A Contemporary Masterpiece
Law of the Journey - Ai Weiwei.
Just every now and again, the world is gifted, and some of its inhabitants privileged enough, to witness or experience an artistic masterpiece. So few and far between are these masterworks, that when one suddenly appears, its effect on every human level is instantaneous. These masterpieces come in many artistic forms and there is no boundary, artistically speaking, that limits the creative interpretation of truly original artistic responses to the world at large.
I had the privilege of just such an experience last month, and the first flushes of its overwhelming effect have not yet worn off. I am writing about Ai Weiwei’s enormous sculpture ‘Law of the Journey’: another artwork in his ongoing artistic output that directs public attention (hopefully), to the ongoing plight of refugees all over the world.
It’s not often I am so moved by an artwork that endeavours to bring political and artistic issues together with such force. I say force, but what I really mean is: forcefulness and yet delicate sensitivity and philosophical insight into the ongoing plight of so many displaced people.
Almost nightly on news services all over the world, war, famine, the displacement of people and the ongoing plight of orphaned children, is presented relentlessly in nice neat news packaging to the point that, it all becomes one big blur of unyielding human tragedy. The images of each news package are quick, barely three seconds between each one: each one with yet more carnage at the hands of despicable human beings.
I sit watching, sometimes disgusted, sometimes in tears, sometimes elated at that one moment, between the three second flashes of horror, as an aid worker pulls an orphaned baby free from between huge chunks of concrete and steel. Its tiny body is covered in dust. Its eyes look up at the TV news camera with an unimaginable fear. There is voiceover to all of these three second clips. It is always slightly mournful, slightly melancholic, slightly respectful, and male or female, the timbre of the voice is always the same: and so it goes on, all nicely packaged up so as to minimise the appalling vileness of it all. The memory of which, I pray with some hope, will recede as that baby lives out the rest of its life. I can only hope. Ai Weiwei’s sculpture ‘Law of the Journey’ is huge. It demands, in uncompromising terms, so much more of our time. So much more than a three second news bite. So much more of our humanity.
Rising at four o’clock in the morning, I stumble out of bed, stumble into the shower and ten minutes later, dress hurriedly. For no good reason whatsoever, I have come to a decision that I must get to the airport as quickly as possible to catch my flight from Melbourne to Sydney. “The plane will not wait; at least, not for me.” In my car on my way to the airport I curse at the stupid speed limits; “who on earth decided to set the limit at eighty kilometres per hour? Which stupid moron? Honestly, they need the sack!” The freeway is all but completely empty.
My flight takes off on time, as it was always going to, with me on board having had a very nice coffee and croissant for breakfast. My flight lands on time, as it was always going to, with me disembarking and making my way to the train station whose railway lines carry double decker iron horses all the way into Sydney’s magnificent city centre. At Circular Quay, I decide to have another coffee and a walk around The Rocks an area that lies at the side of Circular Quay. I have time to kill before I catch a ferry that will take me to Cockatoo Island and the artworks currently housed in its many warehouses and former ship yards. I sit in a small coffee house watching all types of people passing by, most of them engaged in excited conversation with their offsider or mobile phone. The sun is shining. It is a beautiful day with barely a cloud in the sky. The sun rises higher, as does the general cacophony of sound as tourists and locals fill the older end of George Street.
It is time to catch the ferry to Cockatoo Island. A few minutes later I am aboard the ferry, surrounded by tourists and others whose clothes and hair tell me instantly, that they too are making their way to see the artworks: or rather, one artwork in particular. Why is that? Why is it I am able to denote, purely buy the look of certain people, that their appearance sets them firmly into the art world? Subconsciously, I can only suppose, we all wear uniforms of one sort or another.
The ferry, whose skipper docks the vessel with what feels like consummate ease, rests comfortably, bobbing with some force as I land my foot on Cockatoo’s quayside floating pier. The movement itself is slightly disorienting. “Why would it not be?” I ask myself. “I live inland. I am no sailor, no salty sea dog, no pirate: just Mr. Average from the suburbs,” who in the last few seconds, swayed by the movement of water beneath my feet, is suddenly reconnected with nature. I look about me to see many others who share this momentary loss of balance and reconnection to one of the fundamental elements of our planet. I am conflicted, ever so slightly, and mourn, for no good reason I can think of, this loss of connection to the Earth.
My comfortable life in the suburbs with so many of its trappings, my television view of the world, my daily routines and need for faster speed limits while driving my air conditioned car, have led me far away from nature and all that the natural world has to offer. There it is: all my mindful conflict in a matter of three or four seconds as I step off a boat.
Little did I know, as I had made a point of not seeing any images of Ai Weiwei’s masterpiece; the drama, pathos and real human tragedy of another boat on another journey, whose occupants represent the human tragedy of disaffection, the dissociation and lack of humanity in so many walks of contemporary life. There is so much that is wrong with the contemporary human condition: a universal condition that drives our selfishness, greed, intolerance, hatred and general air of distaste at anyone or anything that interrupts our contented way of life.
