been overtaking his Instagram flow [4], and the results are very disturbing. Ai Weiwei presents us with huge shiny, black sculptures of simplified and rounded human figures, all distinctly recognisable in their life vests and rubber dinghies as the desperate souls fleeing war across a dangerous sea to another, not very welcoming, continent.

The troubling nature of these sculptures is multifaceted, and very different to the ethical problems presented by Ai Weiwei’s self-portrait. Susan Sontag writes in her seminal essay on the photography of war, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), how part of the modern condition is to subject oneself to images of atrocity and thus negotiate peace of mind: “So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering.” (Sontag 2003, 102.) Sontag’s text ultimately culminates in an argument that images (be they photographs or a video feed) are not the best or even necessarily right medium for stopping wars and horrors, because “[h]arrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.” (Sontag 2003, 89.) If we are to resolve anything, we must first comprehend.

So what is it that Ai Weiwei is trying to accomplish with his new works? Why re-create a photograph already so powerful it set the social media on fire with shares? It almost feels as if Ai Weiwei is trying to transfer his well-established practice of smoking out the corruption of Chinese government to the situation in Greece without revision or critical consideration. Because everybody already knows Alan Kurdi’s story, and the wider world is distraught with the unfairness of the loss of this little child’s life. There is no censorship to battle against like there was when Ai Weiwei campaigned to find out the truth about the real number of school children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake because of shoddy building work endorsed by a corrupt local government [5]. It seems entirely egotistical and deluded of Ai Weiwei to think that Alan Kurdi’s faith needs his artist stardom and world fame to be really felt by people. Or indeed, if flipped the other way around, Ai Weiwei’s act can be read as a very cold-hearted exploitation of a photograph recognised the world over and thus also of the human who is the subject of the photograph. Either way, it seems unjustifiable.

However, the case with the sculptures of the refugees appears to be more complicated. Where the self-portrait was a very frivolous and blunt appropriation of a documentary photograph, whatever the motives behind it, some thought seems to have gone into these inflated, menacing figures. They are further removed from reality than the photograph, and an aesthetic has been applied to the handling of the subject matter. Yet the sculptures are still appropriating the plight and suffering of individuals without (it would seem) the individuals’ taking any part in the process, apart from working as a visual cue. Intuitively, this would seem to be the one unquestionable moral requisite for such an act of appropriation: the involvement of the people whose lives and experiences are being used as material.

A Momiji dollOther, more straightforwardly aesthetic aspects of the sculptures prove hard to digest as well. For instance, why has the artist chosen this very cute style of soft, round figures that hark to Japanese Momiji dolls? It feels to be in complete juxtaposition with the content of the artworks. Or perhaps this is precisely the effect Ai Weiwei is in pursuit of, his signature thing after all being the creation of tension, be it by modelling a beautiful Huali wood reproduction of a trash container, where two boys died of a carbon monoxide poisoning, or by dunking ancient pottery in industrial paint. Or is he deliberately referring to the Momiji dolls’ shape, since they are used for sending secret messages, often of friendship? Maybe the artist wants to express his solidarity, not merely by taking the refugees as his subject matter but by sending a message of empathy and support. This may be reading a fair bit too much into the matter, since such a style of kawaii (Japanese for cute, often entails soft, round and adorable qualities) is quite ubiquitous in Asia.

Ai Weiwei: Coloured Vases (2015). Image: Galerie Forsblom

Lastly one cannot help but draw a comparison between Ai Weiwei’s works and those of sculptor Pekka Jylhä [6]. Why is it that Jylhä’s works seem so subtle, dignified and sincere as opposed to the very contrived atmosphere that permeates Ai Weiwei’s creations? Both artists have appropriated the same two very recognisable symbols from the crisis in the Mediterranean: that of Alan Kurdi (how utterly baffling and curious that a dead innocent child has become a symbol) and the dinghy. The difference is entirely in how the artists have translated the subject matter into works of art: Jylhä has immortalized the Syrian boy into a life size sculpture (Until the Sea Shall Him Free, 2016) that’s at once realistic but at the same time gentle like a sketch. The piece seems more like a commemoration than an appropriation. It is respectful. Jylhä’s treatment of the rubber dinghy (Journey, 2016) is somehow heartbreakingly poignant and poetic too. Here the pathetic vessel, which is all that stands between the refugees and the open sea, is made of virgin white, delicate feathers, as if to suggest that the boat is both a guardian angel and yet at the same time far too feeble to carry anyone to safety. And this is what seems to be lacking from Ai Weiwei’s pieces; respectfulness, a granting of dignity to those involved.

Pekka Jylhä: Journey (2016). Image: Ilpo Vainionpää

But Ai Weiwei is certainly not evil, after all his next show that is currently being installed in Athens will see 10% of the profits go to refugees [7]. As an artist he simply seems far too uncritical of his own practice, committing ethical errs that gravely undermine his message. Or perhaps it is precisely this discussion that is the valuable outcome of Ai Weiwei’s art: the situation in Greece stays on the lips of people all over the world day after day because of his works and relentless presence in social media. Whether this is enough to found an entire artistic practice on remains in doubt.

Ai Weiwei in Galerie Forsblom May 13–August 21, 2016

Bibliography and links

Sontag, Susan 2003, Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador.

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