The expansive, white spaces of the Trade Fair Palace in Prague, currently a gallery for the country’s vast modern art collection, were once used as an assembly point for Jews before their deportation to Terezin concentration camp. From there, they were often sent to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. The site is a place of ghastly horror and glorious achievement, impending annihilation and avant-garde boldness, obvious cruelty and enigmatic artistry. To take in this paradox is too much for most visitors. I, like many other museum-goers, began my visit to the site with a creamy cappuccino and a sliver of spicy, hazelnut cake at the cafe before heading cheerfully into the galleries, my conscience not yet clouded by thoughts of those who had come there under other circumstances.
Ai Wei Wei’s exhibition Law of the Journey, currently on view , demands that visitors to the museum do more than enjoy a pleasant day amongst beautiful pieces of art. He takes on the topic of the current refugee crisis, or as he describes it “human crisis”, and brings the viewer viscerally close to the reality of being not just homeless but stateless. The issues he addresses are contemporary, but his work strikes just a bit harder in this historically charged space. Who can stand in these halls and say, “But it would never happen here!”
Filling the gallery space is a larger-than-life, black, inflatable raft with more than three hundred inflatable figures. Hung at an angle, the raft seems to be cresting a wave, and the undulating movement of riding across the sea in a thin plastic boat, with all the nausea and fear that must accompany such an experience, is palpable. The sense of alienation and claustrophobia is unmistakable as well, and each of the figures looks just like the others, all crammed together like cattle in an industrial farm. On the ground outside of the boat, a few lonely figures drift in their inner tubes, their giant cartoon-like hands reaching up to the viewer’s eye level.
Beneath the raft, there is enough space for visitors to walk, and on the floor under the raft, there are printed quotes from many, seemingly disparate, authors. Some, like Vaclav Havel and Franz Kafka, are from Prague, but others, like Saint Augustine, are not. In fact, the quotes are drawn from a very wide range of cultures and eras, as if Wei Wei had dipped his hand into the waters of collective, universal wisdom and pulled out whatever came to him. Here are a few examples:
Depending upon which quote I was looking at in a given moment, my thoughts about the raft installation shifted. While reading Hikmet, I thought of how refugees have so much to gain by leaving their native countries that they are willing risk all types of disaster; while reading Augustine, I thought of how I might someday have the opportunity to help just one refugee; while reading Havel, I thought of how infrequently I pause to consider what work it is that I personally am responsible for doing. What was true for all the quotes, however, was that they nudged me toward a stance of responsibility and action. I couldn’t stand there under that boat looking at these words and say that none of it was my problem.
On the walls of the gallery space there were rows and rows of tiny photographs of refugees. In contrast to the large, anonymous black figures in the center, they were frightfully specific. A woman wrapped in a foil blanket, a child gripping a man’s shoulder, a man with orange sneakers stepping out of a small raft and into ankle-deep water - these were, and are, real people.
Artwork with a clear political message sometimes comes across as emotionally manipulative or propagandistic, but Wei Wei’s work hit me less with a message and more with a question. Could I walk under the shadow of that inflatable raft without imagining the depth and cold of the ocean? Could I scan a wall papered with photographs of huddled masses with the same boredom and indifference I have toward my Instagram feed? Did it matter that the same space where I’d just enjoyed cake and coffee once spelled terror and destruction for the Jewish families who entered it? Or, to borrow a question from a Kafka quote included in the installation: