Emotionally loaded topics, at times pertaining to the plight of children, are a forté for Ai (who has a seven-year-old son). In 2009, for example, in tribute to the thousands of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake the year before, he famously covered Munich’s Haus der Kunst in 9,000 kid-sized backpacks. In 2011, his fierce criticism of the Chinese government—begun after the 2008 Olympic Games and distributed thereafter through his hyperactive social media channels and exhibitions all over the world—culminated during a major crackdown of dissidents and the confiscation of his passport. While forced to remain in China that same year, he began the work with refugees that has now become the crux of his practice. His first project, for the 56th Venice Biennale with the Ruya Foundation, was a show of drawings created by refugees from the Shariya camp in Iraq (himself unable to visit, he sent assistants there to work with the people).
Spurred in part by his own experience as a child refugee—his family was exiled from Beijing to a remote labor camp because his father was considered “rightist”—Ai continued to pursue the subject even after his passport was returned in 2015. Moving to Berlin that July, he met with Syrian refugees there and was inspired to delve deeper into their stories, often by traveling to personally meet the people being affected. Last Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum, he told the crowd he has now taken over 1,000 hours of footage, which will form a documentary to be released next year. He has also interviewed over 100 politicians and visited refugees in several countries where the situation is dire.
“The Laundromat” gives great exposure to the work Ai has done in recent months to research, document, and experience the refugee crisis, specifically at Idomeni. During a press preview of the show on Friday, Ai was present, solemnly addressing visitors and urging them to watch the film at the back of the space, which dutifully visualizes the show’s harrowing backstory. In footage from the time Ai and his team spent embedded at Idomeni, we see children crying and people living in countless small, flimsy tents, surviving terrible conditions and violence. People push against border police and are met with tear gas; ultimately, an exodus of men, women, and children leave the camp after the government forces their departure. After shots of bulldozers demolishing rows of tents, pushing aside the belongings the refugees could not carry, the film cuts to Ai’s studio in Berlin, filled with piles of clothing collected from the abandoned site. His team negotiated with local officials to keep thousands of articles of clothing and blankets that were left behind, soiled from the difficult journey to Idomeni. We see the artist and his team washing the clothes, hanging them to dry across the cavernous studio, carefully ironing each piece flat, and devising a system of organization. Sneakers and sandals are scrubbed clean with brushes in buckets of soapy water. In the surrounding space, the walls and floors of Deitch Projects are also activated, plastered with printouts from The Newsfeed, the artist’s WeChat channel that he shares with collaborators as a central space to collate new findings, images, and articles pertaining to the refugee crisis.