Propositions On the Sky and Its Parts
1. Almost like a trick of the eye (a trompe-l’œil), a pattern carries movement. Its repetition promises a continuity, a never-ending. A sea of sunflower seeds. Rows of Stone Aged axe-heads. Names of children buried in the vestiges of an earthquake. A puddle of orange and green porcelain crabs spilt atop one another. An army of tiny children’s shoes.
2. Nihad Sirees writes in The Silence and the Roar, “Stillness does not mean the absence of sounds, not at all, but rather the tranquillity that allows one to perceive quiet, soft and distant sounds.” Stillness is neither silence, nor is it stone.
3. It is within stillness that Chinese artist and activist icon Ai Weiwei tells stories of movement. In “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” a triptych of black-and-white photographs, he stares into the camera’s eye, the ceramic slipping out of his hands and finally, smashing on the floor. He never moves. The nature of the photographic medium is a binding stillness. And yet, these portraits hold a dizzying movement, an anticipation, a panic and a conclusion.
4. One of my first mornings working in the warehouse, a metal box that overheated terribly under the Greek summer sun, I was sorting children’s socks by age and size. Dedi, another volunteer, an older Israeli man, broke the hush with a sudden recitation of Hemingway’s six-word novel: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
5. In New York, people don’t tend to wander aimlessly. I almost always have a destination. I smoke while I walk. When I pause, it is to check street signs, tie a shoe, stamp out a cigarette butt. But that afternoon, on the quiet part of Wooster Street where Deitch Projects sits, I found without meaning to Ai Weiwei’s “Laundromat” on exhibit. Three walls were covered in a repetition of photographs, the floor with screenshots of news headlines. And filling the room were racks of clothes: women’s jackets, medium. Men’s shorts, large. It was clinical chaos. On the second level of the gallery were shoes: men’s rain-boots, plastic sandals, Crocs, tennis shoes, little shoes with velcro straps, little winter boots in a pink rubber. Some had lost their other half. Left behind at the Idomeni camp on the Greek-Macedonian border where Ai found them, they had been cleaned and arranged and systematized. Yet, the tumult had not been fully excised from these objects: it lingered in the missing shoe. The journey was inscribed in not only the right shoe’s scuffing, but in the absence of its peer. Left behind: one shoe, deeply worn.
6. My brother and friends were critical about my plans to volunteer. They asked me questions that made me defensive, like “Are you doing this to make you feel good about yourself?” and “Why them and not somebody else?” People have patterns, too.
7. I believe it was Kant who argued that selfish motives, or even motives of compassion, belie a truly good will, and Freud who planted this idea that the ego was a diseased, anxious monster within all of us. Volunteering does make me feel good—does that make me bad? I feel full of love by the daily act of giving it all away. Is that gluttonous? Where do we get this idea that in order to be authentic to a cause, we must be struggling just as much as those we are trying to help? that only when we destroy ourselves as we help others are we genuinely, believably working for their benefit and not our own?
8. When asked in an interview why he had chosen to clean the objects he had collected from Idomeni, Ai replied, “I don’t like to see them dirty. No matter how poor we were, my mom would say, ‘Wash your hands.’ So, for me, it’s human dignity to be clean. So basic.”
Objects in the warehouse, for distribution to—
winter arrivals: men’s T-shirts and shorts, jeans, underwear, hijabs, abayas, scarves, women’s tunics and leggings, maternity dresses;
new arrivals only: toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, soap, comb, deodorant;
families with children: pampers (sizes 1-5), baby formula, onesies (ages 3-18 months), undershirts, shirts and pants (girls/boys ages 3-12);
families in UNHCR housing: rice, cans of tomato sauce, pasta, granola bars, dried dates, boxed milk, canned beans, juice boxes, vegetable stock
In Chios, my supervisor warned me to be careful as I looked through every article of clothing donated to make sure it wasn’t inappropriate (i.e. children’s socks printed with Bart Simpson and his penis exposed), dirty, or damaged. She told me a cautionary tale, that a few weeks back, they had accidentally distributed used underwear. It was embarrassing for the team, and humiliating for the people who had to experience the indignity of receiving them.
