By Martyna Majewska
HASTA has just moved entirely online but, of course, it doesn’t mean we’re entirely new to the Internet. Thanks to Lily Barnes, our gorgeous School President, HASTA whilst being an annual publication, maintained a regular presence on the web. I should take this opportunity to thank Lily and the guest bloggers, for giving us a witty and refreshing insight into the strange place that “the art world” often is. As much as I would like to continue running this blog in the same vain, I don’t feel capable of parroting Lily’s unique style or her unparalleled comedic prowess (if you miss them too, I recommend following her Facebook updates). Therefore, I do hope you will pardon me, if I give this blog an opinion-column twist. I will try to keep you posted about the bits of the art-world news that strike me as particularly exciting, amusing, or disconcerting. Feel free to comment and take issue with my opinions – it’s much easier to argue with an annoying blogger than with a dogmatic or bigoted author of your art history textbook. Also, if you notice that I’ve overlooked something interesting or important, do let me know! Otherwise, check out the blog every Monday, I’ll try not to use the “deadlines” excuse!
“Therefore, I do hope you will pardon me, if I give this blog an opinion-column twist. I will try to keep you posted about the bits of the art-world news that strike me as particularly exciting, amusing, or disconcerting.”
The problem I’d like to talk about today is no easy matter. It involves politics, big money, and the press, so in a sense it’s probably no different from everything else we see on the news. Yet this story also includes artists and, perhaps more importantly, raises questions about the roles artists should (and shouldn’t) assume.
On 17 September 2015 two of the world’s quintessential – for better or for worse – celebrity artists, Ai Wei Wei and Anish Kapoor, embarked on what they dubbed the “walk of compassion” and what the press called simply a “protest march,” intended to draw public attention to the plight of the refugees. Such an event should not come as a surprise given the history of artists’ commitment to social causes, ACT UP being one of the many examples.
That September morning Ai and Kapoor walked seven miles walk through London, accompanied by friends, Instagram followers, and journalists. The artists had announced their plans via social media, and many newspapers and magazines had also informed the public of the upcoming event. They used no slogans or loudspeakers, carrying only cheap blankets to mark the reason for their venture – a gesture they encouraged other participants to make as well. “Just” walking in compassion with those who walk hundreds of miles to escape war is a very simple yet powerful idea. Indeed, this was not the first march of this sort in London. However, Ai Wei Wei and Kapoor are both famous and this, coupled with the coverage their walk received, was bound to cause trouble. Lots of comments under the articles about their impromptu collaboration illustrates hostility towards the whole idea.
But why? One accusation against the march could be that Ai, whose major retrospective is currently on view at the Royal Academy, is only expressing his solidarity with the refugees in order to attract publicity. However, this does not seem to ring true for at least two reasons. First of all, this is not the first time Ai has tried to call attention to a socio-political crisis. In fact, his poignant installation, which exposed the failure of the Chinese government to protect school children from the 2008 earthquake, may be seen as one of the causes of the government’s animosity towards Ai. Secondly, the London exhibition, marking Ai’s triumphant return to Europe, after the long period of home arrest in China, has been a tremendous success. In addition, the artist’s entry into the UK was problematic enough to generate sustained public attention around his latest undertakings. As for Kapoor, he seems to have gained more than enough buzz after he decided not to scrub the anti-Semitic graffiti off his sculptures recently installed at Versailles. Admittedly, Kapoor was actively documenting the walk on his Instagram account, but what was the purpose of the entire action, other than to encourage more people to join the cause and to show the two artists’ opposition to the UK government’s proposed response to the crisis?
If there is something I did not appreciate in what Ai and Kapoor did, it was their Instagram post promoting the march in which both artists are posing for a selfie, each with their middle fingers raised proudly. This has been discussed at length by Lorena Muñoz-Alonso (artnet.com), who explains that Ai Wei Wei is already known for having produced a series of photos with his finger given to major landmarks across the globe. Yet I am not surprised that the selfie met with mixed reception. If you decide to raise that finger, you do need to specify who you are raising it towards. It’s a simple as that.
While the selfie – as it often happens – turned out to be unfortunate, I do believe that Ai and Kapoor not only have the right to, but actually should be organising such protest actions. After all, Ai’s life and career have been marked by his struggle against an insensitive government, while Kapoor’s parents were once immigrants themselves. Finally, if we are so eagerly inviting Ai and Kapoor to enrich “European” culture, how can we reject the potential of diversity offered by those walking into Europe every day? Kapoor’s statement about the creativity of the refugees may sound slightly exalted, given the often-graphic images of their desperation and plight, but what we might take from it is the idea that humanity is about analogy, and that we should see ourselves reflected in them.