Written by Raja El Fani
With his speech at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin, William Kentridge joined the list of influential artists committed to the cause of refugees. In his recent work in Rome called “Triumphs and Laments” – a 500 meter-long frieze produced from the erased patina of the embankment walls that line Rome’s Tiber River waterfront, Kentridge has expressed his sympathies with refugees by including among his monumental figures a Roman slaves gallery that clearly evokes refugee boats.
On the top of a choir of refugee ambassadors, prevails another famous artist who is always in the right place in terms of refugees crisis: the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Ai Weiwei has been traveling around Europe and Middle East since 2015, seeking to become best testimonial (and collector) of all the symptoms of European cultural collapse (including the non-stop arrivals of refugees, the multiplication of refugee camps, and the closing of borders). Ai Weiwei’s assiduity is keeping us alert in virtue of a burning antagonism fostered between contemporary artists: the announced upcoming Ai Weiwei’s documentary “The Human Flood” should be considered as the first attempt of global approval/homologation/normalization of the refugee crisis.
For his part, Greek-born artist Jannis Kounellis has recently addressed the tragic sense of a humanitarian emergency in his solo show at the Monnaie de Paris (the Paris Mint) with his large metallic installations that resemble refugees’ camp beds.
Many artists are suddenly getting involved in the social response to the political crisis of refugees with a wide and spectacular impact. For artists to compete on an aesthetic level in the refugee cause, however, a hopelessly cynical as well as detached approach to reality should be implicated in their ideological and creative process. Nevertheless, the ethical debate erupted after a picture by Ai Weiwei posing as Aylan Kurdi – the Syrian child who drowned in the Mediterranean – hasn’t even begun to grasp the real problem. If Ai Weiwei has failed as an innovator, it is not because of the provocative immoral nature of that picture, but rather because of his outdated theoretical and artistic setting.
Ai Weiwei’s Pop operations originally revolved around serial, mechanical iconic conversions of Chinese culture – at least until he began to wade into global impact events. Those works were a response to the birth of Chinese consumerism that emerged alongside the Western economic welfare of the 1960s, but it actually clashes with our times.
To put a finer point on it, in Paris, Kounellis publicly declared that, faced with the tragedy of the shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, “Mondrian abstractions wouldn’t be useful enough, nowadays,”– as if in certain situations abstract art could be considered less valid than figurative art. By opposing abstract and figurative art, however, we risk forgetting what might be the ultimate goal – and power – of art. Regardless of the stylistic choices of the artist, artistic changes should indeed be conceived to transit into and affect the real world.
Never have artists taken part in the power hidden behind the notion of representation as they have today: representative democracy’s model is the worst form of abstraction today; it is therefore not abstract art that is an inadequate response to the current tragedies – as Kounellis indicates –, but the abstraction of power that turns out to be inadequate by revealing the same power certain artists are “officially” endowed with.
In a clumsy attempt to compete aesthetically on migration themes today, no committed artist will win except in the capacity of a politician, that is an art professional technically able to turn a winning political plan into a work of art. Commitment, activism or protest are not artistic options: they have no inherent artistic validity, indeed they are just common applications of citizenship.
It’s by the same logic that Sislej Xhafa – a long-committed artist who fled from Kosovo to London then Florence and is now based in New York – has been chosen by Rome’s National contemporary art museum Maxxi to represent the official rhetoric on refugee crisis. The solo show called “Welcome!” opened the day of Italian Republic’s anniversary. To inaugurate the show, Xhafa publicly paid tribute to the migrants who died in the Mediterranean saying, “This must be assumed as a human powerlessness” – words that perilously put off political passivity. Being interviewed on what makes his committed art more valid than Ai Weiwei’s, Xhafa answered by addressing the date of his artworks and their continuity.” Such statement is a valid bulwark against the flood of ad hoc (namely improvised) artistic “tributes.”
Xhafa has been specializing in migration themes since the very beginning of his career and has never had to adapt to what has now become a moral trend for artists. Xhafa’s work and research on refugee crisis are, indeed, as authentic and credible because of its dating precedence. Xhafa paradoxically started investigating the refugee crisis’ years before it blew up, and his artistic research has never changed.
Conveying a declaration of a priori intent is precisely what many artists and curators have been avoiding nowadays. Without any ability or intention to express their aesthetic ideals time wise, however, artists risk losing their advantage over History and remain invisible to it. Regardless of the subtle irony that permeates it, historic priority – acting as an industrial patent – actually makes Ai Weiwei one of Xhafa’s most loyal followers. That’s why Art as an industry must maintain itself as an international activity – an activity that, as such, could be applied in the same exact way everywhere in the world.
The greatest international museums, which are becoming bigger and bigger by replicating themselves in different countries like current enterprises, are just preparing for Global Art, which is probably the last phase of industrialization. The growth of the Art industry is expanding on a widespread misunderstanding between the global and the monumental. As large corporations become more deeply involved in producing large-scale art, major museums become more standardized in monumentalizing contemporary symbols (see the new French format of Monumenta at the Grand Palais in Paris).
For example, the Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping has just opened a solo show at Grand Palais called “Empires” that clearly echoes Calais’ refugee camp crisis. The artist tripled the proportions of his famous snake skeleton which floats over mountains of ship containers surmounted by a Napoleon tricorn (also huge), supposedly the embodiment of the current – or imminent? – threat to the European unity.
Among all the official artists focused on scenographic setting, Ai Weiwei, with his provocative actions, is at least the most focused on the change effects of Art. But Ai Weiwei must remember the flooding of refugees as a typical consequence of war is precisely a weapon that’s being used in that same war – the civilian equivalent of an atomic bomb with no claimed responsibility.
The “human flood,” to quote Ai Weiwei’s documentary title, is a civilian bomb randomly dropped in Europe that appears to be destroying Europe’s unity: any government that feels entitled to use this weapon is nothing less than a warlord. The sealing of European borders is not a political choice, but must be considered in the guise of a military protocol remotely activated due to ongoing “invasion.” To stop such an incredibly complex protocol, why should artists be any more mobilized than barbers or farmers? If artists today are mobilized in war, just as scientists were in 1940s Manhattan Project, who will then carry out the next pacifist inventions?