After a five year absence, artist and activist Ai Weiwei returned to New York in a major way. He was recently in town for a few weeks to open four gallery exhibitions (at Deitch Projects in Soho, Lisson Gallery and Mary Boone in Chelsea, and Mary Boone in midtown), give a talk with artist Tania Bruguera at the Brooklyn Museum (which I regrettably missed), and pick up a WSJ. Magazine Innovator Award.
Ai’s recent artwork has focused on the global refugee crisis. According to an interview with Ai provided by Deitch Projects, the focus began following the artist’s 2011 detention in Beijing when his passport was confiscated by Chinese authorities. Unable to travel, Ai kept “engaged globally” via the internet. For the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, Ai was asked to select for a book drawings created by refugees living in the Shariya camp in Iraq. In an effort to get more involved, he sent assistants to the camp to interview hundreds of people living there.
After getting his passport back in July 2015, he went to Berlin where he met with many recently-arrived Syrian refugees who inspired him to learn more and visit the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos that Christmas. The experience made Ai reflect on his own past as a refugee, when as a child, his father, the renowned poet Ai Qing, was “denounced as a ‘rightist’ and was criticized as an enemy of the party and the people.” His family was sent to a labour camp in a remote region of China where Ai learned what it’s like “to be viewed as a pariah, as sub-human, as a threat and danger to society.”
On view at Deitch Projects is Ai’s installation, Laundromat, consisting of over 2,000 items of clothing, shoes, and blankets Ai and his team collected from the Idomeni refugee camp in northern Greece where thousands of refugees, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, traveled through in the hopes of getting to Germany, Sweden, and other EU nations. Ai visited the camp, where he said “it rained constantly,” and spoke to many of the people there, took photos, and recorded what he saw, giving the refugees a “platform to be acknowledged.” When the Idomeni camp was evacuated in May 2016, refugees were forced out to different camps, leaving behind possessions which now make up Ai’s powerful installation.
“With a truckload of those materials, including thousands of blankets, clothes and shoes, all impossibly dirty, we transported them to my studio in Berlin. There, we carefully washed the clothes and shoes, piece by piece. Each article of clothing was washed, dried, ironed, and then recorded. Our work was the same as that of a laundromat.”
The gallery is packed with carefully categorized and neatly arranged racks of clothes, with a large section of the floor dedicated to hundreds of pairs of shoes. The walls are papered, floor-to-ceiling, with photographs Ai took at the Idomeni camp, and the floor is covered in his ongoing project, The Newsfeed, which has documented media reports relating to the global refugee crisis since January 2016 . Approximately 3,000 news items have been posted on a private WhatsApp group since January, and Ai and his team compile the daily posts, lining the floor of Deitch Projects with about 2,000 of these items. The project was initiated during the filming of Ai’s upcoming documentary about the refugee crisis, Human Flow, which will be released in 2017.
You can see the poignant Laundromat at Deitch Projects through December 23, 2016. Learn more here.