To what end does Ai Weiwei use Art for Activism or Activism for Art?



In this essay I would like to discuss whether Ai Weiwei has used his dissidence and activism to promote his artwork. I will focus on a distinct change in the public’s perception of Ai since his move to Greece and his focus on the Refugee Crisis. Turning the spotlight on a controversial image of Ai Weiwei lying down with his eyes closed on a beach on the Island of Lesbos. It was a reenactment of an image of three-year-old Syrian Refugee Aylan Kurdi’s washed up body on a beach Bodrum that hit the headlines in September 2015 after an unsuccessful attempt to cross over to the Island of Kos. This Ai-as-Aylan photograph was supposed to be a tribute to the ‘everlasting’ image of Aylan Kurdi, which not only brought international scrutiny to refugee crisis but also gave an identity to the Refugees rather than numbers based fear mongering. The portrait of Ai-as-Aylan appeared at the India Art Fair alongside a statement by Ai in which he defended his position perhaps in anticipation of the public’s opinion when the image was shared across the Internet:

Artists are free to make art for art’s sake and I respect that, I do not criticize them. I am not born an artist. I am born a human. I care about human conditions rather than opinions. I have no choice.

In this essay I will start by analyzing the original Aylan image and then contrast it to the Ai-as-Aylan image, because although the reenactment was seen as a tribute to the original, on closer inspection there are too many inconsistencies between the locations, the composition, the aesthetic and the intended context. Then I will discuss statements by Ai that call in to question how aware he is of public perception and whether images such as this help or undermine his position as an activist and artist. We have seen by his withdrawal of work from two Danish Museums, after the Government’s decision to confiscate possessions from refugees that he is in control of where his work is shown. Therefore we would expect the same level of awareness when placing images like the Ai-as-Aylan in International Art Fairs. Although he claims to care about human conditions rather than opinion, his work might be seen to polarize opinion, taking attention away from the Refugee Crisis and upon to himself. This has led me to question to whether Ai Weiwei is using his celebrity status and his following as an artist to promote his activism or whether recent events have revealed that the activism is as a cover for a burgeoning canonization of himself primarily as an artist but also as a self serving martyr.


The tipping point in public opinion is a recent one: before his move to Europe he has been seen as an important dissident, fighting for democracy and freedom of speech in China. His well documented past reveal a back and forth relationship with the Chinese Authorities that stem from his father’s exile and reintegration to his involvement in the design of the Olympic stadium to his post-Olympic criticism. His criticism of the Chinese government is in line with a Western progressive liberal take on the matters of democracy and freedom of speech. His artwork has been influenced by a Western aesthetic found during his time in America when he was younger. He was particularly interested by Dadaism and Duchamp, which became inadvertently entrenched within his readings of the Conceptual art movement. His artworks are made through the use of objects as symbols of subjects by blending Western modern and post modern aesthetic and modes of production: “A symbol is the fastest and most convenient of all roads, but it is also the most profound and unreachable road” (Weiwei, 2011 pg.94). The symbolism of an object and action make for direct readings into his intentions.

He is at his best when his work is more activism than art, as he showed in his investigations in to the Government cover up of the schools destroyed and children killed in the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. It is work like this and his forthright views on his (former) blog that led to him being held without charge for 81 days in 2011 by Chinese Authorities and after his release having his passport confiscated for 4 years. In 2015 he received a visa to stay in Germany for the next 3 years, where he was reunited with his son and partner, while also taking up a teaching post at Berlin University. Since his arrival in Europe Ai Weiwei has engaged in many different ways of drawing attention to the Refugee Crisis. He went on an 8-mile march with Anish Kapoor (and other artists) in London covered in token blankets and he covered Berlin’s Konzerthaus in 14,000 life jackets sent from the Island of Lesbos. At the Konerthaus exhibition he held a lavish gala with red carpets and champagne and during this event he asked the attendees to wear metallic emergency blankets and encouraged them to take selfies to share online. This was an early sign that he intended to use the cult of the celebrity to highlight the apathy towards the refugee crisis. “…it’s unclear now where activism gives way to art, or becomes art, or stops being art, or when provocation rises to the level of interesting art, or descends to the level of a tasteless publicity stunt” (Shahane, 2016). This event was for a worthy cause, yet Ai’s constant repositioning as protagonist within these spectacles reveals the contradictions of Ai’s own privileged position.

The original image of Aylan Kurdi was controversial in itself, as images of dead children don’t normally appear on the front pages of national newspapers, though the increased sharing of the image across social networking sites such as Twitter forced the hands of many editors. While public perception of these images is important, the context in which they arrive and there evaluation by the media still has an influence. The photojournalist Nilufer Demirs took the photograph of Aylan on September 2, 2015. She said in an interview after the image was published that: “There was nothing left to do for him. There was nothing left to bring him back to life. There was nothing to do except take his photograph and that is exactly what I did” (Ridley, 2016). There is a code of ethics for press photography but its effectiveness comes down to how authentic the images are to look at. The editor of photojournalism magazine POLKA, Dimitri Beck says that the power of Aylan’s image comes from its minimalism, “a simple image that deals with an essential truth” (Laurent, 2015). We want the images to be as neutral as possible, to be in the moment with as little composition as possible, the photographer invisible. The photograph of Aylan has become iconic and the public outcry in response to the image changed the rhetoric surrounding the refugee crisis, managing to shift the debate around the crisis from one of statistics to one of human conditions.

