Culture House Daily

Ai Weiwei’s Aylan Kurdi image is crude, thoughtless and egotistical

1 February 2016

4:09 PM

1 February 2016

4:09 PM

Last September a photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a beach near Bodrum made headlines around the world. The image had a significant effect on shifting public perception to the Syrian refugee crisis as well as sparking a debate around the ethics of the circulation of such images. Academics at the University of Sheffield have estimated that 53,000 tweets were sent per hour at the height of the image’s circulation reaching 20 million people around the world in 12 hours. Last week, over four months after the image appeared, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei made his own contribution to the debate in a photograph which depicts the artist posing as Kurdi. The artist, looking a good deal heavier than the toddler, lies prone on the beach in a restful pose. The image was unveiled last week at the India Art Fair in Delhi in a mini-exhibition of self-portraits.

Ai Weiwei is a divisive figure. On the one hand there is little doubt that he is China’s most well-known artist and has been treated badly by the Chinese authorities. On the other hand a number of art critics and curators such as Jed Perl and Francesco Bonami have argued that his actual artwork is derivative and second rate, and that he is championed by the western art world because of his rather unsubtle political sloganeering and claim to victimhood. There is no doubt that Ai feels strongly about the Syrian refugee crisis – he recently cancelled an exhibition in Denmark in protest about its government’s hardening of policy towards asylum seekers – but this particular photograph arguably plays into the hands of his detractors.


To pose as Kurdi is a crude piece of identification with the dead boy. While Ai has suffered at the hands of the Chinese government, it is difficult to equate his experiences to those of the three-year old. In an interview with CNN, Ai states: ‘For me to be in the same position [as Kurdi] is to suggest our condition can be so far from human concerns in today’s politics.’ Never mind the garbled syntax of the second half of the sentence, it is the first half of it that is mind-boggling. He is not in the same position as Kurdi for the simple reason that, after the photo-shoot, he got up, dusted himself down and returned to whatever leading international artists do, as opposed to Kurdi, whose dead body was carefully picked up by a police officer. This over-identification with refugees was also seen in a stunt last September when Ai, accompanied by his friend Anish Kapoor and a number of reporters, walked eight miles through London in grey blankets to show solidarity with refugees, most of whom tend to have to travel a bit further than eight miles and do not usually start their journey outside the Royal Academy.

Instead of contributing to the debate on refugees, both the refugee walk and the Kurdi image suggest that Ai Weiwei might not really be thinking these things through. The Ai-as-Kurdi image is ludicrous in its careful composition, printed tastefully in black and white with the surf breaking dramatically and a tree artfully cropped in the mid-distance. The walk with Kapoor did not reflect the difficulty of the journeys that refugees take. In between these works, Ai took time out to have a go at Lego who refused to sell him lots of Lego bricks as the company had a policy of not selling in bulk if it thought the purchaser was going to make a political statement. After the artist whipped up a backlash the company retreated. Refugees, Lego, it’s all grist to Ai’s mill.

Artists have played an important role in bringing a spotlight to serious issues that have been ignored but no-one in the right mind could argue that the image of Kurdi was overlooked. If anything, it was circulated too readily and without enough reflection. There is a fast-moving debate going on about Syria, Isis, refugees, Western interventionism, Islam and the growth of its doctrinaire versions. This photograph contributes absolutely nothing to them. Instead there is the lingering suspicion that what it mostly contributes to is the flourishing career of Ai Weiwei.

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Show comments
  • Daidragon

    Tasteless piece of self publicity. Has achieved it’s real goal though which is to get people talking about some sh*t artist who we wouldn’t otherwise give a fig about.

  • ahmed

    Its like a really bad GCE contemporary art project isn’t it?

  • Royamotos

    Shame on you Ai WeiWei.

    You should know better.

    Images are sacred.

    The image of Aylan Kurdi exposed an instant, baring to the world, the pain, the unspeakable tragedy, the injustice … through that sacred image that moment is now frozen in time for the rest of eternity … a reminder of our lack of humanity.

    How dare you appropriate the sacred image of Aylan Kurdi for your own propaganda.

    How do you expect to get humanity’s self-centered attention with a stunt like that?

  • DellerboyNZ

    I wish someone would run the Kurdi back story again.
    As I understand it Kurdi senior + wife + kid(s) had made their terrifying escape from Syria 4 years ago to Turkey.
    But against his wife’s protests Kurdi (Sen) thought he would roll the asylum dice one more time.
    A more empowered woman and mother might have said: ‘Are you mad? I’m not gettin’ on that F**kin’ raft and neither are the kids’.
    Post the drownings Kurdi opted to move back to SYRIA which requires a great big ‘Duh?’

  • Andy McLeish

    I can’t forgive him for politicising Lego.

  • anotherjoeblogs

    How about Tracy Emin’s unmade bed as Aylan ?

  • anotherjoeblogs

    In old fashioned Python – silly bunt.

  • Rupert Rivett

    I hope the photographer was paid for the publication of the image.