The walk to where the sculpture is exhibited is exhilarating. The views across the water surrounding Cockatoo Island are magnificent. The sun is much higher, the sky a cobalt blue and there is a breeze that cuts across my skin making it tingle. There are mornings like this in the inner suburbs of Melbourne I am sure, but I can’t help thinking that I have probably missed so many of them or let them pass by on my rush to the car that sits very neatly in my driveway. “I must make an effort to change that,” I tell myself.
I walk towards the main entrance that sits next to a sheer face of rock, banded with various tones of earthy browns and yellows. Set in to this at one end is what looks like a tunnel. Actually it looks like the entrance to an old mine. I will investigate this later. I move on and into the vast cavern like structure with steel girders and glass that appears to soar high above almost endlessly. About its vast floor area are derelict machines that sit solidly and silently amid years of dust and grime. In some darker corners, light pours over the machines in streaky rays and ghostly patterns where sunlight picks its way avariciously through occasional clear panes of glass. The roof structure appears to float above my head effortlessly despite the fact it must weigh thousands of tons. The scene is set for my unexpected but yet overwhelming surprise.
And there it is, Ai Weiwei’s masterpiece. A vast imposing black structure whose body curves away from its long angled plinth that is covered in philosophical quotations. At first I can only see one end of the sculpture, but as I pace further into the surrounding area I see the sheer length of the dark object which forms the shape of an enormous inflatable raft. Aboard the raft are hundreds of figures leaning forward, huddled it would seem, against the rising and falling of the ocean. It’s an imaginary ocean, but make no mistake, the ocean is there with all its formidable power. I become a little breathless at the sheer size of it and a little overwhelmed as my immediate realisation is to see the reason and nature behind Ai Weiwei’s artistic and political intention. It’s hard to take it all in and I stop at the side of it, turning my head to scan its entire length. The figures aboard the raft, shut me out, I am excluded from their pain, I am not part of the direness of their horrid situation: their backs become a wall of collective agony amid the solitude of the raft’s lonely situation.
I walk on to the other end of the sculpture where a volunteer art student sits on a chair reading a book. He looks up every few minutes or so to make sure no one is touching the sculpture. I look at him and smile. I am not sure why. I am not sure I should be smiling really. Deep down I am not, deep down I am feeling extremely sad and yet elated at the experience of the object and the building’s structure in which it is housed. I am torn between looking at the myriad of shapes and diffused light that streams down on to vast steel girders, massive pulleys, winches, not to mention workers clothes and protective hats that have been left hanging where they were last placed. I question their placing for a second or two. “Is that where they were left the last time the ship yard workers left the building? Or has someone come along and arranged the scene to appear so?” It does not matter, the scene is one that depicts the melancholy of the shipyard’s colonial past and visually, in just about every respect, creates the perfect mood within which to experience the melancholy of the sculpture’s subject matter. The dramatic setting with all its visual diversions does not belittle or undermine Ai Weiwei’s intention.
I walk on and look down. There are inscriptions every few meters or so; each one with a quotation from famous people past and present whose insight, philosophical knowledge, learning and understanding of humanity was, is and will always be, far greater than mine. Thousands of years of human history is encapsulated by their wise words: words that when written, were not meant to chastise or condemn, but said or passed on as stories to teach good from bad, right from wrong: a reminder of what our true potential could be, if only we put our collective minds together for the common good. Each quotation is as much a moral lesson as it is summation of a person’s knowledge. Knowledge learned the hard way, knowledge gained by the contradictions of life’s complex and conflicting journey. Every quotation here, as I look down at each one, is an inspiration. Picked by Ai Weiwei, I am sure, with every care and consideration to the many people who will read them.
I move back up towards the other end of the sculpture where another art student points the way to a viewing gallery. “You can see the sculpture from above and into its middle from up there,” she points out enthusiastically. She has no book. “I think the sculpture is even more powerful from up there,” she continues. I look at her questioningly. “You’ll see when you get up there.” At the top of the viewing gallery, the roof above appears to sit even higher than it does from ground level. There are a few people with cameras and mobile phones taking pictures. In between shots they are pointing at something. They are all standing in one spot. I wait looking about me and see the full length of the sculpture diminishing in size and perspective towards the back of the building. The heads of the figures on either side of the raft come together but I can see there is a small gap between them.
The other people on the viewing gallery move away and I move to stand at a point looking directly down the centre of the sculpture. Children. Hundreds of children huddled deep below. Their parents on either side protect them. They protect their cherished youngsters whom, I can only imagine, are suffering the ongoing nightmare of this trauma. The tragedy of human torment is all here, right in the heart of this magnificent artwork. I am completely overwhelmed by the sight of it. “Fuck!” I say aloud and am embarrassed immediately at my lack of sensitivity and what must appear as inarticulate boorishness. Others around me must be feeling the same sense of desolation and let’s face it, guilt. My mind races and I look around and apologise to two people who heard my expletive. “It’s ok,” says one of them, “It does take your breath away doesn’t it?” “Yes, sorry.” am so angry at myself for this.
