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Ai Weiwei's Safe Passage installation and the significant allegories it takes on



Ai Weiwei, a socio-political artistic activist, progressor and documentarian is world renowned for his several provocative installations, which all question pressing matters in today's society. The artist manages to deliver the message of his work through an interactive approach within the modern world, seeking to speak on the urgent affairs of civilization within a deliberate matter in regards to the audience, hence, raising awareness and uplifting discussions from the public. Essentially, Ai Weiwei’s work goes beyond simply placing his art in a museum; he proposes a deep reflection of communal matters that he has experienced and been in contact with throughout his life, specifically his childhood spent during the Chinese autocratic repressive regime. It can be stated that, given his background from the early ages living in the domineering authoritarian communist government, he has always questioned his surroundings, seeking for justice in the political landscape and promoting the deliberate value of free speech and human rights.


The installation “Safe Passage”, from 2016, was created in response to the global refugee crisis, consisting of life jackets worn by migrants on their life threatening travels across the Mediterranean Sea. More than 14,000 life jackets were gathered, which the artist tied together before wrapping them across the pillars of Berlin’s Konzerthaus at Gendarmenmarkt in Mitte. Accordingly, Ai Wewei draws awareness towards the pressing matters of refugees, challenging our perception of their vulnerability, unsafety and exposure to danger, thereby shedding light on the global responsibility the public holds by transforming these abandoned life jackets into a massive installation for the public eye. More so, the installation is exhibited in an urban space, open to interpretation for whomever crosses nearby, therefore, Ai Weiwei manages to put his art across in an intentional and emergent manner, handing the viewers the burden of responsibility in regards to such pressing matters. In that sense, the colours of the life jacket highlight the urgency of the topic, as well as the brightness and alarming tones, becoming a conspicuous installation.


The artwork primarily portrays a sense of human misery as well as the enormous hazards that refugees seeking a better life endure during their refuge. More so, the life jackets, which signify protection and hope, become both symbolic and heartbreaking as they remind viewers of the people who embark on the perilous journeys, in most cases, overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels, risking their lives to flee violence, persecution and poverty - fundamentally, fleeting the inhumane conditions they have come across. Furthermore, Ai Weiwei’s installation magnifies the significance of the disaster, bringing to light the vast amount of lives affected by the crises through the large amount of life vests exposed on the pillars, indicating the communal suffering and the urgency for action. In that sense, the name of the piece itself is symbolic, as “Safe Passage” could be seen to be ironic, considering the object of their safety, the life jackets, which are hung, thereby insinuating that their safety is now at the public's responsibility, advocating for our actions and greater awareness.


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