Europe's refugee crisis is a political flash point and a humanitarian emergency. But is it also art?

From Banksy to Ai Weiwei, the region's refugee crisis is becoming the muse of artists who are drawing their social commentaries on larger-than-life urban canvases. For instance, Ai - the Chinese dissident artist turned Berlin transplant - orchestrated the adornment of his adopted city's 19th-century Konzerthaus over the weekend with 14,000 orange life vests.

Used by some of the Syrians, Iraqis and others trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos on desperate quests for sanctuary in Europe, the jackets now spiral up the six columns of the concert hall in a temporary monument to misery and hope. "This is Europe. This is the 21st century, and I don't think people really get it," Ai said in Lesbos, where he is working on a documentary about the refugee crisis. "Where is our humanity?"

Ai Weiwei has focused on the plight of those trying to get to Europe by boat. Photo / AP
Ai Weiwei has focused on the plight of those trying to get to Europe by boat. Photo / AP

Graffiti artist Banksy is in the midst of a series on the refugee crisis. His latest work - a young girl from Les Miserables rising from a cloud of tear gas - recently popped up on a wall of the French Embassy in London, in a statement against the use of force by the French against migrant camps in the northern port city of Calais.


In an effort that polarised the German public, ominous ads began appearing across Berlin in June warning that "the dead are coming". Said dead turned out to be refugees. A troop led by the Swiss German artist Philipp Ruch claimed to have had refugees' bodies exhumed in Italy after they had drowned in the Mediterranean, only to be reburied in Berlin during a provocative piece of performance art.

For all its size, Ai's life-jacket piece was, perhaps, not his most powerful statement on the subject. Last month on Lesbos, he posed facedown on a rocky beach for a photo meant to recall Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body on the Turkish shore became a powerful symbol of crisis last year.

The German blogger David Gutensohn asked: "Is this art, or can we get rid of it?" Die Welt commentator Swantje Karich called Ai's "dead child" photo "shameless", adding: "What is the great moralist Ai Weiwei hoping to achieve with this?"

Yet just as many people, if not more, applauded Ai for producing a highly effective work that literally stopped traffic in central Berlin. A black raft dangled from the center of the concert hall's facade, between the stone pillars that seemed to radiate with the orange of the life jackets.

Ai Weiwei has focused on the plight of those trying to get to Europe by boat. Photo / AP
Ai Weiwei has focused on the plight of those trying to get to Europe by boat. Photo / AP

Martin Steger, a 42-year-old Berlin lawyer who came to see the installation, said, "It makes me picture what it must have been like on this boat."

"It makes you stop and think," he said.

Ai, who is teaching a master class at the Berlin University of the Arts, is unapologetic about his work. He said the life-vest project came to mind after reflecting on a similar piece he did using thousands of backpacks to illustrate the deaths of schoolchildren in China's 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which knocked down buildings alleged to be poorly constructed.

"This is not exaggerating or trying to exaggerate," Ai said, adding, "I wanted this to be an alarm, to raise an alarm.

"I don't care what all people think," he said. "My work belongs to the people who have no voice."

- Washington Post - Bloomberg