The Artist, Activist, and Debunker of Double Standards Opens His First Solo Show in Los Angeles
In the closing short story of acclaimed writer Roxane Gay’s seminal book, “Ayiti,” now in a re-edition by Grove Atlantic, a pair of Haitian lovers, Yves and Gabi, prepare to leave home for a dangerous overnight boat journey to Miami, where they will hope to enter and illegally embed in the diaspora’s Little Haiti there and to change the course of their lives forever. At a tense and painful crossroads in their decision making, Yves remarks to his wife, “I love my country and I love my people, but I cannot bear the thought of returning to this place where I cannot work or feel like a man or even breathe. I mean you no insult when I say this, but you cannot possibly understand.”
The narrator, Gabi, then reflects, “I wanted to protest, but as I lay there, my head pounding, I realized I probably couldn’t understand what it would be like for a man in this country where men have so many expectations placed upon them that they can never hope to meet.” While a work of fiction, this scene illustrates one of the many countless double standards—the lopsided, unfair, dangerous, or corrupted conditions fueling persons’ geo-political displacement—that give way to the crisis of global immigration, of which no continent is historically, or contemporarily, without.
And we’ve all seen the photographs and footage in the media: courses taken like that of Yves and Gabi, which did not end with labor and community and joyful abandon seen on TV and money to send to mom, but rather the sickened bodies and terrified eyes looking up into the faces of the “rightfully there,” the dejected camps in Greece or Jordan, or worse yet, headlines featuring bodies found in the backs of trucks, or out at sea, trying to cross these borders we’ve inked, in ungodly conditions. Of course, this crisis becomes politicized much faster than humanized, and you’ve got presidential figures referring to Haiti as a “shithole” and a rise of nationalism worldwide that does not want your kind here, no matter the chemical warfare, sex slavery, abuse, silencing, or impoverishment you’re seeking to escape.
Enter celebrated Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei, who designed the art cover for The Double Standards Issue, and whose first solo show in Los Angeles, Life Cycle—opening at the Marciano Art Foundation this fall—is anchored in the global refugee crisis. Other notable works like “Sunflower Seeds” (2010), which features 100 million porcelain, hand-painted sunflower seeds in a commentary on China’s export relationship with the USA, and “Spouts” (2015), a work that includes thousands of antique teapot spouts symbolizing the vast amounts of mouths across the world longing for expression and freedom, round out a compelling and considered survey of the artist’s work and life of provocation.
Beyond the intricacy, skill, and scale of his decades-long output, Ai’s affronts to the Chinese government, state-run media, and methodology have earned him worldwide fame. All of which has, of course, been met with aggression and repression by the State: 81 days spent in detainment in 2011; a four-year revoked passport; his Beijing studio recently bulldozed to make way for a commercial development without any warning. It’s not been a typical, lauded artist ride with Champagne and elbow-rubbing dinner parties. All of that is inconsequential anyway. Since the return of his passport in 2015, Ai has relocated to Berlin, and subsequently traveled all over the world to view and document refugee and immigration crises. The journey has dominated his widely-watched social media feeds, and is showcased in his feature-length documentary, Human Flow, which premiered last year. Other recent works, “Laundromat”—which sculpturally depicts immigrants’ castoff clothing and personal affects—and Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, his NYC-wide public installation, which erected a variety of “walls” and “barriers” throughout the boroughs, have placed him at the heart of the migration conversation, one in which he has no interest in leaving.
Life Cycle, the culmination of many years, features the now canonized, circumstantially desperate life boat, surrounded by mythic figures crafted of bamboo and silk in Weifang, a Chinese city with a kite-making tradition that dates back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The figures reference the Shan Hai Jing, or Classic of Mountains and Seas, a historic and influential text that has been in existence since the 4th century B.C. This boat will dock in Los Angeles, a city immersed in diversity, documented or not, at a time when California, home to the world’s fifth largest economy, fortifies itself against the US government’s decreasing immigration tolerance with sanctuary cities, bills and measures to defend illegal immigrants and challenge deportations, and the denial of city contracts for any firms taking part in Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
As such, it is with pleasure that we welcome the distinguished activist to L.A., the arrival of whom is prefaced with an interview found below, wherein we discuss the fallacy of the term “refugee,” notions of scale—physically and metaphorically—in Life Cycle, and Ai’s own experience as a child refugee and how it’s informed his unrelenting global journey.
One of the primary ideas from the Shan Hai Jing is the union or dis-union between geographies both physical and emotional. Do you feel Life Cycle presents a vast emotional geography? Is this emotional range dominated by fear or trauma? Hope?
The world is currently facing such extremes: flooding and wildfires, extinction of species, centuries-old religious conflicts coupled with rapid scientific and technological developments, massive corporations seeking more and more. We can no longer assume that human rights and human dignity will be protected. The mass displacement of people happening right in front of our eyes surprises us to such a degree that we are no longer sincere about our own emotions, no longer trusting of our memory or any value system.
Geography is responsible for nation-making and societal rule-making, yet without geography these ideas are incomplete. Do you feel your artistic expression needs geography to convey its message, or is that message immune to the limitations imposed by geography?
