Last September a photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a beach near Bodrum made headlines around the world. The image had a significant effect on shifting public perception to the Syrian refugee crisis as well as sparking a debate around the ethics of the circulation of such images. Academics at the University of Sheffield have estimated that 53,000 tweets were sent per hour at the height of the image’s circulation reaching 20 million people around the world in 12 hours. Last week, over four months after the image appeared, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei made his own contribution to the debate in a photograph which depicts the artist posing as Kurdi. The artist, looking a good deal heavier than the toddler, lies prone on the beach in a restful pose. The image was unveiled last week at the India Art Fair in Delhi in a mini-exhibition of self-portraits.
Ai Weiwei is a divisive figure. On the one hand there is little doubt that he is China’s most well-known artist and has been treated badly by the Chinese authorities. On the other hand a number of art critics and curators such as Jed Perl and Francesco Bonami have argued that his actual artwork is derivative and second rate, and that he is championed by the western art world because of his rather unsubtle political sloganeering and claim to victimhood. There is no doubt that Ai feels strongly about the Syrian refugee crisis – he recently cancelled an exhibition in Denmark in protest about its government’s hardening of policy towards asylum seekers – but this particular photograph arguably plays into the hands of his detractors.
To pose as Kurdi is a crude piece of identification with the dead boy. While Ai has suffered at the hands of the Chinese government, it is difficult to equate his experiences to those of the three-year old. In an interview with CNN, Ai states: 'For me to be in the same position [as Kurdi] is to suggest our condition can be so far from human concerns in today’s politics.' Never mind the garbled syntax of the second half of the sentence, it is the first half of it that is mind-boggling. He is not in the same position as Kurdi for the simple reason that, after the photo-shoot, he got up, dusted himself down and returned to whatever leading international artists do, as opposed to Kurdi, whose dead body was carefully picked up by a police officer. This over-identification with refugees was also seen in a stunt last September when Ai, accompanied by his friend Anish Kapoor and a number of reporters, walked eight miles through London in grey blankets to show solidarity with refugees, most of whom tend to have to travel a bit further than eight miles and do not usually start their journey outside the Royal Academy.
Instead of contributing to the debate on refugees, both the refugee walk and the Kurdi image suggest that Ai Weiwei might not really be thinking these things through. The Ai-as-Kurdi image is ludicrous in its careful composition, printed tastefully in black and white with the surf breaking dramatically and a tree artfully cropped in the mid-distance. The walk with Kapoor did not reflect the difficulty of the journeys that refugees take. In between these works, Ai took time out to have a go at Lego who refused to sell him lots of Lego bricks as the company had a policy of not selling in bulk if it thought the purchaser was going to make a political statement. After the artist whipped up a backlash the company retreated. Refugees, Lego, it’s all grist to Ai's mill.
Artists have played an important role in bringing a spotlight to serious issues that have been ignored but no-one in the right mind could argue that the image of Kurdi was overlooked. If anything, it was circulated too readily and without enough reflection. There is a fast-moving debate going on about Syria, Isis, refugees, Western interventionism, Islam and the growth of its doctrinaire versions. This photograph contributes absolutely nothing to them. Instead there is the lingering suspicion that what it mostly contributes to is the flourishing career of Ai Weiwei.