Ai Weiwei’s exhibit “Soleil Levant”
Images of Ai Weiwei’s Soleil Levant show the façade of Kunsthal Charlottenborg that faces the canal in Nyhavn. In the windows of the façade there are stacked loads of life jackets. These life jackets vary in color but most of them are in a screaming orange color, others are in a red or darker color. If you stand on the other side of the canal or in a good distance from the installation, the installation makes it look like that there are flames because of the varying shades of color. Ai Weiwei’s Soleil Levant opened in 2017 – in the wake of the asylum-problems with refugees coming from the Middle East and especially from Syria. But how does Ai Weiwei use Nyhavn to state his activist message to the Danish community? And in what way does this art exhibit serve as mode of activism and public engagement?
Marts d. 13 2023 · 12 minuts of reading time · Keywords: Nyhavn, refugees and politics
Ai Weiwei is world-known for his activist art, and he has often been criticized for being politically provocative. In 2011 he was imprisoned for 81 days in his homeland by the Chinese authorities that took his passport temporarily because of his continuous critique of the communist government. In 2015 he moved to Europe and here his main causes in his political work have been focused on the refugees and asylum policy in Europe.
One of his political works of art about these issues is precisely the one called Soleil Levant. Soleil Levant opened on June 20th, 2017 in Copenhagen, on UN’s “International Refugees’ Day” and it was on display until October 2017. The installation consisted of a barricade of life jackets collected from boat refugees arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos. Many of the boat refugees who had taken this same trip through the sea had lost their lives because of the dangerous conditions during the trip. These life jackets from Greece were stacked in the windows of Charlottenborg’s facade.
Most of the life jackets in Soleil Levant were in a screaming orange and red color and few were also in a darker shade. Soleil Levant was in other words eye-catching whether it was for walking passers-by who were in Nyhavn for a joyful visit, or others on the go.
Charlottenborg is an art museum facing Nyhavn, and for this installation Nyhavn was thus decorated with more than 3500 life jackets. Two years before this installation the former refugee-crisis was in its climax. At that time many refugees arrived in Greek islands and took the whole trip up to Europe. In Denmark it was extremely sensational when newspapers showed pictures of many refugees walked on the highway in order to reach Sweden back in those days. Some of the Danish politicians believed Denmark should stop these refugees. Other politicians complained that Italy and Greece should’ve adhered to EU’s laws. These events were certainly seen as a state of emergency which was complicated and hard to fully process in the public sphere. Most of all it revealed a political system that didn’t seem to want to deal with the people who wandered through Danish territory (Nexø, 2019). Two years after these events there were still many asylum-problems with refugees. Ai Weiwei’s exhibit, Soleil Levant, was initiated in the wake of all these events. Most of the life jackets in Soleil Levant were in a screaming orange and red color and few were also in a darker shade. Soleil Levant was in other words eye-catching whether it was for walking passers-by who were in Nyhavn for a joyful visit, or others on the go.
Many articles and opinions from the time of the exhibition show that the artwork awakened a lot of feelings in people visiting Nyhavn as they felt an overwhelming and uncomfortable contrast between Nyhavn as an idyllic place and the life jackets which portrayed the difficult social and political situation at that same time (Matzen, 2017). At the inauguration of Soleil Levant there were also critics targeting Ai Weiwei’s artwork. A former art professor in Kunstakademiet Jesper Christiansen criticized the installation harshly and called it a primitive idiom (Carstensen, 2017). In a status update on Facebook, he claimed that the message of the installation was so dominant that the art was rather a “stavepladekunst” which means that in reality it was not an artwork because it wasn’t artistically processed.
The rhetorical use of Nyhavn
Ai Weiwei’s Soleil Levant used place in protest in several ways. First of all, as a visitor of Nyhavn one associates the harbor with the sea. By that the sea becomes more present and easier to imagine for the one who sees the life jackets. Because of that a visitor of Nyhavn can sense the message of the artwork in a greater extent compared to if the installation was placed in any other tourist attraction. Moreover, Nyhavn functions rhetorically in and of itself. This is because Nyhavn has a pre-existing meaning that comes in conflict with the sight of the installation. The pre-existing meaning of Nyhavn is especially interesting to analyze. From 1673 Nyhavn was a busy business-harbor where ships from all over the world came and docked (Visit Copenhagen, 2022). The life in the harbor was dominated by sailors, pubs, maidens, and party. Nowadays Nyhavn still have the same old, beautiful, and crooked houses that once housed merchants – today they’re of course renovated. And the place is now filled with cozy restaurants and bars. Just as it was filled with accommodating facilities for the merchants who came to visit Denmark many years ago. In this way Nyhavn represents the Danish idyllic life, and apart from being a tourist attraction Nyhavn is – in many Danish people’s opinion – regarded as a cozy place for spending some quality time with loved ones.