  • Snowmuncher

    Let no-one forget the death of Aylan was ruthlessly exploited by the liberal left media to mislead the public into accepting more migrants (most not refugees), and when the truth came out:

    1. Family had been living in Turkey for 3 years, and father had a job there. They were not in imminent danger and Turkey is a safe NATO country

    2. A mother in the same boat who lost 2 children when it sank gave an interview on Australia’s Channel 9 news and said that Aylan’s father was piloting the boat and was involved in people smuggling, and had been responsible for the boat over turning. Having lost 2 children in the incident she said her only concern was show the truth. It’s here:

    UK media in general, especially the BBC, while first milking the story for all it was worth pushing for more and migrants to be accepted by the UK and the EU, suddenly stopped reporting on the story. It has never shown the Australia Channel 9’s interview of the women.

    The BBC has repeated this treatment of its cause célèbre in the past – with the story of teenage Jihadi Bride Amira Abase who went to Syria to join ISIS. Her father was mainly blaming the police, and when invited to the House of Commons Select Committee he claimed he had no idea how his daughter could have come so radicalized. 2 weeks later video on Mail on Line showing her father at a West hate rally in front of the US embassy in London standing next to a man burning a flag, also attended by the future murderer of Lee Rigby and hate preacher Anjem Choudary. The father later admitted to have taken his daughter to at least one such rally.

    • anotherjoeblogs

      Well said again S.M.

  • Ralph

    Did Ai Weiwei’s father put him, his siblings, and his mother lives at fatal risk to leave a safe country for his own gain?

  • ahmed

    He does protest art – lite. His RA show was problematic too. Easy stuff. He lacks the gravitas of Goya or Manet.

  • Gilbert White

    These foreign devils have got the taking of our money down to a fine art? Point of fact many chinamen drown each year at the Pearl River trying to make the hazardous journey under the fence to their own country.

  • King Zog

    Fat Cnute

  • SonOfGud

    I prefer Wei Wei Wong (R.I.P)

  • andyrwebman

    How about one with Mr Blobby?

  • Cyril Sneer

    For authenticity and artist effect Mr Ai Weiwei should have his father drown him in the sea.

  • Cyril Sneer

    That Kurdi toddler was living safe in Turkey for years, his father had a job, a place to live and they weren’t in danger.

    His father forced his children and wife onto that boat/dinghy against their wishes in the middle of the night and without life reserves. All so that the father could get into Europe. They weren’t fleeing poverty, war, famine anything. They were safe in Turkey.

    This is the real story of Alan Kurdi. The father wasn’t on the boat, he was still safe in Turkey.

    Now, what do you regard of someone who cynically uses the death of a toddler to further their own ideological goal and it’s this left ideology of let them all in that has had a massive effect on the increasing numbers coming and as a consequence increasing numbers of drowned people making the perilous journey. What sort of person would use such propaganda for their own evil ends? The left.

    • Andy Capp

      True, Cyril. And just to add to your post, the family’s application for asylum in Canada was turned down – and Canada has perhaps the most liberal asylum-seeker policy on the planet. This and the facts you state were all ignored by our sheep-like, left-liberal media.

      • mohdanga

        Actually, it was a relative of this family that was turned down, but that didn’t stop the leftwing dummies in the media here from blaming Stephen Harper for the death, and then Anglicizing the name from Aylan to Alan in order to give the impression that it was hundreds of thousands of Johns, Marys, Bills, etc waiting to enter Europe.

  • douglas redmayne

    I agree although Aylan Kurdi was an expense avoided by UK taxpayers.

  • FedUpIndian

    Who takes I Weewee seriously?

  • Itinerant

    A staged photo of a drowning- looks familiar.

  • Pioneer

    Whatever Ai Weiwei intentions maybe, it will perhaps make some people think again about the Aylan incident and the use of it as a propaganda tool.

    Nothing innovative or clever about it as a work of “art” , but using his “celebrity” to publicise it might not be a bad thing.

  • Jesus H Corbyn

    I think it’s rather good. Thought provoking

    his motive claerly isn’t malicious but rather so we’ll never forget the tragedy that CAmeron caused that day

    • Cyril Sneer

      Oh so you’re not aware of the real story of Alan Kurdi? Or perhaps you’re just another lying lefty covering up the real story of this dead toddler.

      Thought provoking? You c ts don’t think.

      • David S

        Er Cyril I think he’s pulling your leg. The clue is in the name.

  • Bonkim

    Don’t give this idiot the oxygen of publicity – in fact stop discussing refugees and asylum seekers for a while – I don’t want to not – it is getting boring. Irresponsible grown up venturing in leaky boats expecting the Europe to take them in – stay in your camps much safer ther or join the militias destroying your countries – fight the tyrant. We don’t want to know – better still knock on the doors of Saudi Arabia your Big Brother.

    • Suzy61

      My compassion is now well and truly fatigued.

      The most I can muster is an eye-roll

  • Jabez Foodbotham

    Ai Weiwei ?
    It doesn’t look like a drowned Panda to me.

  • edithgrove

    “it mostly contributes to is the flourishing career of Ai Weiwei” Exactly, and thank you for this press release, the cheque is in the mail.

