The Secret Of His Great Strength: Ai Weiwei At Idomeni

As the global refugee crisis rolls on, Bryony White considers the symbolics of Ai Weiwei's haircut in the Greek border town of Idomeni

Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio

As clumps of marl grey hair fall to the ground of Idomeni, a refugee camp that stands on the Greece-Macedonia border, the distinct buzz of a pair of clippers can be heard amongst the spectators’ muffled intrigue. Ai Weiwei looks to the sodden floor, a solemnity in his face as his gaze quietly observes the man trimming his beard.

Speaking of the event, Weiwei simply opined that he needed a haircut and that this act was, of course, “symbolic because everything we do is symbolic”. Considering Weiwei’s words the ‘symbolic’ nature of Weiwei’s haircut brings to mind a number of memorable haircuts from across the history of film and literature.

An iconic moment of film history: Travis Bickle, preparing for his assassination attempt, shaves off his own hair to craft a mohawk in Taxi Driver. As Full Metal Jacket begins, an atrabilious recruit sits whilst his head of hair is entirely shaved. The act is quick and shrewd as clumps of hair fall quickly, clumsily and anti-climactically to the floor. In Star Wars, as a Padawan reaches the status of full Jedi, a lightsaber is used to sever their braid. Jo in Little Women cuts her hair to raise money for her mother to visit her father in hospital. In The English Patient, Hana cuts her hair as she begins working as an army nurse.

There are hundreds more of these accounts: the removal of hair in a subversive act of defiance. Or, there are those historical and literary haircuts that indicate a loss of innocence, the decision to embrace maturity or the unavoidable fate of illness.

In all these accounts, the hair cut suggests a succession into a new and heightened expression of selfhood. Or, in some cases, it serves as a purifying panacea, creating a blank slate for a transformation of selfhood that it is about to occur. If we distil this further, what seems to underlie all of these moments is that the removal of hair is used to symbolise an encounter with a threshold: a metaphor that intimates an entrance into new and potentially unknown territories.

Although these accounts suggest an underlying strength in this act, as I watched Ai Weiwei have his head shaved, the most blinding symbolism that was automatically conjured was the biblical narrative of Samson and Delilah. In the Book of Judges, the ‘licentious’ Delilah betrays Samson by allowing the Philistines to cut his hair. In turn, this act strips Samson of all strength and power.

Counter to many narratives of having one’s head shaved, where the act portrays power, virility or strength, the biblical story is one of pain and immolation. Yet, if we map this narrative onto Weiwei’s act at Idomeni, he is not necessarily surrendering his strength. Instead, Weiwei renders himself symbolically powerless through a performed action in a refugee camp surrounded by those who have been literally stripped of agency and power.

Ai Weiwei’s action in the Idomeni camp is not the first artistic engagement with the current refugee crisis. There has been a recent surge in artistic investment in the narratives of the refugee crisis, from Shahpour Pouyan’s recent exhibition History Travels at Different Speeds, to Olafur Eliasson’s new project, Green Light, at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna. Eliasson’s three-month long workshop and platform is aimed at engaging refugees in the construction of lamp models. These lamps have been devised to offer a ‘green light’ to refugees and migrants in Austria. Rather than restricting movement, these reasonably small bright green sculptures offer a more hopeful alternative in a form that connotes the familiar ‘Go’ sign. The project itself will be facilitated through workshops with refugees alongside university students to make these lamps in Austria, initiating conversation and dialogue through collaborative art making. The lamps produced as a result of the project will be sold at the gallery, the proceeds of which go to various initiatives helping refugees in Austria.

This isn’t the first time that Ai Weiwei himself has engaged with the refugee crisis. In an arguably controversial move in early February 2016, he recreated Alan Kurdi’s haunting photograph of a small, drowned infant on the isle of Lesbos. In the same month, Weiwei then wrapped Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 salvaged refugee life vests. Slightly later that month, Weiwei then closed his exhibition, Ruptures, at Denmark’s Faurschou Foundation Copenhagen, in response to a new law that allows the Danish government to seize valuables from asylum seekers.