So, Soleil Levant tries to fade the pre-existing meaning of Nyhavn as being a “hygge”-place for everyone – supposedly particularly for non-Danish people – in favor of a new temporary meaning: namely that the refugee-crisis have shown that Denmark isn’t as stranger-kind and welcoming for strangers as the place seeks to look like. And it is anything but pleasant and cozy to be received as a stranger in Denmark.
In fact, it is not rare to find pictures on social media of Danish politicians who have their lunch in Nyhavn in sunny days. The preexisting meaning of Nyhavn is therefore not only associated with accommodating tourists. Nyhavn is also associated with the popular Danish term “hygge” which means that it is a place where all kinds of Danish people – even politicians – spend their spare time for having fun and quality time. At the same time Ai Weiwei’s Soleil Levant represents a harsh reality. Every life jacket tells a story about an unknown human being who had been running for his/her life in life-dangerous conditions and each one of these refugees have been risking their lives to reach their destination. A destination that many refugees who drowned in the sea on their way to Greece didn’t have the opportunity to reach. This harsh reality is what is represented in this installation. Thus, Soleil Levant holds a competing meaning in relation to Nyhavn. This is because Soleil Levant refers to the pre-existing meaning of Nyhavn and challenges this meaning by questioning whether or not Denmark in reality accommodates people who come from outside the country and whether or not this supposed hospitality is correct and has been applicable in the recent refugee-crisis. So, Soleil Levant tries to fade the pre-existing meaning of Nyhavn as being a “hygge”-place for everyone – supposedly particularly for non-Danish people – in favor of a new temporary meaning: namely that the refugee-crisis have shown that Denmark isn’t as stranger-kind and welcoming for strangers as the place seeks to look like. And it is anything but pleasant and cozy to be received as a stranger in Denmark.
Journalist Pernille Lystlund Matzen writes about her visit of Ai Weiwei’s Soleil Levant in Nyhavn and says: “Da jeg går langs kanalen ved kunsthallen, er kontrastvirkningen mellem Nyhavns puttenuttede post-kort-Danmark på den ene side og redningsvestenes barske politiske og sociale virkelighed på den anden side slående” (Matzen, 2017). Moreover she describes the installation as
a ”troldspejl” which distorts the image it is mirroring. And that the gloss-image of the national selfunderstanding forms a contrast of the installation’s latent shadow-side. “Kanalen trækker en symbolsk skillelinje af vand mellem de to kontrasterende virkeligheder. Installationens spraglede redningsveste nærmest modsvarer Nyhavns polerede facader på den anden side af kanalen”.
The installation generates intense emotions
The sight of Ai Weiwei’s Soleil Levant appeals to our emotions as visitors of Nyhavn because the life jackets seem so real. Apart from that, the perceiver’s impressions are so contrasting. This is because the place’s peace and coziness are mixed with the harsh sight of the life jackets and this condensation intensifies the impression of the perceiver. This is what especially makes the installation breathtaking amid all the peace a normal visitor of Nyhavn is filled with when walking along the canal.
In my opinion, it is exactly such an emotion-generator which was needed in the public sphere in order to debate refugees – at a time where the majority of Danish people and Danish politicians most of all did not want to deal with refugees.
The fact that the exhibit generated emotions due to the choice of place shows that Ai Weiwei wanted to infuse debate in the society. He wanted people to confront the contrasting realities between refugee-crisis and the the normal atmosphere of Nyhavn, and he wanted people to consider their opinion towards the refugees instead of running away from the harsh realities that exist and even have come all the way to Denmark.This is also evident when journalist Pernille Lystlund Matzen describes her walk in Nyhavn as hitting and contrasting. This is obviously what Ai Weiwei wanted to evoke; namely the discomfort of the contrast which was present in Nyhavn. Even if one claims that the sight of Ai Weiwei’s Soleil in Nyhavn challenged what is regarded as acceptable means of communication, it is nevertheless a form of political participation that have the potential to let the message circulate in a way that potentially can intensify the argument of Soleil Levant. In my opinion, it is exactly such an emotion-generator which was needed in the public sphere in order to debate refugees – at a time where the majority of Danish people and Danish politicians most of all did not want to deal with refugees.