By James Haynes

ATHENS — Ai Weiwei has made bringing attention to crises a lifelong effort. As the Chinese artist once told an interviewer, “If my art has nothing to do with people’s pain and sorrow, what is ‘art’ for?”

Most recently, he has been pointing attention toward Greece. He first visited Athens and the island of Lesbos last year, when thousands of refugees were washing ashore from Turkey daily . He quickly established a studio here, and in May the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens showcased the studio’s work by opening the artist’s first major exhibition in Greece.


The show highlights how Ai has turned his critical focus from the Chinese government to the pain of the refugees. Visitors are greeted first by images from local Lesbos photographers who worked with Ai; the scenes they captured pop with the bright blue of the sea and the alarming orange of refugees’ life jackets

“The road of refugees is anything but easy,” asserts a quote from photographer Elias Markou on one of the wall displays, and the pictures offer proof: refugees arriving in packed boats washing onto rocky shores, huddling under blankets and waiting idly in tents.

The work’s geographic focus is particularly striking because here Ai’s lens is turned on Greece and other far-flung lands, rather than the artist’s homeland of China.

One of Ai’s most renowned works in the exhibit is a collection of photographs called “Study of Perspective.” In it, Ai’s left arm is shown making an obscene gesture towards a famous monument. In some photos, it is the Eiffel Tower or a church; in others still it is a Chinese icon such as Tiananmen Square.

This defiance toward authority and established institutions infuses Ai’s work. Though he lives in Beijing, Ai is an outspoken critic of the Chinese government and its repression of free speech and personal expression. Smithsonian Magazine has described his conceptual style of work as being “of only passing interest,” since “it seems little more than a diagram of some pre-conceived moral. . .which can stopper the imagination.”

This moral is often a critique of the Chinese government and the Communist Party, for placing their interests before those of its citizens. In “Dust to Dust,” a jar of the remains of a Neolithic Chinese pot that Ai ground to powder evokes the purposeful destruction of historic artifacts during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. “The Mask,” a marble sculpture of a gas mask, alludes to the heavy air pollution that millions of urban Chinese residents endure daily – a sign of the government ignoring the suffering of its citizens.


Chandelier (Joe Stephens)

Ai also takes on the new affection many Chinese have developed for material possessions. “Chandelier” is a branched copper tree dripping with crystal prisms, symbolizing the unstable prosperity and luxury that many Chinese people aspired toward after their government enacted economic reforms.

While Ai’s message of the need for increased human rights in China makes sense to many Westerners, those in China have a harder time hearing and seeing it. In the same way, the stories and plight of refugees are heard much more clearly in Europe than in the refugees’ home countries. It is by drawing out these stories that Ai continues to relate his work to the hardships felt by those crossing borders, from East to West.