It's so easy to sit and pontificate, so easy to judge, so easy to put the world to right from the comfort of a living room chair. Acting upon one’s realisations and beliefs is another story altogether. Years ago, approximately six years ago I joined a choir (a tenor – well, what actually passed for a tenor laughingly), that was set up to raise money specifically to help asylum seekers allowed by the government to enter Australia. I was in the choir for about three years. What prompted me to join was a conversation I overheard between a priest and politician who were at loggerheads over the plight of asylum seekers, whom after several years of waiting in disgusting detention centres, were finally allowed in to Australia. At the time, asylum seekers were allowed in to the country but not allowed to work, not even allowed to volunteer, had no access to medical assistance in the form of a Medicare card, were not allowed to seek or accept monetary donations of any kind. The priest’s argument with the politician was that this situation had to change: that Australia should be ashamed of its treatment of these people; people who were and still are, genuine refugees.
I, like many other people, was completely unaware of this horrific situation and wanted to do something about it. A few days after my surreptitious spying upon the priest and the politician, I was made aware by a friend of two houses that had been set up by a local parish not far from where I live for the specific purpose of housing asylum seekers and other homeless people. Also there was (and still is), a choir made up of like-minded people who came together to perform concerts specifically to help fund the two houses in question. I joined the following week and was welcomed, even though I cannot read music and my singing voice, well, let’s put it this way, needed a lot of training. The choir raised thousands of dollars for the two houses during my time with it. It continues to do so I am very happy to report. I am not part of the choir these days. Work commitments and serious family illness made it too difficult for me to carry on. However, after seeing, or rather experiencing Ai Weiwei’s master piece, that will change in the near future.
I would like to think that Ai Weiwei’s masterpiece will be seen by as many people as possible: that it travels the world and moves as many people as imaginable to at least ponder and act by facing their local political representative to ask (or even demand), for a more compassionate approach to displaced people. I live in hope that this artwork is seen by those people who have no feelings upon the current plight of those living in poverty and fear: that their attention might be drawn for longer than a three of four second news flash and be so moved as to learn more about the realities of human strife. It feels odd writing a word like strife in two thousand and eighteen, but nevertheless, strife it is that rules the lives of so many people who were unlucky enough to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I was not. I was one of the lucky ones. I have never known war, famine or fear. My problems are first world problems. If ever there was an artwork in contemporary times that has drawn my attention to do something, or at least to re commit myself to a cause, even if it is only as a small gesture to help fund two houses and in my local suburb, it is Ai Weiwei’s masterpiece.
Artistically speaking, I have never really cared for artworks that have writing on them. I have always felt that an artist should be able to find or at least, resolve subject matter through a visual means. There are many examples of the best of these. Theodore Gericault’s ‘Raft Of The Medusa’ would be one that springs to mind. A truly great masterpiece that made a political point with no words. Napoleon was so disgusted by it, he struck it with his riding crop. It is a painting that shows us the failures and triumphs of human fortitude, a contradiction which could only be portrayed so powerfully by an artist with consummate skill and knowledge of their subject matter. The Medusa was the Titanic of its day and like the Titanic sank with few survivors. ‘The Raft Of The Medusa’ is one of the artistic wonders of the world and should be experienced by art lovers at least once. Its sheer enormity takes ones breath away. Indeed, for a while, Gericault had to go into hiding for fear of Napoleon’s retribution.
Another obvious masterpiece with no words would be Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. A painting that screams out the heartbreak of human degradation not to mention the atrocities of war. In this case the atrocity of civil war whose victims are always the innocent. Many political artworks with words sprawled all over them end up looking like political posters to be taken on a march. If that is the artist’s intention, good. Take them (the posters), on the march and shout out the anger of your passion as loudly as you want. I am sure, if anyone has read this far, that they will disagree with me and will no doubt, be able site many examples of artworks with words that they feel still remain great artworks: that the integrity of the artwork is still intact, despite the literal intrusions. My aversion to words on artworks is just that; my aversion. I make no apologies.
So it is a contradiction, for me at least, that I should and do, accept totally Ai Weiwei’s masterpiece with its words. I believe it has something to do with the philosophical nature of them that is the artistic and political difference between this masterpiece and so many other lesser artworks. Each quote has been chosen from many walks of life, from many parts of the world, from many cultural backgrounds whose subject is linked by a common human thread: the plight of humanity. There is a common universal humanitarian link between all of them that threads them together like DNA (the stuff of life), spiraling around itself. The subject matter of this art work and its words is far greater than petty party politics, far greater than arguments about trivialities of daily life, far greater than politicians and people at loggerheads over the inconsequentialities of everyday unimportant needs and wants: it is about the fundamentals of what we are as people and the way we treat each other. All our failings in regard to our general lack of humanity at least, are made clear here in this monumental artwork: our lack of interest or action at wanting change, our lack of compassion and empathy driven by our insular television view of the world, our lack of good intent towards those who most need a helping hand and let’s be honest, our selfishness.
Just every now and again, the world is gifted an artistic masterpiece. In two thousand and eighteen, we have been gifted Ai Weiwei’s ‘Law Of The Journey’.