“Nationality is a Western concept. It was an invention of Western European scholars, who ever since have struggled to explain it.”
— Joseph Roth, The Wandering Jews, 1927
How do we hold on to hope and humanity in times of upheaval and hardship? Celebrated Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei addresses this very question in his current Marciano Art Foundation installation, Life Cycle (2018). This haunting meditation on the global refugee crisis presents countless figures packed onto an inflatable raft. Resembling a Zodiac boat commonly used in shuttling emigrants to the West, this vessel bursts with human-animal hybrids inspired by the Chinese zodiac. As Ai crafts both of the passengers and the ship here out of bamboo, a building material synonymous with buoyancy and strength, he addresses themes of transition, compassion, and the resilience of the human spirit.
Known for his overt criticism of the Chinese government as well as his 2011 detainment for unfounded tax evasion charges, this outspoken artist has long devoted himself to being a voice for the voiceless. In 2017, Ai debuted Human Flow, a heart-wrenching documentary film investigating how widespread political violence and environmental disasters have now forced over 65 million from their homes worldwide.
As Ai’s first museum exhibition in Los Angeles, Life Cycle expands on this topic while heightening the emotions to a new, searing level of intensity. Likely a reference to the Old Testament tale of baby Moses floating down the Nile River, this vessel is essentially an enormous basket. Its woven bamboo construction offers little protection from the elements. Here, the bamboo, the ship, and the souls on board are all hollow. This ghostly apparition points to the invisibility of refugees as many nations refuse to recognize their plight.
With their great animal heads, these imposing, zodiac-inspired figures are fully recognized and valued in their native China. However, without this cultural context, they can be easily misunderstood as terrifying monsters plucked straight from Goya’s nightmares. Here Ai reveals the pain, heartache, and uncertainty associated with stripping a person from their societal background. He argues that now is the time for humanity shift away from suspicion and welcome strangers at the door.
Ai also acknowledges that this refugee crisis is not new. In fact, he provides the viewer with a historical framework by literally framing the vessel with a series of refugee-centric quotations. Here writers and philosophers across space and time, including Homer, St. Augustine, and Franz Kafka, all openly express sympathy and compassion for the displaced. Even Socrates, the father of Western civilization himself, supports the cause via a 470 BCE statement declaring, “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”
Ai further steeps this crisis in history and mythology through the ancient narrative archetypes of the ship, the shipwreck, and the hero’s journey. Upon witnessing Life Cycle, the viewer immediately links this installation to French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault’s masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819). This oversized oil painting depicts the gruesome aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse off the coast of Mauritania. All but 15 of the 147 survivors set adrift on a raft died of starvation, dehydration, and cannibalism. While Géricault’s version of this historical event does not shy away from these horrifying realities, it also depicts hope and triumph through the ecstatic depiction of passengers waving down a distant rescue ship. One could also compare Ai’s momentous work here to Homer’s Odyssey and the biblical story of Noah’s Ark.
While many of adult figures on the boat stare straight ahead with reserved trepidation, two human children peek over the bow. Their innocent smiles exude optimism, playfulness, and curiosity. The viewer’s heart then shatters, realizing the hardship these youths have and will continue to face.
Then, looking upward, one sees a series of mythological creatures suspended from the ceiling and imagines the two boys dreaming up these fantastical scenes. Inspired by the 4th century BCE epic titled Shanhaijing or Classic of Mountains and Seas, these bamboo and silk works seek to provide childlike whimsy while preserving Chinese culture and artistry. Crafted in Weifang, a city with a proud and long history of kite-making, these winged animals offer a much-needed link to home and tradition.
The artist introduces the viewer to seventeen of these fearsome yet graceful figures, all of which combine the characteristics of several different animals. For example, Chuniao is a green bird with a yellow body. He has scarlet feet and an impressive six heads. We also meet Lu, a fish that both resembles and sounds like a bellowing ox. This majestic creature boasts the tail of a snake and glorious wings.
Through Ai’s Shanhaijing and bamboo figures, he asserts the strength of amalgamation. Just like refugees, the characters in Life Cycle are multidimensional beings who possess a myriad of strengths and assets. Through this highly significant and moving installation, he makes the case that this blending of cultures, this hybrid fluidity, can be an unyielding source of strength and resilience.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.