"There’s no refugee crisis, but only human crisis... In dealing with refugees we’ve lost our very basic values," those words articulated by the world’s leading contemporary artist Ai Weiwei in response to the current humanitarian disaster resonate the intellectual ethical legacy of the most important thinkers of our time. Giving powerful evidence of the shared experience of living in an uprooted world in which we are no longer ‘at home’, they define the role of art as a means to understand our complex reality, to instigate action and provide solace. "In this time of uncertainty, we need more tolerance, compassion and trust for each other since we all are one. Otherwise, humanity will face an even bigger crisis."
All images courtesy of the National Gallery in Prague
Himself a refugee, Ai has almost entirely focused his work on advocating the refugees’ human rights and documenting their tragic condition throughout the past two years. The humanitarian crisis has become especially dire since 2015 when the influx of refugees into Europe from Syria and elsewhere escalated dramatically. It has been described by the U.N. emergency relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien as ‘a slaughterhouse, a complete meltdown of humanity, the apex of horror’. During his visits to refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesvos, or at the border between Greece and FYROM, Ai Weiwei conceived a number of art projects devoted to the contemporary global odyssey while filming the documentary Human Flow which will premiere in 2017. A devastating document of forced displacement, the film is ‘a personal journey, an attempt to understand the conditions of humanity in our days’.
The exhibition Law of the Journey at the National Gallery in Prague is Ai Weiwei’s multi-layered, epic statement on the human condition: an artist’s expression of empathy and moral concern in the face of continuous, uncontrolled destruction and carnage. Hosted in a building of symbolic historical charge – a former 1928 Trade Fair Palace which in 1939–1941 served as an assembly point for Jews before their deportation to the concentration camp in Terezín – it works as a site-specific parable, a form of (public) speech, carrying a transgressive power of cathartic experience, but also a rhetoric of failure, paradox and resignation. Like Noah’s Ark, a monumental rubber boat is a contemporary vessel of forced exodus, floating hopelessly within the immense, oceanic abyss of the Gallery’s post-industrial, cathedral-like Big Hall. Set for a journey across the unknown and the infinite, an overcrowded life raft carries ‘the vanguard of their people’, as Hannah Arendt described the illegal and the stateless in her seminal 1943 essay, We Refugees: over 300 figures, squeezed within the confines of a temporary shelter, undertake a journey ‘far out into the unnavigated’, fleeing violence and danger.
By this radical gesture of reconstructing a desperate act of plight as an anti-ornament of a humanity in decline, Ai Weiwei pays a powerful tribute to the human tragedy of the present moment as well as to humankind’s eternal desire for home and a sense of a belonging. Law of the Journey is a call for action and condemnation of the ignorance and blindness of the political and civic apparatus. The exhibition’s title alludes to Walter Benjamin’s reading of Franz Kafka’s ‘law of the journey (das Gesetz der Fahrt)’ as ’a route of unexpected reversals and distortions that derange casual connections between origins and destinations, wishes and fulfillments, annunciation of messages and their reception’.