Ai WeiWei’s latest installation in Prague’s Fair Trade Palace is disrupting. “The Law of the Journey” features an army of floating figures, inflated sculptures that resemble plastic life rafts bent into the shape of people. The bodies, inspired by the horrors the artist witnessed during a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, “float” on dry land in legions of lumbering, blank-faced effigies, bodies stacked in great piles of human cargo, with some crouched down patiently, hands uplifted in a stiff, anonymous prayer.
We fill in the outlines with stories we tell ourselves about the strangers in our midst: Refugees should be welcomed. Refugees should be feared. Migrants are criminals. Migrants are an inspiration. They’re a lumpen mass of terrorists, victims, saints and parasites. At first glance it feels like never before have so many interlocking crises washed onto our borders, as missiles rain down on Syria, political repression and conflict reduce whole communities to savagery, and seas rise with a vengeance.Though the humanitarian crises of today feel unprecedentedly horrible, each outrage at the border just reframes a negotiation of an ancient social contract, over when to crack open the door. For them, it’s negotiating what to lose and what to carry with them to a destination unknown.
Most of the transnational migrants today were just children or unborn when British art critic John Berger encapsulated the negotiation of migritude--not between nation-states but in the uprooting and replanting of migrating farm workers from before modernity:
the displacement, the homelessness, the abandonment lived by a migrant is the extreme form of a more general and widespread experience."... Every migrant knows in his heart of hearts that it is impossible to return. Even if he is physically able to return, he does not truly return, because he himself has been so deeply changed by his emigration. It is equally impossible to return to that history state in which every village was the center of the world. The one hope of creating a center now is to make it the entire earth. Only worldwide solidarity can transcend modern homelessness....
It’s a cliche to say you can “never go home” after forced exile. But when he talked of the rural itinerants of Old England, he could have been talking about today’s wanderers at the refugee graveyards on the Italian island of Lampedusa, or a fenced-off Turkish refugee camp or Greek trainyard squat.
Berger’s memoir was published in 1984, when many Latin American countries launched the landmark Cartagena Declaration, which redefined refugee status to include survivors of civil and humanitarian crises, in response to the smaller-scale regional conflicts along with longer-term systemic impacts like poverty, displacement and disease. The evolved nature of postwar human rights violations and atrocities in 1980s Guatemala reverberate with contemporary border crises--the ripple effects of official and unofficial battles, genocide, and state collapse. The chaos precedes their journey; as Ai WeiWei says, “There’s no refugee crisis, but only human crisis.”
The turmoil in Iran brought writer Dina Nayeri into the unnameable loss that Berger identifies. She places her crisis in a post-9/11 context when writing on what makes her family’s loss through migration so tragic--what makes it fate rather than theft. She’s learned that to leave home is also to leave yourself behind and to assume a new identity--or at least to struggle to shed the past's dead weight.
She recalls the burn of that bewildering first punch from bullying boys when she started school in America, the taunts she received for being what the other kids called “Chinese” even though she was not. And she remembers the awkward sweetness of learning to “be American,” riding the vaunted “pathway to citizenship”, and constantly reminded by her family that with resettlement came:
the ongoing expectation that we would shed our old skin, give up our former identities--every quirk and desire that made us us--and that we would imply at every opportunity that America was better, that we were so lucky, so humbled to be here. My mother… baked American cakes and replaced the rosewater in her pastries with vanilla. I did much worse: over years, I let myself believe it. I lost my accent. I lost my hobbies and memories. I forgot my childhood songs.
And now, the America she’s taught herself to embrace as her own reflects back on her and demands validation, without apology, only pride:
With the rise of nativist sentiment in Europe and America, I’ve seen a troubling change in the way people make the case for refugees. Even those on the left talk about how immigrants make America great. They point to photographs of happy refugees turned good citizens, listing their contributions, as if that is the price of existing in the same country, on the same earth. Friends often use me as an example. They say in posts or conversations: “Look at Dina. She lived as a refugee and look how much stuff she’s done.” As if that’s proof that letting in refugees has a good, healthy return on investment.
But isn’t glorifying the refugees who thrive according to western standards just another way to endorse this same gratitude politics... instead of offering each person the same options that are granted to the native-born citizen?
Nayeri now saw her process of assimilation as a form of subsurface decolonization, in hopes of erasing scars of trauma. For many years the formula worked; she felt the gratitude of her saviors and in turn offered the validation that they expected. But it also seeded an internal paralysis of fear, lest she stray from the perfect path and tarnish the moral contributionism she’s charged with representing. One slip and her family’s dream would unravel; the fluffy stars-and-stripes parfaits and pledges of allegiance in cultivated American accents, all the sympathetic refugee testimonials affected to teach morality and self-sacrifice to searching churchgoers and toothy politicians. Shattering the American edifice would deflate the myth of an ideal as ethereal as an ocean breeze.
What makes Ai WeiWei’s installation so jolting is that his floating figures are empty vessels: they don’t respond when asked to justify their presence. They stubbornly rebound when cast back toward the wave. They are insistent in their indifference to us, yet haunting in their human representation of what could be and what once was. Ai deliberately made them cheap, plastic, disposable--to clarify how the refugee is a construction of our own making, stalking our borders as well as consciences.
Berger reminded us about the emptiness of the term “homeless,” as well as its universality:
Home is no longer a dwelling but the untold story of a life being lived. At its most brutal, home is no more than one's name--whilst to most people one is nameless.
Today, the nameless refugee adrift on an open sea is our modern-day message in a bottle--a beached shell, echoing our own pulse back to us in a more coarser moral timbre, caked in the dregs of our darkest impulses.
And no matter how hard we try, we cannot make them go away. The floating souls adrift on the Mediterranean, or tumbling down the Arizona desert plains, refuse to turn back when ordered, even at gunpoint. A primordial gravity pulls them forward; no community can wall itself off from that force of nature. The menacing black mass teeming in refugee boats look helpless because they seem at the mercy of a vast ocean. But a closer look reveals that we, here on the safe shore, are just as unmoored, by forces beyond our control. What sounds like their cry for mercy is the echo of a demand for justice--after all, we could puncture those empty figures with pocket knife, if we wished, condemn them to a quiet burial at sea. But our impulse is to reach out; we're somehow held hostage to our conscience. Maybe what we think is the generous hand that we extend to the asylum-seeker is actually their grip pulling us to safety. It takes the weight of the rescuer and the rescued to anchor a mission of mercy, and on a ballast of history, we rise or fall together--no debt owed, no account to settle but justice.
Filled with nothing but air, refugees remain unsinkable in our imagination. But as we reach to fill the void that floats in our troubled minds, we should ask: who’s saving whom?
--April 7, 2017