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


Crucified life-jacket

In her essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues that if we are to account for the “micrological texture of power” that constitutes our subjectivities under global capitalism, we must attend to this double meaning of representation. In terms of this double meaning of representation, Spivak makes the following distinction between Vertretung and Darstellung. More precisely, Vertretung is defined as ‘stepping in someone’s place to tread in someone’s shoes’. Representation in this sense means ‘political representation’ or a speaking for the needs and desires of somebody or something. Darstellung is representation as re-presentation, ‘placing there’. As such, according to Spivak, the double meaning of representation is encapsulated in the notions of  ‘proxy and portrait’: ‘speaking for’ and ‘portraying’. If we are to understand how macrologies of power are congealed through the ‘micrological and often erratic’ process of subject-formation, then we must attend to the relationship between these two ‘irreducible’ yet ‘complicit’ senses of representation. According to Spivak the problem begins when we are speaking in the name of a subaltern group, or we are representing others as researchers, but also in our daily life. She insists that we must apply ‘persistent critique’ in order to be avoid the pitfall of ‘constructing the Other simply as an object of knowledge, leaving out the real Others because of the ones who are getting access into public places due to these waves of benevolence and so on’.

On December 2019, Pope Francis inaugurated a resin crucifix on which appears a life jacket, symbol of the death of many migrants in the Mediterranean. In his twitter account he wrote:

I decided to display this life jacket, “crucified”, to remind everyone of the imperative commitment to save all human life, because the life of each person is precious in the eyes of God. The Lord will call us to account at the hour of judgment.

In the Christian tradition, noted the Pope, “the cross is a symbol of suffering and sacrifice, but also of redemption and salvation.  Unveiling, what he called, a “crucified” life jacket on a transparent resin cross[2]. What is interesting is that this was not just any life jacket, as the Pope informed the public someone was wearing this life jacket but was drown in the Mediterranean sea. Why the need to crucify ‘a real’ life jacket? How bizarre and uncomfortable that the life jacket made the journey to Italy and all the way inside the Vatican, but the person who was wearing it lost his/her life while crossing the Mediterranean sea. This is an absolute reminder of the problematic representations that Spivak reffered to as ‘proxy’: to substitute the Other with an object and finally transform this into an object of knowledge that can be applied to substantiate any kind of knowledge: in this instance the life jacket stands for the dead body, and in that sense becomes an object that could be used in order to substabtiate the claim that the Pope (or even the Catholic church) care about human lives! All this while the ‘real Other’ is left outside of the frame.


Myrto Tsilimpounidi

[1] Pope Francis (@Pontifex_en) December 20, 2019:



Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1988) “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, (eds.) Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Anna Carastathis & Myrto Tsilimpounidi (2020) Reproducing Refugees: Photographia of a Crisis. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.


Crucified cross in the Vatican, December 2019


Chessboard of the world

“Strategy games on the chessboard of the world:

Art installation at the University of the Aegean”

Artist: Fereniki Tsamparli 


Artistic statement: 

In late 1922, after a three-year war between the Greeks and the Turks, the Turkish army entered the city of Smyrna, located on the Asia Minor coast. One day later, a large part of the city burned with hundreds of thousands of people, desperately trying to save themselves, boarding small, overcrowded boats, crossing the nearby Aegean islands such as Lesvos, Chios, Samos, etc. 

In 2015, refugees cross the passage between Turkey and Lesvos again – this time people coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, etc. By the end of the same year, about half a million refugees arrived on the island. So, the summer of 2015 there was an important time for Lesvos, as the island was experiencing a refugee crisis for the second time!

The island was full of refugees, reaching the east coast, often stacked in small, insecure, and overcrowded boats. Their first concern was to get rid of the unnecessary cargo – wet clothes and life jackets – in order to move forward to the recording centers that had been set up for this purpose in various parts of the capital Mytilene.

It is at this point in time that I return to the island from a short trip to Athens and the sight I see looking up from the window of the airplane are the abandoned orange refugee lifeboats that resembled a fire that burned the east side of the island. Both this particular sight in itself, with all its emotional charge, and the abandonment of lifeboats and other rescue materials on the island’s beaches, which temporarily threatened the marine and coastal environment, became a source of inspiration for an action that would combine, on the one hand the proper management of some of this “waste” (foam contained inside the jets and torn plastic boats); and on the other hand, to make, through art, a political hint for the situation in which all these people were facing based on decisions they had not made themselves.

This was the plan: The lifebloods of foam would make the chess pawns of a giant chessboard, while square pieces of abandoned plastic boats would make up the chessboard. The aim is to highlight two key issues: the refugee crisis and environmental protection.

Following a request to the University of the Aegean for funding of other materials (paint, glues, etc) and many days of voluntary and hard work, students and city dwellers, under my guidance, transformed these seemingly insignificant materials of the Aegean daily life in 2015, into 32 large pawns about 1.2 m high, mounted on a large (25m2) chessboard. From thirty-two chess pawns, after being coated with pulp, sixteen were painted in orange and the rest in green, thereby attempting an indirect reminder of the two issues that gave inspiration for the project (orange for the life jackets and green for the environment).


Myrto Tsilimpounidi


Photos by Iasonas Panagos (reproduced here with permission)