Beneath the Greek and European Union flags flying outside the Athens museum hosting Ai Weiwei’s new exhibition, the Chinese artist has hoisted his own to draw attention to what he calls Europe’s “shameful” response to the refugee crisis.
Ai’s flags of Greece and Europe are colored the metallic yellow of the emergency blankets aid workers hand out to stop hypothermia. A third flag bears the outline of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach last year.
Ai, often described as China’s most high-profile artist, dissident and political activist, has visited camps in Greece to film a documentary about the refugee crisis, and has also set up a studio on Lesvos, the island on whose beaches nearly a million migrants entered the EU last year.
Speaking ahead of the opening of his first major exhibition in Greece yesterday, Ai said he was “deeply affected” by the exodus of people, many fleeing war in Syria and beyond.
“I see how Europe reacted to it. I think it’s shameful, it’s questionable, in many ways it’s not legal and it’s immoral in many ways,” Ai said.
The exhibition at Athens’s Museum of Cycladic Art includes new works inspired by both the museum’s archaeological collection and the refugee crisis.
One is a rubber tyre carved out of fine marble, evoking the countless inflatable devices that washed ashore on Greek islands as refugees attempted the short but perilous boat journey from Turkey.
Another, called “Tear Bottle/Tear Gas Canister,” brings together a gas canister, used by police from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia during clashes with migrants, and an antique tear bottle, a delicate vessel used in ancient times to collect the tears of mourners.
“Many years later people will… feel ashamed to talk about it,” Ai said of Europe’s response to the unprecedented refugee crisis.
“Just like when we talk about World War II [and] how people gave up very essential protection of human rights and made those tragedies happen.”