Discarded life jackets used by artists to raise awareness of refugee crisis

Last month the six front columns of Berlin’s historic Konzerthaus were decked out with fourteen thousand bright orange life jackets—an installation by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, titled Safe Passage. A tribute to those who have risked their lives on the Mediterranean Sea to escape persecution in the Middle East and North Africa, the work was made to coincide with Cinema for Peace’s annual award gala on February 15, part of the Berlin International Film Festival. The money raised at this year’s gala was used to purchase five thousand rescue blankets and one thousand emergency baby kits (for births that have taken place at sea), which the Cinema for Peace Foundation delivered this past week to the Greek island of Lesbos, the most popular port of entry for people fleeing to Europe through Turkey.

Safe Passage installation
Ai Weiwei’s crew finishes hanging life jackets on the sixth column of Berlin’s Konzerthaus, just before putting up an inflatable dinghy with the title of the installation: Safe Passage. Photo: Markus Winninghoff.
Safe Passage installation
Safe Passage: installation of fourteen thousand life jackets by Ai Weiwei, Konzerthaus, Berlin, February 14–17, 2016. Photo: Oliver Lang.

Weiwei visited Lesbos in December to see for himself the human faces of the current refugee crisis. He shared on Instagram photos and videos he took inside a refugee camp, to show the world what’s going on in Lesbos, and has opened an additional studio there.

One thing that visually struck Weiwei were the giant mounds of life jackets heaped up on the beaches. Refugees shed them as soon as they disembark their boats, setting foot, at last, on land, and ready to start their new lives. Seeing in them a poignant symbol of the crisis, he asked the mayor of the island if he could take a small portion—and yes, fourteen thousand is only a small portion—with him to Europe to use for an art installation. His request was granted. Wrapped around the grand facade of Berlin’s nineteenth-century concert house, they bear witness to the scale of the crisis and even allude to its human cost: last year, a reported 3,770-plus refugees died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, and the death toll for this year has already exceeded 400. Some of these deaths were due to defective life jackets sold to migrants by a Turkish company looking to cut down on production costs.

While some have questioned the efficacy of staging such a large awareness raiser in Germany, a country that has taken in more refugees than any other European Union member state, others point out that several antirefugee organizations have emerged there, such as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), which calls on the German government to enact stricter asylum laws. Not all the German people are proud of the measures its country has taken to invite in Syrians, Afghans, and other huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Instead they fear the repercussions. Weiwei’s Safe Passage protests against that fear-based mentality that denies and excludes.

Weiwei has not been the first person to recycle used life jackets into art. Last December British artist Arabella Dorman incorporated three life jackets into her installation Flight in St. James’s Church in Piccadilly, London, which has them tumbling out of a capsized dinghy hanging from the ceiling. She also filled the Christmas crèche at the front of the church with a few dozen more: they cushion the ground where the sculpted figures kneel in adoration of the newborn Christ child.  

Flight by Arabella Dorman
Flight: installation by Arabella Dorman at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, London, December 20, 2015–February 8, 2016.
Flight by Arabella Dorman
Dorman’s Flight installation at St. James’s included a jacket-strewn nativity set in front of the main altar, reminiscent—on a much smaller scale—of the mountains of used life jackets piling up on the beaches of Lesbos, signifying the massive influx of refugees into Europe. Photo: Reuters/Neil Hall.

A war artist who has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dorman visited Lesbos in September. “I saw the Christmas story played out on the beaches,” she said. “A small family in flight, fleeing war and persecution”—that describes not only the Holy Family in their flight to Egypt but the countless families of today’s world who have had to brave rough journeys to foreign lands for the chance of finding safety there.

The rubber sea vessel Dorman used in the installation was designed to carry fifteen people but ended up carrying sixty-two. (Such overcrowding on refugee-filled boats is the norm.) While en route, it began taking on water, and its passengers had to be rescued by the Greek coast guard. Luckily, everyone survived. Passengers on other overtaxed vessels between Turkey and Greece have not been so lucky.

Dorman’s Flight is an admirable example of how churches can employ artists to support their worship and work. The church is a place where God’s people, among other things, shine a light on injustices and beg God’s intervention on behalf of the victims of those injustices. It’s also a place where we invite the Holy Spirit to stir us to action. If we can’t embrace those in need, how are we the body of Christ?

Imagine how having an inflatable dinghy from the front line of the refugee crisis suspended above your head at church would color your worship. As you sing hymns and voice prayers and take in a sermon and confess sin and receive Communion, how might this looming presence—a symbol of the unsafe passage that millions have hazarded and continue to hazard—add perspective to what you do on Sunday mornings? And especially, given its seasonal tie-in, to how you understand or celebrate Christmas?

Jonathan Jones reviewed the installation for The Guardian, praising the choice of sacred location:

Even for a non-believer, a religious service provided the right mood in which to see this heartfelt and urgent work of art. . . . Flight asks you to think about the unthinkable cruelty of our time. The drowned, the abandoned and the survivors we’re not sure we want. It belongs here, in the contemplative setting of a church.

Maybe the boat appears crass, out of place, tacky in such a beautiful place of worship. If that’s where our minds move—and I think it’s a natural move—then the work is intended precisely for us. Dorman could have gone with something subtler or more uplifting or more aesthetically pleasing, but instead she gives us a messy intrusion into our neat, pretty little lives, the deep urgency of three drowning bodies—two adult, one child—implied by the falling life jackets.

The installation isn’t “pretty” or pleasing, but that’s not the function of art, now, is it? Art should hold up a magnifying glass to the details of our world, showing us what’s there to observe. Journalists perform this service in their own way: the refugee crisis has been heavily featured in the news since last September, when the corpse of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. But whereas journalists give us the facts, and headlines that whiz past at a million miles a minute, artists give us something more subjective and, I think, more inviting: an object to gaze on. Art slows us down; it takes time to settle into us. To sit with the same artwork for almost two months, as St. James’s did, is to open yourself up to being shaped and transformed by what you see.

Special art installations and exhibitions in churches serve not only the church community but the whole city and can be a great way to engage those who wouldn’t otherwise set foot in a church. To welcome the larger London community into the conversation Dorman’s installation had sparked among its own parishioners, St. James’s hosted an event called “Flight: Songs of Exile and Homecoming.” Held on February 2, it included performances, readings, and testimony from the contemporary Afghan folk musician Milad Yousofi; folk singer Richard Burgess; the Vigala Singers; members of the Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir; classical singers Patrick Craig, Zita Syme, Oliver Gerrish, and Alexandra Kennedy; British/Bahraini flugelhorn player Yazz Ahmed; Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj; former BBC Afghanistan correspondent David Loyn; and Afghan refugee and author Gulwali Passerlay. Ticket sales went to support two charities involved in helping the refugee situation in Lesbos: Doctors of the World UK and the Starfish Foundation.

Events like this show outsiders—and remind insiders—that the gospel has plenty of relevance to current events, and that the church, like the God we serve, is committed to the wellness of the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s