Controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has unveiled a colossal installation that’s a stark reminder of the global refugee crisis.
The human rights activist has brought a 196-foot-long inflatable installation to Sydney’s Cockatoo Island, as one of the cornerstones of this year’s Biennale of Sydney exhibition.
Titled Law of the Journey, and sitting inside the large Turbine Hall on the island, the work resembles a colossal black rubber life raft, bulging with hundreds of anonymous human figures wearing life jackets.
According to the Biennale, the black rubber material was manufactured in a Chinese factory that also makes the hazardous vessels used by refugees who attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
‘There’s no refugee crisis, only a human crisis.”
“There’s no refugee crisis, only a human crisis,” Ai’s artist statement reads. “In dealing with refugees we’ve lost our very basic values. In this time of uncertainty, we need more tolerance, compassion and trust for each other, since we are all one, otherwise humanity will face an even bigger crisis.”
The work, which took over a month to install, is bordered by quotes from the likes of Franz Kafka, Zadie Smith and Socrates on the plight of refugees, and nature of being human.
Ai is currently in Sydney for the Biennale, which runs March 16 to June 11. His installation is accompanied by a wall of iPhone photographs taken from the artist’s documentary about the current global scale of human displacement, Human Flow, which will see its Sydney premiere in conjunction with the exhibition.
For the documentary, Ai visited refugee camps in 23 countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, France, Greece, Germany, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, and Turkey.
The global humanitarian crisis is a subject close to Ai’s heart — as an activist, he’s now a Chinese refugee living in Berlin, and let’s not forget that his own government detained him for 81 days in 2011 without charge.
It’s not the first artwork Ai’s created to shine light on the refugee crisis. In 2016, he adorned the columns of Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt concert house with 14,000 life jackets previously worn by refugees trying to make it to Europe, and posed as drowned Syrian refugee toddler Alan Kurdi for an Indian magazine.
When discussing his latest Sydney work, Ai has heavily criticised Australia’s general treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and in particular the country’s use of offshore detention centres like Nauru or the recently closed Manus Island Regional Processing Centre in Papua New Guinea.
“It gives Australia such a bad image, about who Australia is, what the Australian culture really is about,” he said, talking to SBS on Monday.
“You often hear politicians say ‘stop the boats’ or ‘build the wall’, to build it longer and higher, to create tremendous obstacles for people trying to survive.”
Australia has been asked multiple times by the United Nations to end the harmful practice of offshore processing. Though the Manus Island detention centre was indeed closed at the end of October, it was by no means a positive process for refugees, and was dubbed a humanitarian emergency by the UNHCR.
The Australian-run Nauru detention centre is still in operation, and Australia recently made a deal with the U.S. to take up to 1,200 refugees from this centre, instead of resettling them in Australia, something Ai told the Guardian was “like slave trading.”
“That is a complete insult to the understanding of refugees,” he said. “It’s exactly like slave trading. You cannot deal with human beings by violating their [rights].”