Ai Weiwei, M.I.A. and the Risks of Co-Opting Crisis: Refugees Through the Eyes of Celebrity

This post was selected for inclusion in our Future of Art and Work series in December 2016. The series, sponsored by Microsoft Surface, selects some of our best posts exploring the topics of how art and work will look in the 21st century. This post was originally published in February, 2016. 

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Over the weekend, a striking new image of Ai Weiwei surfaced — but it was “striking” because it wasn’t really new at all. Its resemblance to another photo that’s engrained as a synecdochic image of a global tragedy was its (questionable) intent.The photo of Weiwei, captured in black and white with the artist lying prostrate on a stony beach, was a recreation of Turkish press photographer Nilüfer Demir’s images of Alan Kurdi — the drowned Kurdish toddler who washed up on the a Turkish beach after he and his family tried to escape to a nearby Greek island aboard an over-capacity inflatable boat.

https://twitter.com/dabeard/status/693708916396560385/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

The Weiwei photo was taken for India Today, to run alongside an interview with the artist on his awareness efforts in his new studio on the Greek island, Lesbos — which he recently set up to, according to The Guardian, “highlight the plight of refugees” and create a memorial. The photo isn’t the first of Weiwei’s artistic statements (nor is it solely his statement, as it was taken by Rohit Chawla for the newspaper) addressing the refugee crisis: last year, he planned an eight mile “walk of compassion” down London’s Picadilly with Anish Kapoor, meant to open “a certain spirit, a certain poetic space, [so] we can at least hope to change how we think about the problem.”

In this new photo, however, his approach to solidarity with refugees is clearly very different than a pleasant stroll through London. He emphasizes the immediacy of his concern by morphing into the child whose corpse became a symbol of the immediate stakes of xenophobic resistances to refugees. This is obviously… complicated.

Weiwei’s particular recreation of the photo seems pretty frivolous, both aesthetically and conceptually: if not offensive, it is certainly ineffective, in that it tries to add drama to one of the most dramatic images the world saw last year. It could easily be seen as something of a crass misstep on the part of Chawla, Weiwei’s team and Weiwei himself, whose work is often tied up in humanitarian causes, and must shoulder the occasional burdens of being thus.

This particular image relies on a tone-deaf juxtaposition of the cult of Weiwei’s celebrity (especially in that it also seems to recall this effigy of Weiwei as a corpse, by artist He Xiangyu) with the emotional impact the Alan Kurdi image wrought, and seems to assume that Ai Weiwei’s placement within it is needed to contribute wider understanding to the crisis. In trying to memorialize a photo that already existed as a tragic memorial, it mostly exposes how straightforward political/moral art can seem more distracting than revealing. Reminiscent of what can be so irksome about Marina Abramovich’s work, the photo proposes an artist-as-mystic myth, a suggestion of the ability of the artist to feel the whole world’s pain, though its intent of solidarity is surely coming from a humanitarian place.

M.I.A. recently released her “Borders” video, which could be seen as similarly co-opting the refugee crisis into part of celebrity-artistic branding (and might have been seen more throughly as such if, like Weiwei, it weren’t for her own history with oppression).  M.I.A.’s video — which features a mass of hundreds of men across a video shot in various locations, including the ocean — is clearly a far more calculated, conceptualized effort than the Ai Weiwei image, which seems little more than didactic clickbait photography that might run with headlines featuring the words “poignant” and “important.” The M.I.A. video also seems to have a lot more to say about celebrity self-insertion in the refugee crisis.

M.I.A., who became a refugee of the Sri Lankan Civil War at age 11 when she and her family relocated to London, is front and center throughout the video, and, in keeping with being the lyricist/rapper of the track, acts as a spokesperson of sorts, while a mass of adolescent boys surround her in various, fraught formations.

To anyone looking to spark Internet controversy, a cursory glance at  this video might seem to go against a key tenet of the prescriptive cultural appropriation blogging witch-hunt — a mode of criticism very crucially meant to question the ways predominantly white culture-makers assert power over other cultures by subsuming them, but which often seems, via the fast pace and speedy condemnations the internet thrives on, a more generalized form of policing and creating new boundaries for the sake of the profitability of the blogging machine.

At this point, if an artist so much as finds themselves in a place that isn’t their country-of-origin in their work, they will, somewhere, be accused of the art-crime of appropriation. And normally, it’s a particularly appropriative look if the artist themselves inserts themselves centrally in the narrative of another culture and makes the people around them their props. However, there are a few aspects of the “Borders” video that sets it far beyond the range of the easy appropriative/non-appropriative, problematic/non-problematic binaries.

First, M.I.A.’s own centrality is not, within the world of the video, just the imposition of a celebrity onto the Syrian refugee crisis. She is at once a symbol of globalized pop culture and is herself a former refugee, her physical presence in the video fittingly embodies both the reigning, vastly accepted and worshipped forces of pop culture and the less accepted presences of non-white refugees. Her presence is a challenge to people’s selective empathy and interest — fulfilling the roles of both the desired entertainer and the undesired refugee, and interrogating these notions.