9. “Everyone knows the ship could sink, unable to hold the piles of bodies that keep crawling on like raging ants from a disrupted nest” (Thanhha Lai).
10. Scenes of pain can be alienating, so horrific as to be repulsive to some lucky viewership. The daily news of tragedy is so deafening as to be rendered silent. So how to characterize the refugee and the gravity of his suffering? how to make those luckier people care for more than just a moment? how to beat back the tyrannical silence of that majority?
11. There was greater outcry after Blackfish, than after Human Flow. Likely that is because the solution for saving whales from captivity is so much simpler than treating the causes and the effects of a global refugee crisis. But there is a chance that audiences find whales more lovable, than refugees; after all, whales don’t have a chorus of right-wing politicians and their constituents telling them, “You black bastards, go away” (Columbia Global Reports). One suicidal whale in Florida is a more pleasing tragedy than the cry of 65 million people knocking on your front door.
12. Human Flow is Ai Weiwei’s magnum opus. Its scope is extraordinary: 40 refugee camps, 23 countries, from the Rohingya in Bangladesh to the Syrians in Greece. The film is an attempt to diagnose pattern. The cinematography of many of the cuts—drone footage taken from high in the air—immediately recalls the use of scale and repeated objects in Ai’s other works. A bird flies over the sea, the sea’s blue blanched by foamy waves. Bright orange life-jackets are piled high, sea-side, a graveyard. A stretch of desert, then a sudden outbreak of tents, caravans. Neat rectangular boxes, made into rooms in a resettlement center in Berlin. An unrelenting stream of people on foot, in buses, on boats, a slow migration.
13. In an interview with The Atlantic, Ai said, “We didn’t want footage that was too disturbing or too emotional or private or personal.” In these ways, Human Flow is different from most news stories of mass drownings and tiny bodies beached, or documentaries that follow an individual’s journey; it seeks the drone’s view and succeeds in illustrating how civil war and closed borders create and re-create crises of the human condition. Ai tells his photographers, “Leave the camera there. Let it run. Don’t try to zoom or pan. I like plain cinematic language.” The effect of this bare language is a sense of waiting, the temporality of human life abruptly and indefinitely paused. A movement within stillness, a slow death-march.
14. The friend who pronounces they don’t like watching the news because it makes them sad is the kind of person who would hate Human Flow. Also, probably exactly the person who should watch it. To sit through its two hours and twenty minutes is to be confronted with a monstrous problem; to exhaust yourself as you try to keep track of which border, which people you are watching now; to leave feeling like there is nothing you can do, because it’s not one whale, nor one person’s story, nor even one country, one crisis; you know you can’t save the world. So you might, like I did, try to forget the film for long enough to enjoy your arepa for lunch.
15. There are moments of recognition in Human Flow, quiet scenes of natural humanity that make the film’s breadth less menacing: trying on new clothes, offering a light to a cigarette, a cup of tea, smartphones. An old woman clutches her suitcase tight. A group of men pray in the desert. Kids arrange rocks into patterns to play Hopscotch. Ai and a Syrian man joke about trading passports. A camel tries to lick the camera. A woman and her young child, who has gloriously round cheeks and holds a balloon animal are told that the Macedonian border is closed; through fatigue and despair, there is a glimpse of a mother’s annoyance followed by a tiny smile, as she scolds her child for poking her face with the balloon animal. In the darkness, a pair of brothers holds each other, sobbing in Arabic: “You are my older brother. I’ll follow you anywhere.”
16. “Some things are simply too big to be taken in all at once. Raise your eyes one night to the sky, to the blackness sprayed with millions of stars, and try seeing all of it, the whole sky. It can’t be done. It overwhelms,” wrote Khaled Hosseini. “The best you can do is to fix on a star or two and imagine the sheer vastness of the heavens through them. For sometimes, what you can’t grasp in whole, you can picture through its parts.” Here Hosseini is analogizing human suffering, but it is also a valid short-coming of Ai’s vast project. In an effort to identify a socio-political problem, to measure the immense stretch of the wound, Ai fails to show its depth, the way it scars on the minds and bodies of the people who suffer it. He drops the whole sky in your lap. For this reason, Human Flow is likely to be received with anxiety, than with compassion.