In a statement about this decision, Weiwei said that “the way I can protest is that I can withdraw my works from that country. It is very simple, very symbolic – I cannot co-exist, I cannot stand in front of these people, and see these policies. It is a personal act, very simple; an artist trying not just to watch events but to act, and I made this decision spontaneously.” In yet another ‘symbolic’ act, we see Ai Weiwei turn his back on his exhibition, deciding to withdraw from the possibility of any potentially toxic collusion with the Danish government.

In both Eliasson’s and Weiwei’s refugee commentary, why the sudden turn to the ‘symbolic’? Both acts suggest a quiet simplicity that sits outside of words, an illustrative reaction that is simple, silent and evocative. These moments simply speak without speaking. Performative moments speak louder than words. Perhaps this symbolism then is part of a wider narrative that surrounds artistic engagement with refugees. Indeed, how can particular forms of artistic engagement with this ongoing crisis make a difference for people living in this vulnerable, immobilised space of trying to seek refuge?

When I first saw pictures of Ai Weiwei having his haircut, I wasn’t sure how to negotiate his action in such a sensitive and vulnerable situation. How could Ai Weiwei truly make himself powerless, how could he align himself with these refugees?

But perhaps this is the power of this act at the Idomeni refugee camp. Weiwei isn’t trying to co-exist or put himself in the shoes of the refugees. Instead his protest is a personal call to act, to not co-exist with the policies that persecute and punish the vulnerable. Instead, he quietly wishes to take notice, to make a small but potentially influential action that doesn’t try to subsume difference, but instead, highlights it.

And if there is one artist who understands the nature of what it means to be powerless, undocumented, and immobilised in the face of state policy and regulation, it is Ai Weiwei. In 2008, after showing his work, She lived happily in this world for seven years, made in response to the Sichaun earthquake of 2008, the Chinese government shut down Weiwei’s blog, beat him so severely that he was hospitalised, demolished his Shanghai studio, imprisoned him, and had him investigated on charges of pornography, bigamy, tax avoidance, and foreign currency irregularities. Not once has he ever actually been found guilty of these crimes.

In 2011, Weiwei spent 81 days in illegal detention in a prison in China. He underwent fraught, threatening interrogation and psychological torture. On release, the Beijing authorities withheld his passport. After four years without it, his passport was returned to him in July 2015.

What a privilege that little padded book of identification, stamps, and visa approvals can be: a document that underpins the social contract, which connects us with the largest of political, social, and legal institutions. It confirms our presence in the world and inside: the passport displays our faces, our ‘true’ state-regulated selves – our ‘accounted for’ national identities.

Over 500 kilometres south of Idomeni in Athens, there is a passport racket that continues to boom. In fact, across many European countries and elsewhere, document-forging businesses thrive. In Athens, the Spanish passport, at a cost of $250, is the cheapest. A French or US passport is about $3,000. There are Facebook pages dedicated to these businesses, where freedom becomes a possibility through the auspices of $250 or more. Whilst many turn to these fake documents as a means to cross into new territories, those who can’t afford the dizzying prices are forced to walk the treacherous, unofficial crossings into Macedonia and elsewhere.

Regardless of the cruel ethics of this passport scheme, which ostensibly capitalises on the fate of the vulnerable, this passport business reminds us of the sheer force and social weight of documentation; the access it can offer to cross borders and boundaries into new, safer lives. When Ai Weiwei posted a picture of himself on Instagram finally holding his Chinese passport, the world rejoiced. What had been a cruel violation of human rights had been amended. No longer ‘sans-papiers’, Weiwei was now documented and accounted for.

In the examples that I began with, the haircut conjured what it means to enter into an unknown territory of selfhood. In 2016, in the abhorrent surroundings of Idonemi, Ai Weiwei too conjured what it means to enter into an unknown, displaced territory.

Without words, Weiwei’s act symbolised what it means to be dislocated from what was once familiar and to be rendered immobilised in doing so. His haircut spoke to an occurrence that thousands of frightened, homeless, and vulnerable refugees experience on a daily basis. If we understand the delicate imagery of Weiwei’s act, then we can’t help but remember, that for some, the sheer danger and cost of what it means to cross an unknown border, to try and inhabit a new place, is preferable to remaining where they were.

Bryony White is a writer and researcher based in London. She is due to commence a AHRC funded PhD in September 2016 exploring the relationship between performance and the law at King’s College London

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