Life Jackets

Life Jackets by Ai Wei Wei (Installation at Berlin Konzerthaus)

Ai Weiwei used fourteen thousand life jackets that he had transported from Lesvos to Berlin to decorate the six marble columns of the Berlin Konzerthaus (Concert House) for the Cinema for Peace Gala, held there on February 15, 2016. Each life jacket was meant to represent a single refugee, while its larger-than-human scale was meant to draw attention to the sheer number of human lives affected by the refugee crisis. Ai’s installation coincided with his stay on Lesvos (January to April 2016), where he set up a workshop and collaborated with local and international artists and photographers (such as the Photography Association of Mytilene). Other artworks by Ai featuring life jackets were installed in Copenhagen and Vienna, while an exhibition of his work, much of it related to and/or produced in Lesvos, was held at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens. 

According to the artist’s statements during a press conference held at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, as of July 2016, there were 500,000 life jackets–“the last thing you grab when you have to escape”–left on Lesvos. By removing them from the island and bringing them to other locations in Europe (to which most refugees arriving at the hotspots were prevented from travelling or relocating), the artist raises questions about the way in which goods, capital, and some people–those with powerful passports–move with ease across borders, while other people–including the vast majority of those displaced by war–remain stuck, are immobilised, and are enclosed by those same borders.


Myrto Tsilimpounidi



AFP News Agency, “Ai Weiwei Life Jacket Installation Highlights Refugee Plight,” YouTube, July 13, 2016,

Ai Weiwei at Cycladic, Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens, 2016, 

AP Archive, “Ai Weiwei Turns Migrant Lifejackets into Art in Copenhagen,” YouTube, June 30, 2017,

Azzarello, Nina, “Ai Weiwei Wraps Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 Refugee Life Jackets,” DesignBoom, February 15, 2016,

Photos by Cheryl Howard