Geography has always been a part of human identity. It relates to language, religion, lifestyle, down to the smallest detail. But in a time when capitalism has no geography, where it exploits the weakness of human nature to maximize profits, physical and psychological conflict has become extreme. It’s become very complex.
Your work over the years has been defined, in part, by volume and repetition. The same could be said for the refugee crisis; it scales endlessly. How does Life Cycle speak to volume or repetition? In what ways?
Life Cycle is a seemingly enormous exhibition, both in terms of scale and volume, containing hundreds of elements. The exhibition presents both new and old works, the culmination of years of effort. However, in comparison to what is happening today, where over 68.5 million people have been forced from their homes and where someone new becomes homeless every two seconds, the work is only a minor reflection of reality.
Elements of Life Cycle were constructed in Weifang, which has a history of fabrication, notably kite-making which leads back many centuries. One might liken the idea of crafting a kite for flight to that of a migratory journey by refugees... each journey is different, and each very vulnerable. Why did you choose Weifang and how does the history there of crafting kites feed into the ideas imposed by Life Cycle?
If you face those refugees coming off the boat—the crying children, the elderly women trying to move their half-frozen legs, everyone wet and in shock from the previous night’s rough journey across the sea—in that moment, art becomes the only thing that can save your soul. Imagination is as light as a feather—it’s almost transparent—can fly in the sky, free from danger.
To use traditional crafts is to use the oldest language to narrate the new stories happening today and tomorrow. Unfortunately, these stories of human struggle are no different from those that have happened throughout our history; the same story is retold again and again. As an artist, I’m trying to find a new way to express my feelings. Tradition is safe ground for us to relate to our expression and, in a deeper sense, to human expression.
You yourself were a child refugee and you’ve stated refugees “must be seen as an essential part of our shared humanity.” Refugees struggle for recognition and support because of their geographical displacement, among other things, yet it would be argued our shared humanity should know no borders. Must we dissolve ideas of geography to recognize refugees, or is there something else you’d suggest?
Borders are created by human beings. Today, borders are the political excuse to not accept those sacrificed by regional conflicts. People have become victimized by this harsh idea of division and exclusion, the thought that people can be separated and that humanity is not all the same. This hatred takes on a form, composed of concrete walls and barbed wire. Allowing this to happen shows that we have very limited compassion for others. It is a rejection of the belief that humans are created equal.
It is the responsibility of the fortunate to help those who lack basic life support and who are trying to escape from danger. A true test of our understanding of humanity is to protect our ability to have compassion for others and to share our privileged lives with them. There is simply no excuse not to do so. We cannot sacrifice the fundamental values that distinguish humans from wild animals.
The theme for this particular magazine is “Double Standards,” which is a commonplace occurrence today in pop culture, politics, government, and society. What sort of double standards do you identify in the refugee crisis and the culture that surrounds it? How are these expressed through Life Cycle?
The double standard is a keen observation of today’s culture. The world is divided right in front of us. There is the world of democracy and the world of autocracy, the world of freedom and the world of oppression, the world of liberal thought and the world of conservative thought. Accepting those sets of values avoids the true struggle of having a critical mind. The reality of today is that the world is created by double standards, which is widening the gap between man’s thinking and behavior; a gap no one can escape from. We are all stranded by this in some
way, causing us to be less trustful in humanity and in society; lessening our esteem of our own strength and making us feel politically powerless.
With regard to Life Cycle my work always relates to our value judgment. What we consider new, old, modern, classic, in relation to our aesthetic and moral condition.
Refugees exist because of threats to their lives or well-being. What would you describe as the biggest current threat to contemporary art? Do you see parallels? Is the attempt to identify parallels a selfish act perhaps unique to the “art world?”
If there is an ‘art world,’ it should be one which identifies with humanity and its desires, fears, and sorrow. If there is no such art world that can relentlessly relate to man’s struggle, then that art world is simply a fake and dishonest group of profiteers who have nothing better to do in their lives.
The title of this show might suggest that refugees and refugee culture is part of a continuous pattern of life. Is society possible without refugees? Why or why not?
We are all refugees. In a sense, we all come from somewhere else. We all once sought safety from danger, and new possibilities and a better life environment. If you look at the universe, we can easily understand how vulnerable we are. Even the most secure ideas can become so ephemeral or fragmental when considered at the scale of the universe. We could all be refugees of a bigger war. As long as nuclear arms exist, and continue to be produced, then the potential for the creation of more refugees is inevitable. We are all also gradually becoming refugees due to the damage we have done to our own environment. We have asked too much and cared too little, blindly taking advantage for profit without any concern for our children’s generation.
To call someone a refugee is an insult because they are a part of us. If any one person is a refugee, we are all refugees.
Your life and career trajectory is very much defined by resiliency. Surely your life experiences have informed a strong will and character, but are there newer instances in your current life, or the modern landscape, that inspire you to push forward with toughness and clarity? New moments or situations?
The only things that inspire me are new possibilities for communication; those which build up a civil society that equips itself with information and willingly becomes active in enacting political change, creating new opportunities for humanity to coexist and benefit from mutual understanding and trust.
Written by Matthew Bedard