  • Ingmar Blessing

    I like it. In difference to the kids dad Ai Weiweis father probably wouldnt have taken such a risk to get his teeth done.

  • Delhi Spearman.

    Looks like a Chinaman lying on a shingle beach to me. but what do I know. And can I say Chinaman? I don’t know. Seems to me no one knows what they can say anymore. I am a stranger in a very strange land. Did that little boy really die? Did his father, by wrong decision, kill his son? I don’t know. Still, looks like a Chinaman lying on a shingle beach, to me.

    • logdon

      The body was moved and it was staged.

      However, the massive outcry didn’t surprise me. This is viral Stockholm Syndrome.

      • Delhi Spearman.

        I don’t know what to believe. Is Mr Weiwei really a Chinaman. Will my grandchildren be Muslims. Does Mr Weiwei know enough about what is going on to lie on a shingle beach and pretend to be a dead boy?

        • Bonkim

          He is just pretending to be a child.

        • logdon

          I doubt it.

    • Miss Floribunda Rose

      A ching-chong-Chinaman.

    • Cyril Sneer

      His father forced his children and wife onto that boat. It is his fault and he should be in prison right now.

      • Snowmuncher

        See my comment above “A mother in the same boat who lost 2 children when it sank gave an interview on Australia’s Channel 9 news and said that Aylan’s father was piloting the boat and was involved in people smuggling, and had been responsible for the boat over turning. Having lost 2 children in the incident she said her only concern was to know the full truth. It’s here:

        • Cyril Sneer

          Thanks for the response. Yes I heard that he could potentially have been a people smuggler but at the time I heard little more about that. Well thanks for your link, it would in fact appear that Mr Kurdi is a people smuggler.

          • Snowmuncher

            He refutes this woman’s claim. Given that she lost her two children, her husband was in the boat with her and has the same story – even saying that he told Kurdi to slow down as he feared the speed the boat was travelling at in the conditions, and her story was further corroborated by another women in the same boat, it is obvious to me who is telling the truth.

            Not a word about this by the BBC, or any TV news, documentary or current affairs programme that I have seen or heard about.

            The Aylan Kurdi story is still repeatedly brought up on TV and radio, sometimes with mention of the fact the family had lived in Turkey for 3 years, but never that he has been accused by a mother who lost two children of being in the smuggling gang. Also, why are the relevant police not investigating him – or if they are why is not reported?

            • Gilbert White

              If the police follow the laws with muslim wrong doers, where would it end?

    • Suzy61

      Looks like an Emperor with no clothes, to me.

  • Enoch Powell

    It’s not often that you get to say that the brutal communist one party state of China has a point.

    • David S

      When we were travelling in China last year the young people we spoke to, while being unafraid to criticise the State and the Party, had little time for Ai Wei Wei, seeing him as a narcissist and self-publicist. They felt that the real problems with government were incompetence and corruption rather than oppression.

      • Enoch Powell

        Indeed my friend who lives in Harare has no problem with Mugabe. There’s plenty of corruption she says, but at least she feels safe going out at night, unlike in ‘democratic’ South Africa where violence is everywhere.

  • maraismarais

    He’s not an artist , never was never will be . If he wasn’t on the wrong side of the Chinese state nobody would take any notice of him . He looks more like a beached whale than that poor young boy

  • jim

    Such an as**ole. Seems the Chinese aren’t wrong about everything.

  • startledcod

    He really should have thought this one through; apart from anything else it’s more than a wei-wei bit tasteless. Perhaps he should depict the decision making of Aylan’s father when he committed his son to the water having spent three years in Turkey.

  • Mongo

    Could this be the Ultimate Virtue Signal™ ?

    • Cyril Sneer

      No I recommend they need to virtue signal some more. Al Weiwei or whatever this braindead moron’s name is should’ve requested his father to drown him in the sea then take a photo.

  • Cobbett

    You forgot pointless…as I couldn’t care less how many of them drown.

    • Gilbert White

      Well definitely outside the EU bubble people are disinterested in club med drownings?

  • King Zog

    Fat c*nt.

    • Jesus!

      Well said.

  • King Kibbutz

    Jed Perl and Francesco Bonami are not quite getting this contemporary art thing are they?

  • sidor

    Is this the way this fat Chinese “artist” earning his living? He could find a useful occupation instead: there are many Chinese restaurants in London.

  • AdrianM


  • Atlas

    The Aylan Kurdi affair seems to have been the moment when European liberals finally realised that no amount of emoting was going to get the people of Europe to support their deranged mass-immigration policies. So they just took to ignoring us even harder than normal instead.

    • stuartMilan

      and they did *not* enjoy Charlie Hebdo repurposing what they hoped was going to be their all-purpose magic wand to anaesthetise debate

  • MaxSceptic

    I wish that, in this instance, art had imitated life more truthfully.

  • stuartMilan

    or an installation where he’s locked into a squalid bedroom, with a queue of men on the other side of the door?

  • stuartMilan

    why doesn’t he do an immersive performance piece in front of the Cologne train station where we get to grope and throw fireworks at him?