It all happened in a hot and moist spring in Mesopotamia. The coinciding Ai Weiwei exhibition and 4th Mardin Biennial in 2018 laid bare the human tragedy that’s been the region’s destiny for ages. The storytellers, the guardians of Mesopotamian oral history, began to tell horror stories since the civil war broke in Syria in 2011. At times of war, artists throughout the history took it upon themselves to portray the human condition. Once again, Mardin welcomed artists from all over the world that revealed works portraying what had been beyond words.
The ancient lands once home to philosophers, scientists and artists had long been showered with bombs, bullets and blood. Following the decade long war across the invisible borders of the vast valley that looked like the sea at night, refugees had flooded the neighboring countries with hopes of survival. Turkey’s Hatay, Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa and Mardin had not been any exception. Since the war had begun, Mardin had transformed with each newcomer. Already a multicultural and multi-religious city, Mardin had become even more complex. It hadn’t been the case for many European cities where governments had shut down their borders. However, refugees encountered resistance wherever they went from citizens if not from governments.
Meanwhile, Ai Weiwei exhibition that traveled from Istanbul had found shelter in Dilek Sabancı Art Gallery inside Sakıp Sabancı Mardin City Museum. Notorious activist-artist’s porcelains, ceramics, wallpapers, photographs and installations had struck a chord with anyone remotely informed about the ongoing refugee crisis. Weiwei had followed the fleeing families through 23 countries and 40 refugee camps witnessing their precarious journey. (Anadol & Uncu, Ai Weiwei On Porcelain, 2017, p. 190) The experience from his encounters had blended with his artistic practice resulting with works such as Odyssey (Wallpaper, 2016), Stacked Porcelain Vases as a Pillar (Set of unique porcelain vases, 2017), Blue-and-White Porcelain Vases (entitled War, Ruins, Journey and Crossing the Sea, 2017) and Blue-and-White Porcelain Plates (2017). Other works he had previously created such as Blossom (Porcelain, 2014), With Flowers (Wallpaper, 2013-15), Bicycle Basket with Flowers in Porcelain (2014), He Xie (Porcelain crabs, 2012) and even the famous Sunflower Seeds (Porcelain, 2010) displayed in Istanbul had embodied new meanings with this exhibition and the changing circumstances.
Against Odyssey, the massive wallpaper depicting illustrative scenes from Syrian refugees’ journey, one couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the conditions of the refugee camps. Weiwei skillfully had surrounded the audience with a reality hidden from sight via strategically placed camps; poverty, poor health conditions, surveillance, violence and death, all of which, these people have been running from in the first place. Illustrations brought to mind cave paintings, early Greek pottery and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs recording history of a forgotten past. Perhaps it’s the role of art to record the history of the disadvantaged and the oppressed rather than the victorious upon which we base our nationalist identities. On the other hand, the wallpaper dedicated to people who have no walls to hide behind has left us with an irony. Exhibiting the wallpaper in old Mardin where the entire city is built from the same type of stone creating a breathtaking unity in scenery is definitely more attention grabbing when compared to its display in Istanbul.
The Stacked Porcelain Vases as a Pillar (2017) as well as the Blue-and-White Porcelain Plates (2017) mimics the theme of the wallpaper amplifying the overall effect. “He has made, together with his collaborators in China, remarkable illustrative depictions to decorate blue-and-white porcelain vases. These replace the ornamental flowers and dragons that have acted as symbols of beauty and good fortune as well as of benevolent power, with plates and vases decorated with guns and tanks, as well as the soldiers and guerillas who roam the landscape in their wake, bringing the human displacement that has caused this current crisis in which Turkey inevitably found itself so caught.” (Rosenthal, Ai Weiwei On Porcelain, 2017, p. 20) By replacing symbols of beauty, good fortune and power, Weiwei gives a modern twist to tradition. This divergence from years and years of repetition is unquestionably intentional. While the true intention of the artist is debatable, once again, he leaves a story of the unfortunate in art history as opposed to the narrative of the powerful. Porcelain as a medium to leave this story on is equally interesting since it endures time and has the potential to relay the events of today to following generations. “By both paying homage to Modernism and employing traditional Chinese craftsmanship, Ai Weiwei fuses two contradictory veins in art history—the avant-garde’s search for radical breaks and the narrative possibilities found in the Chinese form.” (Anadol & Uncu, Ai Weiwei On Porcelain, 2017, p. 122) The traditions similarly adopted by the people are the foundations of nationalism. Respectfully shaped by such traditions without empathy and regard to our fellow men, nationalism can become dangerous. Is simply opening the borders to refugees enough to protect them from harms way? Do we need innovative ways to integrate refugees into our societies while including the local communities in the process? Without concern for the safety of the refugees, are we really looking out for their interests? Evident from the motifs of Weiwei some of us fail miserably in putting aside our populist agendas applauded by masses for the sake of humanity.