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei wipes water from his face during a rainfall while visiting the Greek border camp near Idomeni, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. Ai Weiwei has visited the Idomeni refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, where about 14,000 people, mostly Syrian and Iraqi refugees, have found themselves stranded after Macedonia shut its border. The artist has been focusing on the plight of refugees in recent months, and had spent time living on the Greek island of Lesbos, where many of the refugees arrive from the nearby Turkish coast. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

In January 2016 a team from India Today, which included editor Gayatri Jayaraman and photographer Rohit Chawla visited Ai Weiwei on the Island of Lesbos to interview and photograph him. The Ai-as-Aylan image has now become iconic in its own right but the debate is not focused on the Refugee Crisis but rather on the intentions of the artist. There are several choices that have been before and after to the image that make it differ from the original. One of the simplest points of contention is the location of the image, as Aylan’s image was taken on Bodrum in Turkey after a failed attempt to cross over to the Greek Island of Kos. Whereas the image of Ai Weiwei was taken on the Greek Island of Lesvos which is seen as the first port of call for entry in to Europe. These two images therefore represent making it to Europe or not. While Ai has in the recent past been denied freedom of movement comparisons between the young boy that died on that beach in Turkey and Ai Weiwei are misguided. His own documented struggles as an imprisoned dissident are incomparable to that of a young child that died while fleeing from war. In the interview with India Today Ai Weiwei said that:

I don’t see myself as a refugee because I’ve got my passport and can travel freely, and I’m better than refugees that have lost their lives. But in the way many of my friends are still in jail, many of their families don’t know where they are and cannot have lawyers and proper records. In one sense of course, we are all refugees. (Limited, 2016)

Within this statement the contradiction he lays out is reminiscent of a lot of quotes and work that come out of him. These sentiments can be added to a list statements that sound like proverbs that lead to some people like the India Today editor who project a ‘Gandhi-like’ quality to his statements but in which he doesn’t actually say anything. (Lakshmi, 2016)

This focus on himself as an all-in-one artist, curator, architect and activist led to the polarized reactions of the portrait of Ai-as-Aylan. The blame was directed solely on him as an artist who must have had control of the outcome of the photo shoot with India Today. However in a riposte to negative reactions to the image the editor of the India Today article Gayatri Jayaraman attempted to assert a different context. She claimed that “this image is not “art”: it is a reported news image” (Jayaraman, 2016). She tried to absolve Ai of responsibility, taking away any artistic intent and put in to the field of journalism. The image is more in line with photographer Rohit Chawla’s style of commercial photography but there is artistic license at work within the image that means it is neither art or reported news image. Ai himself is aware of photography’s strange relationship with documentation as he points out in one of his blog posts: “Photography is a deceitful and dangerous medium: and medium is method, it is significance, ubiquitous feast of hope, or a hopelessly impassable ditch.” (Weiwei, 2011, Pg.19) The public is much more aware and wary of being deceived by a photograph, something that has become more achievable with digitally editing but has been happening since photography’s invention. There are several differences between the original image and the restaged one; the editing out of the silver foil blanket Ai lies on, the conversion to a black and white image and the obvious enhancement that has taken place in post production. “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” (Ratnam, 2016). We can’t hold his image up to the same documentary code of ethics like in the original image, as it is a representation firmly made and then set for a different audience.

The original setting for the image and the text was at the Indian Art Fair and therefore the photograph has to be judged both as a representation of Ai and his views but also as a collaborative attempt at making a work of art. And while Ai Wei Wei claims not to criticize artists making art for arts sake, that does not mean we can’t criticize art in bad taste whether it’s for art’s sake or for the sake of human conditions. In the same statement he also says that he ‘no choice’ which I take to mean that he feels like it his responsibility to make artwork about human conditions regardless of opinion. However as I have shown with the Ai-as-Aylan image there are several rapid decisions that took place during and after the photo shoot; Ai chose to shoot on the beach, he agreed to be posed as Aylan Kurdi and then gave permission for the image to be used.

