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Ai Weiwei's Laundromat and the Aesthetics of Displacement

Ai Weiwei's Laundromat and the Aesthetics of Displacement

Ai Weiwei: Laundromat, Jeffrey Deitch (November 5, 2016 – December 23, 2016)

Clothing is not a mute witness. As a material skin, it testifies on our behalf, showing wear from the body as well as the places the body has been. It was Picasso who suggested that the purpose of art is to wash the dust of daily life off our souls, and in the recent exhibition, Laundromat, Ai Weiwei took the restorative powers of art literally, washing the dirt from clothing, shoes, and blankets left behind at the Idomeni refugee camp.

The story of Idomeni, a small village in northern Greece, gives context to the clothing on display in the exhibition. In 2015, one million refugees entered the European Union, with almost all passing through Idomeni. Positioned along the European migration trail and outside of the border of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Idomeni became the site of an informal refugee camp. However, when the Macedonian border closed in early 2016, it also became a site of violence, with FYROM authorities using tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets to disperse protests and enforce border control. At this time, the Idomeni camp housed over 15,000 refugees. In May 2016, after months of unrest, Greek police evacuated and cleared the camp. What was left-behind—mainly clothing, shoes, and blankets—are the objects on display in Laundromat.

Although titled Laundromat, the exhibition display reminded me more so of a retail store. Clothing racks were assembled in the open gallery space, forming corridors of hanging garments through which visitors could wander. The walls and floor were wrapped in newsreels, encasing the clothing display in associated images and headlines. The garments on the clothing racks were clean and neat, organized according to gender, age, and garment type. Noticeably—and perhaps different from a shop—the racks were tall. Looking around the space, there were no floating heads drifting above the clothing; I could only see people’s feet. By raising the racks, the clothing was given the highest priority.

When we started filming in Idomeni, the first thing we noticed was people trying to change their clothes. These are the clothes they wore from Syria, wet and soiled from the difficult journey across the ocean, over mountains and through woods. They had no chance to wash their clothes until they were forced to stop in Idomeni. They would hand wash the clothes and throw it on the border fence to dry. [1]

A documentary accompanied the exhibition, showing footage of refugees at the Idomeni camp and the cleaning process undertaken for the exhibition. There was something very touching about these displaced objects being handled with such care. For Ai Weiwei, the concept of the laundromat was in the restorative process. In removing dirt and wear from the clothing, Ai Weiwei’s team sought to restore dignity to the material objects that belonged to, and constituted, a person. Once collected from the camp site, each garment was washed, dried, and recorded. Tears were mended, surfaces plucked and smoothed. Finally, the garments were shaped, folded, and hung, as if ready to be worn again. “The migrants are there but they’re not there. These clothes are existing, something you can touch.” [2] By rescuing the forcibly forgotten clothing, Ai collected the material memories of the refugees who wore them: people without a home, with few possessions, and who perhaps themselves had been forgotten.

Through categorization, the belongings of the refugees became dispersed as they themselves were dispersed.

Laundromat was not a typical exhibition about fashion. The clothing was not exemplary in design.  It was everyday clothing—shirts, t-shirts, jeans, and jackets—familiar to many wardrobes. But the clothing was, and is, historically significant as representative of those who are refugees. So perhaps rather than a retail store, the exhibition was more like a large wardrobe. Typically, however, a wardrobe belongs to one person, with the individual the defining category according to which the garments are cleaned, sorted, and stored. In Laundromat, I was reminded that the refugee often loses their own name, becoming known by their displaced status. Through categorization, the belongings of the refugees became dispersed as they themselves were dispersed. Garments that were once worn together became separated into garment styles, hung on separate clothing racks throughout the space. The garments no longer identified an individual but belonged to a collective group of objects representing a collective people.

The loss of the individual was also echoed in the removal of the evidence of individual bodies. In washing away bodily smells and mending the rips encouraged by knees and elbows, I wondered if the restorative process forgot the person who wore the clothing. There was no room to imagine the body that once inhabited the garment in the odorless and flatly pressed garments. But for Ai Weiwei, caring for the objects was tantamount to caring for the refugees. “There is no time to wash. They have to throw away dirty stuff. There’s nothing artistic about it. It’s daily life. It’s human struggle.” [4]

The cleaned shoes were particularly haunting. Shoes wait to be worn, holding their own shape. Standing at attention in a gallery in downtown New York, these shoes were ghostly, leaving no foot prints of where they’ve been. For refugees who walked the migration trail, shoes were the functional and metaphorical contact point with shifting ideas of place and home. But in their existence, the shoes also stood on behalf of those who once wore them, testifying to their experience. So while the removal of wear may have washed away some of the individual markings of those to whom they belonged, perhaps these memories of human struggle were best left behind. Or, left to remind us to care.

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