There’s a great deal of political and ethical discussion held when it comes to masses. Ai Weiwei’s He Xie presents a not so subtle reference to the compliant masses deeply desired by most nation states and their governors. “Composed of 1,200 porcelain crustaceans, He Xie, or river crab, commemorates the feast that Ai Weiwei hosted, focusing attention on the ordered demolition of his Shanghai studio by authorities in 2010. River crabs are a delicacy in China, but have also come to represent a subversive element in contemporary culture. He xie, a homophone for the government’s buzzword, harmony, became slang for censorship under the guise of stability.” (Anadol & Uncu, Ai Weiwei On Porcelain, 2017, p. 72) Above all, the work had been highly appreciated by the viewers for its visual impact. However, through understanding the backstory inspiring the realization of this installation, it has been possible to ask universal questions on authority and censorship. Such symbols of submission and subversion in return, can be found in every culture. Exhibited in Mardin, He Xie relates to the censorship and strict control over the public residing in this region. Especially today, appointed trustees to replace the elected mayors of cities such as Mardin, Diyarbakır and Van are met with wild enthusiasm by the nationalist crowds in Turkey. It appears a feast in Mardin is a forlorn hope for now. There are of course many ways to read Weiwei’s work. “Here lies the necessity of Ai Weiwei’s work: the porcelain and everything he does describe without emotion what exists in the larger world, beyond his art. He urges viewers to draw their own conclusion.” (Rosenthal, Ai Weiwei On Porcelain, 2017, p. 20) Thus, visitors with conflicting views have admired the exhibition just the same.
Ai Weiwei certainly has seen his share of state-led censorship, brutality, confinement and oppression. Another wallpaper in the exhibition With Flowers brightens the mood in the gallery space. Yet, it documents a segment of the artist’s struggle with the authorities. “Following his arrest and secret detention lasting 81 days in 2011, the artist’s passport was confiscated and a battery of surveillance cameras was installed around his studio house in Beijing.” (Anadol & Uncu, Ai Weiwei On Porcelain, 2017, p. 97) Constantly being watched may be a reality we have gotten used to today. Most of us are led to believe that surveillance is for our own benefit and in some cases such as with social media we allow it voluntarily. On the other hand, we subconsciously know that the always-watching eye is an apparatus of authoritarian regimes to keep their subjects in line. “We need a ritual even for how to live under this authoritarian regime. Although it is such a struggle, that struggle should be celebrated and we should be the happy ones.” (Weiwei, Ai Weiwei On Porcelain, 2017, p. 38) The opposition in Turkey has resort to humor and satire as a daily ritual.
As the smell of colorful flowers filled the halls of the gallery, Blossom and Flower Plates greeted the visitors. Accompanied by the flowers on the wallpaper, these artworks belonged to another period of struggle in Weiwei’s life. Weiwei had been barred from leaving China for five years when he first came up with his celebration with flowers. “When I was refused the right to travel for those five years, I thought of that as a given opportunity, which is unique, how to use those very difficult conditions to celebrate the meaning of freedom.” (Weiwei, Ai Weiwei On Porcelain, 2017, p. 38) Weiwei reminds us that even in the hardest times, hope is an outlet that cannot be controlled or prevented by outside influences. Not so long ago, following the failed coup attempt and the constant threat of ISIS breaching country’s borders, a countrywide state of emergency had been declared in Turkey. Until the state of emergency had been lifted, the metropolitan cities in the West relatively have been less affected by the decision while, people in the Eastern cities could not leave their houses for days. For those, who are trying to adapt to their new lives in a foreign land and those who’s lives have been nothing but struggle, smell of the fresh flowers travel through the air.
It’s safe to claim that today Ai Weiwei is one of the most prominent figures in contemporary art and without a doubt; Mardin has never hosted such a recognized artist’s exhibition in its recent history. His talent and artistic practice has ensured his position along with his innovative approach to tradition. “From the earliest surviving vessels made in the Neolithic Northeast to the ubiquitous porcelain today, ceramic is a medium that is closely associated with China’s national and international identity.” (Pierson, Ai Weiwei On Porcelain, 2017, p. 25) It’s the Chinese identity that inspired Weiwei to create something new via porcelain and other means that wowed the people. He took his cultural identity and turned it into a universal heritage for everyone to share.
Claude Lévi-Strauss argues that if we are concerned with a single form of progress, we end up appreciating the culture, which to the highest extent excels in such progress and become indifferent towards other cultures. Thus he continues, progress in nothing but a preconceived personal thought on an ultimate advancement. (Irk, Tarih ve Kültür, 2016, p. 53) Deciding on one culture to revere above others seems impossible since we all have our different views. Hard as it may seem today to appreciate each culture for its own progress, we can keep an open mind and try our best to understand. After all, it is in our power to evolve with the world around us and savor all different colors it offers. “Then, sustained by what we have inherited from the past and what we witness, we will have the courage to resist and continue resisting in as yet unimaginable circumstances. We will learn how to wait in solidarity. Just as we will continue indefinitely to praise, to swear and to curse in every language we know.” (Berger, Confabulations, 2016, p. 142-143) If we can only manage to focus on what makes us human rather than become intimidated by the differences we see in each other, we can continue to react peacefully much like art sometimes does.
*Anadol Ayşen, & Uncu, E. A. (2017). Ai Weiwei On Porcelain. SU Sakip Sabanci Museum.
*Berger, J. (2016). Confabulations. London: Penguin Books.
*Lévi-Strauss, C. (2016). Irk, Tarih ve Kültür. (H. Bayrı, R. Erdem, A. Oyacıoğlu, & I. Ergüden, Trans.). İstanbul: Metis.