The time and timber of our history are changing fast, and the sense of the contemporary is now entirely precarious.
According to a news item on India Today, “Last week, a team from Asia’s largest English news magazine, India Today, travelled to the Greek island of Lesbos to meet global artist and activist Ai Weiwei … One of the pictures from our exclusive photo shoot shows Ai Weiwei lying face down on the pebbles next to the sea. This is a tribute to the tragic and everlasting image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee whose drowned body was washed up on a beach near the Turkish resort town of Bodrum last September.”
The urgent sense of excitement at breaking the news and the proprietorship of this picture and its artistic and political significance oozes from the gaudy breathlessness of its prose – and yet you look at this picture of Ai Weiwei and you wonder: What does it exactly mean when a world renowned artist, a rather portly middle-aged man, poses as the malnourished dead body of a Syrian refugee child washed ashore as he and his family were trying to escape the slaughterhouse of their homeland?
What are we supposed to feel, think, do when we see this picture of Ai Weiwei? Will it enhance or neutralise our terrorised sensibility to the original incident; will it underline or mock, ennoble or ridicule, the actual incident that has occasioned this “artwork”?
Of mimicry and artistry
Ai Weiwei is of course not the first one to turn his artistic gaze at this tragic incident.
Before him, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo had also depicted Aylan Kurdi, in which the three-year-old dead boy is shown in the sick mind of their cartoonist as having grown up and become a sexual predator violating European young women.
In the case of Charlie Hebdo, the response is of course very easy and straightforward. As represented by Charlie Hebdo, the French seem to have quite a sick, disgusting, and prodigiously obscene sense of humour that certainly does not warrant the murderous response of those Islamist thugs who went on a rampage killing people – but nor does it justify any decent human being jumping on the ludicrous bandwagon of “Je suis Charlie” theatre of the absurd.
Does Ai Weiwei's picture sublate and ennoble the occasion of that tragedy or does the figure of an overweight man pretending to be a lifeless child equally border with obscenity even despite the artist's intentions?
The case of Ai Weiwei, which is certainly very different from the obscenity of Charlie Hebdo, raises a more fundamental aesthetic question that may easily fade into the political. How do we represent tragic realities in this time of terror and in this age of visual oversaturation?
Does Ai Weiwei’s picture sublate and ennoble the occasion of that tragedy or does the figure of an overweight man pretending to be a lifeless child equally border with obscenity even despite the artist’s intentions?
Here, we need to abandon the realm of intention, for obviously Ai Weiwei has had far superior intentions than those of the ghastly racist Charlie Hebdo.
Given his preoccupation with the fate of the refugees, he undoubtedly wishes to raise concern or even solidarity for the fate of this massive exodus of millions of human beings from their home and habitat.
Would that perfectly plausible possibility render the picture that Ai Weiwei has had taken of himself – while mimicking the moment of Aylan Kurdi’s death – praiseworthy, uplifting, worthy of the exercise, and deserving of the term “art”?
The problem here is more in the realm of mimetic representation than anything moral, ethical, or even political.
Does Ai Weiwei – could Ai Weiwei, or any other artist – succeed to overcome the mimetic impossibility of representing this particular reality?
Crisis of artistic representation
Is this in any shape or form a successful act of artistic representation? What actually happens when we see the rather well-fed body of a grown-up man lying on a shore and pretending, mocking, or representing, even in perfectly mournful solidarity, to remind us of the lifeless body of a three-year-old boy?
What I think we are facing today is a critical crisis of artistic representation – the fundamental failure of conceptual art as we know it today to come to terms with realities that have trespassed national, regional, or imaginative geographies of representation.
The enormity of the tragedy we are witnessing in places such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc is yet to find its own aesthetic idiomaticity – and assimilating those horrid realities into conventional, even cliche and crude, conceptual art as articulated and staged by the North American and Western European curatorial provincialism is no longer sufficient. It is in fact positively revolting.
Ai Weiwei is a celebrated Chinese artist, systematically persecuted by the Chinese government. That fact in and of itself is worthy of artistic contemplation.
But the dead body of Aylan Kurdi off the coast of Turkey represents the emerging topography of a calamity yet to be canvassed in the full spectrum of its tragic dimensions.
The dead body of Aylan Kurdi off the coast of Turkey represents the emerging topography of a calamity yet to be canvassed in the full spectrum of its tragic dimensions.
What Ai Weiwei’s gesture shares with Charlie Hebdo is a fundamental failure of contemporary art in its European provenance (even when staged by a Chinese artist and commissioned by an Indian venue) to come to terms with those realities.
Neither the Chinese artist, nor the Indian venue facilitating this particular art scene significantly alters the more territorial demarcation between reality and representation.
Who gets artistically to represent whom and not just by what authority, but more immediately by means of what specific aesthetic parameters?
What I am suggesting here is what I also thought when Fernando Botero began doing his paintings of Abu Ghraib’s victims of sadistic torture. There are certain scenes, certain realities that the simple mandate of decency demands that no artist go near. Art cannot be made to consume the terror of reality.
In Kafka’s allegorical short story “A Hunger Artist”, we witness the fate of an unfortunate artist who performs hunger for the public but faces the incessant incredulity of the selfsame public that refuses to believe his honesty and truth.
Towards the end of his life and career, the Hunger Artist is willing even to perform in a circus next to animals for a meagre number of people to watch him and still his audience keep declining. Today, the fate of artistic spectatorship is no less ludicrous or tragic. Who stages the artist today, what does the artist have to offer and put on display to gain an audiences?
Like Kafka’s Hunger Artist, there is nothing beyond a passing internet curiosity about even a world-renowned artist who may even fake death to stage a colossal human tragedy, but alas the public that he wishes to convince of something or another has always already scrolled down the page of history to the next atrocity.
The three-year-old Aylan Kurdi died a very public death and was denied the dignity of a private mourning. The innocence of his perished life must rest heavily and irredeemably upon the guilty conscience of our humanity. No absolution is possible from that collective guilt – and no decent artist must ever go near that sacred, forbidden, hallowed demarcation where humanity is held accountable to the judgment of the elemental forces of nature.
Nothing will ever haunt the frightened humanity like the original snapshot of Aylan Kurdi – nothing. There are certain irreducible realities that make a mockery of any artistic attempt at representing them more frightfully than they already are.
The very act of representation is here suspect, indecent, grotesque. There are moments that only superior artists can realise, when the mourning must remain in blinding darkness, where in silence the quiet cry is the loudest scream, the harshest explosion of the fact that something is horridly amiss about the world.
That volcanic void will swallow and nullify any artist too hungry and so foolish for fame that comes near it.
Ai Weiwei the artist died in – and with – that fake death. That picture, perhaps, was his greatest work of suicidal art.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.