Social Practice Art: “Safe Passage” Installation by Ai WeiWei


Social Practice Art

safe passage Installation by Ai WeiWei

It is a five column installation at the Berlin Konzerthaus made up of 14000 life jackets used by refugees.

These life jackets were taken from the Greek island of Lesbos, where hundreds of refugees land every day after battling the treacherous Mediterranean Sea from Turkey.

“The installation is a tribute to the refugees that died at sea in an attempt to escape war and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa.”

According to Der Standard, as taken from


Each jacket represents an individual who is risking their life in order to find peace, and puts into perspective the many lives lost in this attempt to seek safety and shelter.

The life jackets are either discarded on the beach by individuals who made it to shore, or washed up on the shore alone; their wearers lost to the sea.

Through this powerful installation, Ai WeiWei brings to our attention the immense risks the refugees face, and serves as a grim reminder that so many refugees have died in search of a better life. It is a strong way to criticise the European Union’s handling of the refugee crisis.


I think that to truly understand the effectiveness behind a social practice artwork, one must consider the several contexts/ factors behind it.

For me, I look at:

  1. The medium – does it represent the cause/ situation well?
  2. The timing of the work
  3. The location/ venue of the work – is the right audience being reached? (e.g not preaching to the choir)
  4. (optional) The artist’s background – provides context for the work


1. The medium

By using life jackets as a medium, and in fact the actual life jackets used by refugees, it is a very sombre way of reminding us viewers of the risks these refugees take in search of a better life that is not even guaranteed.

These life jackets are literally the only thing preventing the refugees from life and death in the sea. These flimsy, small, orange vests are what they put their trust in when they navigate the treacherous sea. We can see that whatever these refugees are facing at home is so bad that even for a glimmer of hope at a better future in Europe, they choose to don these little life jackets and cross the vast, scary and raging sea.

While unrelated but still on the subject of life jackets, I was researching and came across articles stating that some of the life jackets worn by refugees actually are fake, and have sponges in them that cause the life jackets to sink instead of float. “We had drownings and we had a fake item. This wasn’t just about market fraud: it was about aiding and abetting murder,” says Andreou, a marine engineer. (Taken from

With regard to the installation though, the life jackets are a very bright and vibrant orange. It feels as though they are calling for our attention, for our help, and the bright colour also screams of danger.

Interpreting the work, the vests are also piled on columns that quite resemble jail bars – this could imply that even after refugees reach Europe, they may still be trapped in their situation.

2. The timing of the work

The temporary art installation was on the occasion of the annual Cinema for Peace gala, which took place inside the venue as part of the Berlin Film Festival in 2016.

“The calculating and media-savvy artist doubtlessly chose the timing deliberately to maximise media exposure of his project”. (

3. The location/ venue of the work

However, it is the location of the work that confuses some.

“According to the New York TimesGermany took in over 1 million refugees last year, more than any other European Union member state.

Moreover, the Konzerthaus is located at Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt, the focal point of the Huguenot population that fled religious persecution in Catholic France in the 17th century and was granted refuge in Berlin by Frederick the Great in 1685. According to, about 20,000 Huguenots emigrated to Berlin and, at the start of the 18th century, it was estimated that 1 in 5 Berliners were of Huguenot origin.

In other words, Ai’s installation—while retaining critical undertones—is located in the center of what has been a symbol of Germany’s tolerance and embrace of refugees since the 17th century.”

(Taken from

As this article so appropriately sums it, Ai Weiwei is preaching to the choir. Is his message actually getting received by the people who have to be reached? For instance those in the UK, or the US.


4. The artist’s background

“I was a child refugee, writes the Chinese artist and activist. I know how it feels to live in a camp, robbed of my humanity. Refugees must be seen to be an essential part of our shared humanity”

(Taken from

“From my youth, I experienced inhumane treatment from society. At the camp we had to live in an underground dugout and were subjected to unexplainable hatred, discrimination, unprovoked insults and assaults, all of which aimed to crush the basic human spirit rooted in my father’s beliefs. As a result, I remember experiencing what felt like endless injustice. In such circumstances, there is no place to hide and there is no way to escape. You feel like your life is up against a wall, or that life itself is a dimming light, on the verge of being completely extinguished. Coping with the humiliation and suffering became the only way to survive.

I share this personal background because it sheds light on my emotional connection to the current global refugee condition, which I documented in the film Human Flow. My experience clarifies why I identify so deeply with all these unfortunate people who are pushed into extreme conditions by outside forces they are powerless to resist.

(Taken from



I believe that this is a powerful social practice artwork: it made me so interested in the refugee crisis and what I could do to help. It is effective in its medium, and the timing of it, and while the location could’ve been somewhere else, I still think the work is very effective because Ai doesn’t just stop here. He has created more works after this in various countries about the refugee crisis. Other of Ai’s works on the refugee crisis have also been very compelling, such as project “Laundromat”: an installation consisting of 2,046 items of clothing abandoned by refugees who were forcibly evacuated from Lesbos, his film Human Flow, and documenting his visits to the refugee camp on Instagram thereby “giving his followers an insight into what daily life is like for refugees arriving in Europe.”


Ai Weiwei Wraps the Columns of Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 Salvaged Refugee Life Vests

Ai Weiwei Commemorates Drowned Refugees with Public Installation during Berlin Film Festival

Ai Weiwei Stages Offensive and Tasteless Photo Op at Film Gala in Berlin

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