The famous Ionic columns that welcome visitors to the Minneapolis Institute of Art in Minnesota have been transformed by the celebrated Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The columns that support the portico at the front of the gallery have been wrapped in thousands of life jackets to promote thought about the travel of refugees throughout the world, much of it conducted precariously by sea. All six of the museum’s stone pillars are now adorned by life preservers that were once worn by refugees.
Image: Rendering of Safe Passage at Mia, 2020. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.
Highlighting the Plight of Refugees
The dramatic artistic display is one of several large scale projects that Ai Weiwei has been involved in which have attempted to draw attention to the global refugee crisis. The artist, who considers himself to have been a refugee since childhood, chose to produce ‘Safe Passage’ specifically to highlight the current Syrian refugee crises as civil war there continues to rage. He utilised the life vests worn by real people who had fled Syria, many of whom had faced the perils of the Aegean Sea in the eastern Mediterranean travelling from Turkey to Greece in small boats.
Weiwei said that he got hold of the life jackets from the Greek island of Lesbos where they had been abandoned. These artefacts from their journeys were initially revealed at an installation at the Konzerthaus in Berlin in 2016. However, this is the first time that they have been used to create a temporary public work of art in the United States. The artist has also made several sculptural works on the same theme – that of mass human migration as a result of conflict – with oversized inflatable crafts being installed in European galleries, for example.
A Wider Exhibition
Weiwei’s commission to create ‘Safe Passage’ at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which houses a collection of over 90,000 works of art, was offered to coincide with a wider exhibition. This will focus on both global migration and the often precarious legal status of refugees. The gallery’s temporary show is named ‘When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Migration Through Contemporary Art’. In addition to Weiwei’s showcase piece – one that has literally been wrapped to the front of the gallery as though it were some kind of cultural refugee – the show will feature a further 40 works on the topic. In all, there are some 21 artists involved. These include Aliza Nisenbaum, Tania Bruguera and Mona Hatoum. Yinka Shonibare, a British-Nigerian artist, is also featured. His past work includes many reflect on colonialism, cultural identity and increasing globalisation.
In addition to the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s main event, there will be another one that runs while Weiwei’s installation remains in situ. This is to be called ‘Carry On Homes’ in which artists, drawn from five different countries around the world, recall the stories of both immigrants to the US, as well as refugees, through the medium of art. The idea about this part of the project is that it will provide a shared public space within the institution for both immigrant and refugee communities to be able to connect with one another. According to the gallery, it will provide access to resources and provide a safe location where healing conversations can begin.
The Gallery’s Mission
The 2,400 life jackets used by Weiwei in his work create a telling sense of scale concerning the issue of mass human migration in the modern age. People walking past the gallery will no doubt have their attention drawn to it regardless of whether they plan on visiting the institution to find out more. According to Gabriel Ritter, a curator and the gallery’s head of contemporary art, public engagement – no matter how brief – is part of what the work brings to the table. “I hope that this stops people in their tracks and forces them to think,” he said. “[The installation]… implicates people in the decisions they make,” he continued. Ritter went on to say that immigrants and refugees are very much the friends of the city’s inhabitants. “They are our neighbours – the people we live with as part of our communities,” he explained.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.