The widely acclaimed Chinese political artist and activist Ai Weiwei returned to New York earlier this fall with four highly provocative shows about displacement. At Mary Boone, Lisson Gallery and Deitch Projects, the enigmatic artist created four new installations that draw attention to the refugee crisis. “Laundromat,” at Deitch Projects’ Wooster Street space, reposed clothing meticulously pressed and hung from the gallery’s ceiling, seen together with shoes and other belongings the artist acquired while documenting the struggle of migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos. At Mary Boone, an installation consisting of materials like ancient wood and porcelain, LEGO bricks, and wallpaper, cover both locations–at Fifth Avenue and West 24 Street. Over at Lisson Gallery, the detritus of trees and branches were strewn on the gallery floor in an installation conceived by the artist as a way of symbolizing the uprootedness many migrants face either on account of war, conflict or ecological disaster.
Last year, Weiwei became recipient of Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award, testament to his commitment to documenting the plight of the world’s growing refugee population, which the UN Refugee Agency estimates to be 21.3 million, 53% of whom come from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.
The quadratic exhibition is Weiwei’s first in New York since being put under house arrest in China in 2010, allegedly for “economic crimes,” which he claims were trumped up charges on account of his vociferous critique of government policy. Since regaining his freedom in 2015, the artist has wasted no time creating contemporary work that has been seen by some as highly moving and relevant, and by others as opportunistic and self-serving.
In January 2016, Weiwei restaged a photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body after his boat had capsized off the coast of Bodrum, Turkey, in a tragic image that made headlines all around the world. The restaging consisted of Weiwei being photographed face down like Kurdi, in a move the artist was heavily criticized for as insensitive, untimely, and morally questionable, but which the artist claimed was designed to pay tribute to the tragedy of the thousands of asylum seekers who die every year attempting to make the often perilous journey over the Mediterranean Sea.
The four concurrent exhibitions represent Weiwei’s return to the familiar space of the gallery. On a surface level, they summarily call into focus the tragedy of the migrant crisis in a way that few other artists are willing, bold or brave enough to do. Beneath this, however, there can be seen a perverse kind of victim porn that permeates each installation and feels like an opportunist move by the artist to hitchhike onto one current tragedy after another. Callousness and careerism aside, Weiwei has managed to rupture the stoic gallery system by placing at the forefront poignant political and social issues that deserve more attention, not less, and for this, he should be commended.
Ai Weiwei’s concurrent exhibitions at Lisson Gallery, Deitch Projects and Mary Boone Gallery run through 23 December 2016.