Ai Weiwei & the aestheticization of refugees

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei imitating the lifeless body of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi on the Greek Island of Lesbos. (Rohit Chawla for India Today) Chinese artist Ai Weiwei imitating the lifeless body of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi on the Greek Island of Lesbos. (Rohit Chawla for India Today)
Despina Biri
When I was a philosophy student, we often examined the ethical thought experiment of the drowning child, in all its variations. Devised by utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, the main claim is that “if you can save a life without sacrificing anything of moral significance, you ought to do so”. The implications of applying this principle are far reaching. What if the child is far away from you? What if there are many children, and you have no way of assessing which one is in most urgent need? The list of questions goes on. Singer’s argument is not without problems, but the parallel between the thought experiment and what is happening now in Europe is an obvious one to draw.

Clearly, the very image of drowning children is now a daily occurrence in Europe. How are we to respond? How are we responding, in the here and now? The answers we give to these questions have implications that are both practical as well as ethical.

An important dimension of the answer, or attempted answer, we are collectively giving to the increased refugee arrivals into Europe at this point in time is, curiously, related to the aesthetic, not directly the ethical, aspect. What do photography, performance and visual art have to say about the way we see refugees?
A recently created photograph depicting Chinese artist Ai Weiwei posing as Aylan Kürdi, is interesting in this respect. The reason for this is that, in attempting to “raise awareness about the plight of refugees”, Weiwei ends up aestheticizing. That is, he uses what has now become a symbol of refugee deaths in the Mediterranean in a way that, somehow, brings to mind a fashion shoot (try googling “refugee fashion”). In posing as Aylan, Weiwei strips the original image of its visual impact, rendering it instead a mere substitute of a representation (that is, of another substitute). A cultural signifier, which has come to symbolize all refugees coming into Europe in 2015 and beyond, but which cannot possibly serve as anything but an approximation of the reality (that is, death by drowning). The original image is thereby stripped of its connotations, signifying the result of unspeakable violence, instead becoming just another way to visually represent “what it is to be a refugee”. The reason why it does not quite achieve its purpose is simple; reactions to the original image were a mixture of shock and grief, to the point where, as we have previously argued of powerlessness, similar to the reactions to a natural disaster.

To clarify: A relevant distinction to draw from here would be between the image of Weiwei (and similar depictions or representations of the life of refugees), and the corpus of work by Michael Haneke. Close examination of Haneke’s work reveals a preoccupation, fixation even, with how violence is depicted (or not depicted), and used as a plot device in cinema. In numerous interviews, Haneke has argued that, often, not showing acts of violence has a greater impact upon the viewer than actually showing them in all of their minuscule gory detail. The moral reason for this aesthetic choice is uncomplicated: we must not become accustomed to witnessing acts of violence, or their results, stripped of context and without room to reflect upon the choices we must now face in response to this violence. Yet Weiwei’s photograph does just that: it uses the pose as a device for ostensibly raising awareness, but in doing so, it normalizes what is the result of war and the struggle of millions to escape it.
However, there is still something which we do not see: how people came to be refugees. We seldom see the bombings, the terror campaigns, the troops deployed to fight Daesh. In this sense, what Weiwei is doing is sensationalize the product of that violence. However, violence and its result are not easy to distinguish between in the context of flight from war. Firstly because, it could be argued, the very event of flight can be considered violence in itself, and secondly because, especially with the ever hardening stance of the EU against refugees, fleeing from violence in the Middle East, Africa or the subcontinent  is met with another type of violence on European soil, of which drowning is only the most obvious form.

To be sure, Weiwei is not the only culprit here; the photograph of dead Aylan was already one of the most viewed images in 2015, well before Weiwei posed as him. This in itself reveals much about the way we collectively react to what I, for what it’s worth, refuse to call a crisis – that is, the arrival of war stricken people in Europe. The photograph of dead Aylan is, furthermore, the modern equivalent of starving children in Somalia in the 80s; those images, like the photo of Aylan now, are used and shared in an attempt to mobilize and raise awareness but, through overuse, the audience becomes desensitized. “Feed the World” is just another Christmas chorus; Aylan, the only name that survives among hundreds of thousands.

Going back to philosophy, Singer argues that, were we able to save the drowning child by, for example, sending $700 to her country, instead of buying the latest iPhone, then we ought to do so. Certainly, the volunteer experience on the Greek islands shows that many people would very much agree with Singer. However, at the same time, we run the risk of, inadvertently or not, aestheticizing; thinking we can save the drowning children by taking photographs of them, or of ourselves as them, using the latest $700 iPhone.

Despina Biri is a researcher and writer on health care issues.  She blogs at  and
  • Translated by: N/A
  • The original text was first published on: Written for AnalyzeGreece!