Ai Weiwei´s Safe Passage

In Berlin, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei covered the outdoor columns of the city’s main concert hall, Konzerthaus, with 14,000 refugee life jackets. In the middle of the columns, Ai placed a black rubber boat with “Safe Passage” written on it.

Ai had gathered the bright orange jackets during a visit to Lesbos, a Greek island through which thousands of refugees have passed from the Middle East to Europe. The jackets are meant to represent the individuals who have drowned at sea while on their journeys.

As part of the Cinema for Peace gala at the concert hall, where Ai was an honorary president, the artist aimed to increase awareness of the refugee crisis with this installation, while also criticizing certain Europeans’ responses to it.

Along with most of Europe, Germany has seen tens of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees flock to its country in recent months. Though centers have been created to aid refugees, several anti-refugee organizations have emerged in Germany, with some, like Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA) spreading to neighboring countries such as the Czech Republic and Denmark. PEGIDA has staged multiple demonstrations and protests against refugee immigration in Germany and beyond.

While some people appreciated Ai’s installation for raising awareness and honoring these lost lives, others have been more critical. Artnet’s Hili Perlson wrote that it was an “offensively tasteless photo op.”

This installation follows Ai’s recreation of an image depicting a drowned refugee toddler from Syria, which resulted in widespread backlash towards the artist. In the photo, posted earlier this month, the artist imitates the dead youth’s body on the coast of Lesbos.

German authorities removed the jackets days after Ai placed them on the Konzerthaus’ columns, bringing its facade back to its usual state.

published: 22. 2. 2016