Second, there is a clear concept — apart from making herself look good — behind the depersonalized clusters of the people in the video. For this reason, she cast a group of solely men — as opposed to women or children — and featured them in something of a dehumanized mass. The adolescents in the video are not Syrian refugees — but rather teens M.I.A. hired while shooting on location in Pondicherry. The video therefore never claims to depict the current refugee crisis, but rather its conditions, as they might befall any group.

Still, similar to Ai Weiwei, one of the uncomfortable facts of “Borders” is that it’s undeniable that M.I.A.’s video relies on her as a figure, and reifies her Engaged Celebrity brand. Writing for Fusion, Kelsey McKinney noted that the initial Apple Music-only release of the “Borders” video, which saw an Apple logo tacked to the upper right corner of the video, blatantly juxtaposed the inevitable profiteering of the pop video with the crisis that was being underscored, drawing clear lines between the nature of artist benefitting from aestheticizing crisis:

M.I.A.’s deal to have her video exclusively on Apple Music is part of the company’s push for original content that includes Drake, Pharrell, and Eminem, and most likely came with some cash.

But M.I.A.’s song is directly interested in the acknowledgement of the influence of Western brands — especially technological ones — and the language technology disseminates from the West outwards. From a discussion with NPR:

“‘If the West is so deliberate in promoting its brands and is using art and culture to inspire people’s dreams, how can the West then turn people away?’ She also wonders, given how virtual borders in music and information have fallen away, why borders between people can’t disappear, as well. ‘You don’t put the borders on Apple, you don’t put borders on YouTube, and you don’t put borders on MTV… So to make the borders even taller when actually what the creative world is doing, or the business world is doing, is actually the opposite, then you’re always going to have this problem.'”

It’s a valid question, because one of the Internet’s highest purposes is a transcendence of the world’s divisive geography — distance has no power over communication, here. Meanwhile, how much is the Internet, with the attempted policing of notions of what artists can and cannot do, creating its own strict, if abstract borders?

In the song, there’s a litany of big ideas like “politics” and “borders” followed by deadpan “what’s up with that”s that seem to be placed in air-quotes, but then the “big ideas” give way to Internet expression — hashtags and affirmations — “queen/what’s up with that,” “breaking internet/what’s up with that,” “love wins/what’s up with that.” If these affirmative signifiers can travel the world so quickly, why can’t empathy? Interestingly, M.I.A. had this to say in Time about her video in relation to the global empathy litmus test the Alan Kurdi image became:

I didn’t want to go to the easiest source of empathy, which is to show a child dying on the shore, because that’s really what it took in Europe at the time to get a rise out of people, for them to actually pay attention. There was an actual turning point, and it’s when they discovered that image of a kid being found on the beach. It shouldn’t even get to that point.

Its lyrics may be on the precipice between inanity and genius, its video somewhere in the uncomfortable grey zone of exploiting and serving a cause (but based on M.I.A.’s past, it seems the intent at least was certainly not the former). But the very apt point about the Internet’s implosion of space is undeniable, and the questioning of how this might lead some people to, in reaction, attempt to reinforce cultural borders quite relevant. Indeed, despite the extensive information pouring from all ends of the media about the refugee crisis, many people were so immune to such news, or so distracted by pop culture, that it took the image of a dead toddler to shake them. If you look at it this way, that M.I.A. statement seems to even critique the mode of emotional pandering the likes of the Ai Weiwei image partakes in, a mode that necessitates a graphic image of the ultimate tragedy.

Surely at this point we’ve seen so many blanket assertions online, suggesting that artists shouldn’t depict cultures or struggles that aren’t their own — a notion that’s a lot more complex for both Weiwei and M.I.A. because of their personal histories; as much as such assertions are meant to stave off white supremacy, Americentrism and Eurocentrism within the arts, they also have the tendency to open the floodgates for a more totalized policing of artistic borders.

Cynical reactions to such work make sense, but in this output from artists who are clearly engaged — whose aims have constantly included uplifting, featuring and furthering justice for the marginalized — it feels necessary to acknowledge the coexistence of the inherent, narcissistic pitfalls of engaged art — especially that in which a celebrity inserts their own likeness onto a crisis — and the legitimate good its do-gooderism attempts.

With Weiwei’s photo and M.I.A.’s video, we see two artists depicting struggles of cultures that are not their own. Despite the ultimate failure of this particular attempt of Weiwei’s to do so with an image that ended up being monolithically bad (whereas M.I.A. subverted the blatant emotional appeal of that image and made something more complex, but equally challenging to our notion of what’s “appropriate”), the act of artists attempting to cross borders should be encouraged rather than policed. Critiquing the results of any of these efforts is of course key — and underlining and deconstructing why such efforts may have failed or succeeded, and why they may be offensive or effective — is necessary.

Policing the artistic desire to cross borders — especially when art has to a degree always involved telling stories of struggles and tragedies that may not be specific to the artist — seems counter to the very idea of establishing an empathic society. Does the news not co-opt the crises of others? Do our very thoughts not do the same? Artists can and should try, consistently, to cross borders — to put themselves out there to risk, occasionally, failing and looking narcissistic. Because the alternative — strict self-reflexivity, seems all the more narcissistic.