BERLIN — Europe’s refugee crisis is a political flash point and a humanitarian emergency. But is it also art?
From Banksy to Ai Weiwei, the region’s refugee crisis is becoming the muse of artists who are drawing their social commentaries on larger-than-life urban canvases. For instance, Ai — the Chinese dissident artist-turned-Berlin transplant — orchestrated the adornment of his adopted city’s 19th-century Konzerthaus this weekend with 14,000 bright-orange life vests.
Used by some of the Syrians, Iraqis and others washing up on the shore of the Greek island of Lesbos on desperate quests for sanctuary in Europe, the jackets now spiral up the six columns of the concert hall in a temporary monument to misery and hope.
As art, Ai says, they are meant to jar. More specifically, they are intended to shock the continent out of complacency at a time when European countries are, one by one, shutting their doors to asylum seekers.
“This is Europe. This is the 21st century, and I don’t think people really get it,” Ai said in a phone interview from Lesbos, where he is working on a new documentary about the refugee crisis. “Where is our humanity?”
Yet, with Europeans deeply divided over how and whether to help asylum seekers, the increasing ranks of artists and filmmakers creating works on the crisis are generating a debate in their own right.
Graffiti artist Banksy is in the midst of a series on the refugee crisis. His latest work — a young girl from “Les Misérables” rising from a cloud of tear gas — recently popped up on a wall of the French Embassy in London, in a statement against the use of force by the French against migrant camps in northern Calais.
In an effort that polarized the German public, ominous ads began appearing across Berlin in June warning that “the dead are coming.” Said dead turned out to be refugees. A troop led by the Swiss German artist Philipp Ruch claimed to have had refugees’ bodies exhumed in Italy after they had drowned in the Mediterranean, only to be reburied in Berlin during a provocative piece of performance art.
For all its size, Ai’s life-jacket piece this weekend was, perhaps, not his most powerful statement on the subject. Last month in Lesbos, he posed face down on a rocky beach for a photo meant to recall Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body on the Turkish shore became a powerful symbol of crisis last year.
His new work, erected over the weekend by aides in Berlin, lit up German social media, where everyone was suddenly a critic.
On Twitter, German user Philipp Meier wondered, “Is [Ai] taking advantage of refugees for his own purposes or putting them into public focus?”
The German blogger David Gutensohn asked: “Is this art, or can we get rid of it?”
Die Welt commentator Swantje Karich called Ai’s “dead child” photo “shameless,” adding: “What is the great moralist Ai Weiwei hoping to achieve with this? One can only get cynical: Perhaps he’s starting an ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ for refugees. Perhaps he really wants people to imitate the pose to generate more attention and clicks?”
Yet just as many people, if not more, applauded Ai for producing a highly effective work that literally stopped traffic in central Berlin. A black raft dangled from the center of the concert hall’s facade, between the stone pillars that seemed to radiate with the orange of the life jackets.
Martin Steger, a 42-year-old Berlin lawyer who came to see the installation Monday, said, “It makes me picture what it must have been like on this boat.”
“It makes you stop and think,” he said. “If you imagine what these people went through, the issues that people here are concerned with become quite incomprehensible. For example, not being able to use sports halls because they are being used to accommodate refugees.”
Ai, who is now teaching a master class at the Berlin University of the Arts, is unapologetic about his work. He said the life-vest project came to mind after reflecting on a similar piece he did using thousands of backpacks to illustrate the mass deaths of schoolchildren in China’s 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which knocked down buildings alleged to be poorly constructed.
“This is not exaggerating or trying to exaggerate,” Ai said, adding, “I wanted this to be an alarm, to raise an alarm.”
“I don’t care what all people think,” he said. “My work belongs to the people who have no voice.”
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.