The photograph of Ai-as-Aylan reveals a trope in Ai’s practice in which he makes direct associations between himself, the object and the subject he is dealing with. While making work in China he was dealing with issues that directly affected him, so placing himself in the image or making himself the subject was obvious and easy to understand. However the Ai-as-Aylan image is not a selfless act, the simple act of mirroring, an already effective image, has only brought the focus on him rather than the refugee crisis. It has incited viral outrage on social media and in the long term it has highlighted problems in his current mode of production in Greece and systemic issues with his older work. When Curator and writer Francis Bonami was asked if he was surprised in a good or bad way by a work at the Venice Biennale 2013 and he said, “I hate Ai Weiwei. I think he should be put in jail for his art, and not for his dissidence … lukewarm dissidence…” going on to say that “…he exploits his dissidence in favor of promoting his art” (Cashdan, 2013).

I think that the image of Ai-as-Aylan could be a turning point in public perception of Ai’s motives, which could have a lasting effect on his legacy. This is an image that has caused a significant retaliation and might serve as an example of why choices taken and opinions given are still so vital. The speed at which Ai is producing artwork and expressing his opinions via social media is growing exponentially. He is producing material and opinions for both an art gallery context and on the Internet that requires different paces both when made and then viewed. Ai claims to spend 90% of his day on social media and his large followings on Twitter and Instagram have given his a large audience to talk to. The Internet is an expansive tool for social change, where freedom of speech is paramount but judgment comes quick, fast and sometimes anonymously. However he still predominantly expresses his opinions through art and is given multiple platforms to show his art work both commercially and through public art galleries. Ai needs to be held to account by these larger institutions that seem more interested in his politics than in the way he gets his message across.


The attention of Western institutions is in part down to his dissident views on the Chinese government and his subsequent arrest and imprisonment have won him many supporters. He has highlighted his own direct suffering at the hands of the government to create a martyr-like existence. “This shift of attention from wider issues to the individual appears to make Ai’s image a Surrogate for social justice, and that perilously approaches the creations of a personality cult…” (Chinnery, 2016). This quote from a Frieze review in 2014 is perhaps prophetic of Ai’s arrival to Europe but he doesn’t talk of Ai as a prophet but provides a warning. The Ai-as-Aylan image is another example of direct associations between himself and the subject he is trying to raise. He seems determined to fight for equality, freedom of speech and human conditions at any cost. That this cost is being laid selflessly on his shoulders is a fallacy that he has created through his involvement in small divisive acts, that are attention grabbing without resonating beyond there limited intentions. The work is becoming more divisive and this only leads to more people to following him on social media or queuing up to see his art work at public galleries. I don’t think that art has to be about without political and social activism but I think that art should promote ideas and ideals rather than the voice of a specific artist. Aylan Kurdi was one of many voices that needed to be heard and Ai should be using his privileged position to give a voice to those effected rather than inserting himself constantly in the frame. This can be helped by art institutions that seem determined to canonize him through retrospectives of his work, that fail to seriously question his motives.




Cashdan, M. (2013) Francesco Bonami on Twenty years working with Maurizio Cattelan. Available at: (Accessed: 26 April 2016).

Chinnery, C. (2014) Ai Weiwei. Available at: (Accessed: 26 April 2016).

Fahey, J. (2015) The guardian’s decision to publish shocking photos of Aylan Kurdi. Available at: (Accessed: 26 April 2016).

Jayaraman, G. (2016) Available at: (Accessed: 26 April 2016).

Lakshmi, R. (2016) Chinese artist ai Weiwei poses as a drowned Syrian refugee toddler. Available at: (Accessed: 26 April 2016).

Laurent, O. (2015) What the image of Aylan Kurdi says about the power of photography. Available at: (Accessed: 26 April 2016).

Limited, L.M.I. (2016) Artist ai Weiwei poses as Aylan Kurdi for India today magazine. Available at: (Accessed: 26 April 2016).

Lu, C.Y. (2010) The artist as activist. Available at: (Accessed: 26 April 2016).

Obrist, H.U. and Ai, W. (2011) Ai Weiwei speaks: With Hans Ulrich Obrist. London: Penguin Group (USA).

Perl, J. (2013) Ai Weiwei: Wonderful dissident, terrible artist. Available at: (Accessed: 26 April 2016).

Ratnam, N. (2016) Ai Weiwei’s Aylan Kurdi image is crude, thoughtless and egotistical | coffee house. Available at: (Accessed: 26 April 2016).

Ridley, L. (2015) ‘Anyone with a heart would do exactly what Krishnan Guru-Murthy did’,Huffington Post, 11 September. Available at: (Accessed: 26 April 2016).

Shahane, G. (2016) Why did ai Wei Wei risk public outrage by posing as the iconic drowned child on a pebbled beach? Available at: (Accessed: 26 April 2016).

Steadman, R. (2016) Ai Weiwei receives backlash for mimicking image of drowned 3-Year-Old refugee. Available at: (Accessed: 26 April 2016).

Stevens, M. (2012) Is ai Weiwei china’s most dangerous man?Available at: (Accessed: 26 April 2016).

Weiwei, A. and Ai, W. (2011) Ai Weiwei’s blog: Writings, interviews, and digital rants, 2006-2009. Edited by Lee Ambrozy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.