17. “For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes” (Milan Kundera).
18. Over Thanksgiving weekend, I take the bus to Philadelphia to visit my cousin, who is a nurse. Our families were until last year, estranged, and when we met for the first time, I was twenty and she was twenty-seven. Over dinner, she asks me to tell her more about the refugee camp where I worked. I tell her about Moul, an unaccompanied minor from Aleppo, that shattered ancient city. His family was no longer in this life; his friend and tent-mate had already gotten passage to Athens. One evening, I saw him standing alone on the shore. I went to him. He was crying in silence, staring out as a ferry crossed, its light glowing out. “My last friend is on the boat,” he said. “I am all alone.” Alejandra, an Ecuadorian volunteer told me he had turned eighteen that night. I look up. My cousin is weeping.
19. The violence of the camp was like Human Flow in many ways, a muted overheating, an inner swelling. It was there in our young friends’ bandaged wrists, in their declining optimism. A young woman lost her baby. Rats raided a tent in the middle of the night and bit a baby’s toes off. There were murmurs that women were afraid to go to the bathroom alone at night, that sexual assault was common, and so were drugs and alcohol. The heat didn’t help. At the peak of summer, the temperature hit forty degrees Celsius, and the municipal government forgot to fill the camp’s water tank. For seven hours, in blistering heat, the refugees had no water. A refugee was stabbed twice by another and ended up in the hospital. At tea-time, the children lined up for jump rope and a scuffle always broke out. Members of the Golden Dawn fascist party threw Molotov cocktails into the camp, tried to burn it down. During distribution, a fourteen-year-old boy screamed into my face in a rage, “Fuck you! You are bad.” He later apologized, saying he had had too much vodka to drink; he made the motion of curling his hand around an imaginary bottle and dipping his head back, eyes closed.
20. Once, after tea-time, at the mouth of the camp: there, stuck on the uneven gravel, was a scrap of a space blanket. It trembled, the silver foil lifting to reveal its golden belly. It glared in the sun, so that I had to look away. A little girl I recognized as Samar ran for it. She picked it up and wrapped it around her neck so that it fell behind her like a superhero’s cape.
21. When I left Chios almost thirty days later, the very fact of my travel—my American passport, the boarding pass, my layover in Dubai, that overwrought alien airport—back home was dizzying, the way the movement of space through time could make such a bitterly obvious difference. “Is it a related form of aggrandizement, to inflate a heartbreak into a sort of allegory?” (Maggie Nelson).
22. On my last night on the island, there was a near-full moon, and my dearest friends, both volunteers and refugees, decided to sleep on the beach. Because of the cold, and the rocks that poked through the blanket, I drifted in and out of sleep. I was barely awake when I heard the roar of the ocean getting closer, and suddenly, our feet and then our knees and then our stomachs were submerged in the high tide. We reacted with a half-second’s delay, crawling on our forearms backward, before getting up and running. After a quick, instinctual check for our phones, we looked up at each other’s faces, lit up by that white moon and started to laugh. We bent over laughing. The blanket was soaked and sandy.
23. I brought my camera to Chios, but took no photographs. It felt invasive, a taking of privacy, perhaps the last belonging these refugees could truly claim as their own. They had lost control of most everything else. This is the first time I write about refugees. When I left that place, I knew I had not done much, that every long day did nothing to change that countries weren’t accepting asylum claims, that the boats would still come. It is nearly the same feeling I had as I left the cinema, except then, I had one relief: that Human Flow will have a political pull that my aid work never could have had. When I look at Ai’s oeuvre—all of it, together—and squint a little, I think I can make out the shape of the sky coming together—or alas, maybe that is just hope.