Words || Ilhan Abdi
A splash of water. A semi-inflated plastic raft holding only a few wooden planks and forlorn boots bobs up and down the sea. A man bundled up in a puffer jacket and hoodie leans over the railing of a ship following the raft, snapping pictures it continues to drift over the sparkling ocean. He signals to a man who is pulling in the boat.
“Can I jump on it?”
“Can I jump on it”
He fumbles a little, and hops in with the help of a couple of boatmen.
He snaps a few more pictures.
“Where do you want us to go?” The seamen ask.
“Go a little bit further,” he says standing firm in the rubber vessel as it teeters, trying to accomodate the sudden weight of a whole person.
“I have to be quiet for a moment” he says as he sizes up the feeble raft, his face an impassive mask.
This is Ai Wei Wei, Chinese dissident artist and activist, who in recent years has made the global refugee crisis the highlight of his work. This scene is the beginning of Ai Wei Wei Drifting, a documentary that plays on one of three screens on a wall plastered with thousands of photographs in a warehouse on Cockatoo Island for this year’s Sydney Biennale. This isn’t just any old artist co-opting a movement for a praise, Ai was and is a refugee both in his past and present. In 1958, his family was removed from their home in Beijing as part of the Chinese government’s purge of intellectuals, artists, writers and poets who opposed the ruling party and had to be ‘re-educated’ by being sent to live and work in labour camps. Ai’s father was one of China’s most celebrated poets at the time. The family lived in callous conditions, forced into underground trenches, where they were continuously assaulted by authorities.
Mirroring his father, Ai Wei Wei became exiled following the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan as he relentlessly pressured the government and led an investigation to uncover the names of over 5,000 children who had perished due to the lack of solid infrastructure and government negligence. He also put up an installation made of 9,000 children’s backpacks, forming a message by a mother of one of the dead infants. The government wanted to cover it up, and for his protest, he was jailed and beaten brutally by police. He hasn’t felt safe in China ever since. His deep emotional attachment and disturbance toward the current refugee condition is so much that he spent two years travelling to 40 refugee camps in a score of countries. In Drifting he appears incredibly pained and disturbed by the conditions of refugees and oppressed people all over the world and he ruminates on his life as an exile. Despite this, his notoriety has led to him receiving a professorship in Berlin, where he lives a comfortable life, so his current experience of displacement is somewhat worlds away from the Syrian refugees in the camps he trudges around in for the documentary.
On the other TVs the same raft floats in the ocean, in different time lapses, in an endless loop. The photographs that paper the walls vary, from selfies with distressed looking men and women in life jackets smiling weakly into the camera, to images of the sea, more rubber rafts and the dozens of people in them readying themselves for the perilous journey over the ocean.
The films are just a small part of the main attraction, which sits just a few steps away from the wall piece. LAW OF THE JOURNEY is an enormous 60-metre long inflatable boat made with the same materials, and in the same factory, as those shipped off to Turkey to be used by displaced people to travel to Europe. It is loaded with hundreds of faceless rubber people, squashed together wearing rafts with their heads bowed and shoulders bracing against an invisible tempest. Ai was inspired to make this piece after observing refugees squashed into precariously overcrowded boats of the coast of Lesbos.
In photographs, the boat looks almost ordinary, but in real life, it’s monumental. For one, my head comes up just below the end of the raft, and the rubber figures in the raft are twice as big as the boat they’re squeezed into. The sheer enormity of it alone is confronting, and the urge to turn and run away from the glaring call for recognition is hard to resist. The boat is accompanied by the sounds of Ai’s voice in both Mandarin and English, and the quiet echoes of the conversations of art goers who are observing from above, or tiny figures who have reached the end of the boat, make the lofty warehouse feel like an enormous tomb. The white platform the raft sits on, covered in quotes about the pain of exile, and the predicament of refugee life, borrowed from Zadie Smith and Edward Said to the Epic of Gilgamesh, only amplify the dolefulness of it all. Behind the TV wall is a rickety staircase where there’s a better, and fuller view of the boat.
From there, looking down at the boat, one feels both privy to and concealed from the pain and experience of the hundreds of faceless silhouettes, and it serves mention that each and every figure’s head is turned away from the viewer, with their head bowed down crying, the weight of the world on their shoulders, and it’s rejection too.
The installation is quite at home here in an industrial establishment not too different from the one in which it was made. It is at home in Cockatoo Island well, in the vicinity of the setting it was made for, where the doorless building allows for the rushing winds from the harbour and the fishy smell of the Parramatta River permeates the air. Ai Wei Wei’s work is the centrepiece of the Sydney Biennale. The irony of a piece of artwork that forces art goers to come face to face with the refugee crisis, and in turn, Australia’s own crimes against refugees, being packed away on an island is almost too obvious to bear. It seems this is Australia’s way of dealing with anything that’s supposedly too large to accomodate on the mainland.
Ai knows this, and perhaps that is the exact reason why he chose Australia to be the new temporary home for this piece. It was recently on display in Prague, Czech Republic, a country which refuses to accept refugees, the reasons for which were the acceptance of (mostly) Muslim refugees would ‘create fertile ground for barbaric attacks’. In 2014, artists boycotted the Biennale, after it was found that it’s largest benefactor, Transfield Holdings’s subsidiary, Transfield Services, ran the Australian detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island. It also serves mention that the Biennale and Transfield were founded by the same person, Franco Belgiorno-Nettis. It led to the festival severing ties with the company, and the owners of Transfield Holdings selling their stake in Transfield services and distancing themselves from it entirely by changing their name to Broadspectrum.
Cockatoo Island itself has a deep history as a penal colony, with most of its buildings having been built by convicts. It is a legacy Australians remember fondly, and even look kindly on and sympathise with convicts, mostly people who were committing crimes by choice. Though they don’t extend the same courtesy to innocent, displaced, mostly brown and black people fleeing war and persecution being detained in inhumane conditions. It’s no wonder Ai Wei Wei chose to bring the fight against the refugee crisis to the shores of the people whose country has one of the worst and morally bankrupt policies on refugees and asylum seekers.
As I leave the island and get ready to board the ferry back to the city, a display catches my eye. Eleven bars, each engraved with the name of a 19th century prison for convicts, and jutting out of the platform it sits on is a plaque that proudly claims for tourists; “Be transported into our convict past”. The sun reflects the shadows over the plaque, making it look like it’s confined behind prison bars. I can’t help but think the government, or whoever was heading the tourism initiative on the island, would be too happy to know that I was just transported into our shameful detainee present.
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