Imagine That You See the Wretched Strangers

by Luke Whisnant

One rainy Wednesday in June 2017, in Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, you find yourself standing in the doorway of Ai Weiwei’s installation Odyssey, snapping photos with your iPhone, trying to figure out exactly what you’re looking at.

Odyssey and Tyres by Ai Weiwei.  2017.  Wallpaper and marble.  Photo courtesy of the author.


You’re on the threshold of a medium-sized light-filled trapezoidal room — oddly angled walls, full-length window at the far end — a room floored in fake wood; and resting on this floor, in off-kilter stacks of three and four, are inner tubes: you count two dozen, no, twenty-five, no, twenty-eight rubber automobile tire inner tubes: speckled greenish-gray ones, grayish-black ones, strange off-white ones.

You meander into the room, lean down, look closer. There’s a small “do not touch” placard, so you catch the guard’s eye and nod, I won’t touch, I’m not going to touch, and the guard nods back, and then you squat beside the nearest inner tube, and squint, and blink, and squint again. The tube is as fake as the floor. All of them are. They’re not rubber. They appear to be solid marble. The grayish-black ones are especially deceptive: they’re the right color, and they’re shiny-dull, like dusty rubber; you can even see the slightly raised seams between the fake rubber panels.

Then, looking up, you notice the wallpaper.

The entire room is wrapped in a wallpaper frieze, martial scenes as vivid and animated as on any black-figure Grecian urn. You see hoplites in phalanx, bronze-age Greek warriors in panoply, battle dress: the crested helmets, the form-fitting cuirass, the man-killing spear, the embossed bronze shields.

Odyssey detail -- hoplites
Detail of Odyssey by Ai Weiwei.  Photo courtesy of the author.

The ancient warriors, facing right, march across the frieze in groups of twelve—six black figures with six ghostly white outlines behind. In the last group, wounded warriors fall, speared, trampled. And then, as the right-facing line extends, it morphs into a line facing left, a black phalanx of modern warriors, police and soldiers in tactical gear: visored helmets, raised truncheons, riot shields embossed with “POLICE.” They too are shadowed by white ghosts. You follow the line further, to where the truncheons are replaced by AK-47s. The next squad wields shoulder-fired rocket launchers. You see military trucks, Predator drones, Kamov attack helicopters hovering over buildings rocketed to rubble.

Odyssey detail -- police
Detail of Odyssey by Ai Weiwei.  Photo courtesy of the author.

What is the object of all this aggression?

Now you see, and you’re amazed you didn’t see before. Woven all through the wallpaper’s design are refugees, black-figure refugees—men, women, children, infants—in tent encampments, in handcuffs, on rubber rafts in the open ocean, shivering in the cold, fleeing under smoking tear-gas canisters, running from gunship helicopters, throwing rocks at the riot-geared police, who wield their truncheons like xiphos, the short Greek swords. Black-figure refugees in their rubber boats swamped by Hokusai waves, clinging to rubber inner tubes, crouching under banners: “#Safe Passage,” “No One Is Illegal!” A group of refugees in a boat pass a child’s body to another group standing on shore. A refugee, arms bound behind him, is surrounded by four police, one forcing his head down. Refuge women and children huddle outside of tents, under dripping clotheslines, behind barbed wire, in bombed-out buildings.

All these images are repeated at intervals, each frieze of figures repeated again and again as the pattern wraps around the trapezoidal room until you have to turn away from this wall of the same story told over and over and over again, world without end, amen. The pattern of knots and grain in the fake wood floor repeats every few feet and the pattern of black and white figures in the wallpaper repeats every few feet and the solid marble grayish-black and greenish-gray and ghostly off-white inner tubes lie there, dead weight, impassive, mute.

*            *           *

Back home in the States, a year goes by and you’re still thinking about Odyssey. You listen for weeks to the president talking about the caravan, a tatterdemalion gaggle of refugees ready to invade and infect the country, a caravan that must be stopped by any means necessary. The president sends the U.S. Army to the border to intercept. In your mind’s eye you see Ai Weiwei’s wallpaper — the tanks, the jeeps, the fearful helicopters, the arcing tear gas canisters, the locked and loaded weapons.

You write letters and emails to your heartless senators. Carrying a hand-lettered sign you go to protests, one in Carson City, Nevada, on the sidewalk outside the state capitol, where you’re interviewed on community radio while a white man in a convertible drives by screaming, “Get the fuck out of my country!” And one in Tornillo, Texas, where they’re separating children from their mothers and fathers and putting them into U.S. Army tents, a city of tents inhabited by children and their jailers.

You watch Human Flow, Ai Weiwei’s two-hour-20-minute documentary on the worldwide refugee crisis. The artist appears in nearly every other shot, filming, filming, incessantly filming with his iPhone.

At a stoplight you pull up behind a gray Honda Odyssey.

You try to read. You try the Odyssey in two different translations. You reread “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” You reread “The Yellow Wallpaper.” You watch a video of Ian McKellen as Sir Thomas More addressing the mob: “Imagine that you see the wretched strangers / their babies at their backs and their poor luggage . . .” You reread a poet you revere: W. H. Auden, whose “The Shield of Achilles” is a palimpsest of the Iliad, Ch 18, 478-608, in the same way that Ai Weiwei’s wallpaper is a palimpsest of Greek black-figure pottery. You decide to read the Iliad (and when you use voice dictation on your iPhone to text your sister about the Iliad, your iPhone renders it as the alien, and you say it over and over, trying to get the auto-correct to auto-auto-correct, but it keeps saying the alien, the alien, the alien.)

And then you remember a poem, a heartbreaking series of unrhymed couplets, by Susan Cohen:



They took me to sea in a faulty raft.
I couldn’t swim but, dead, I could float.

I came from the wrong tribe.
They took me at night over mountains

and let go of my hand. I was born
at the wrong time. They took me to a place

of tents and snow. The heat was fire
and they rationed the flames.

Winter entered to sleep with us,
also men harsher than winter.

I was brave. Only my dreams cried out.
I came from the wrong village.

They took me to a camp with tall fences
cholera could vault.

I crossed from a wrong country.
Alone, I wandered a desert.

I slept under a cactus for weeks,
until crows found me.

They took me to jail. I watched a green fly
who was allowed to come and go.

They pronounced my wrong name.
I prayed the wrong way.

They took my house and gave me rubble,
then they told me to go home.

I sat day after day and made walls
from all that I had—my two arms

became mother and father,
holding each other and hugging my knees.


You read this aloud. You read it half a dozen times. You try to read it without weeping.

“Winter entered to sleep with us, / also men harsher than winter.”

Allegations of Sexual Abuse Surface at Arizona Shelters for Migrant Children, NPR, 3 August 2018.

“They took me to a camp with tall fences / cholera could vault.”

Cholera Outbreak Threatens World’s Largest Refugee Camp, CNN, 22 December 2015.

“They took me to sea in a faulty raft. / I couldn’t swim, but, dead, I could float.”

Impossible to read without seeing Nilüfer Demir’s photo of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy, drowned and washed up on a Turkish beach. Face down in the wet sand. Head turned to one side. His sopping red shirt. The orange soles of his tiny shoes. His sleek slick dark wet hair. The delicate curve of the back of his little ear.

Alan Kurdi’s family was trying to get from Turkey to Lesbos in a small rubber raft. The raft capsized in the wine-dark Aegean, and little Alan, and his brother Galib, and their mother Rehan, and nine other Syrian refugees all sank and drowned, sank and drowned just as surely as if they’d been clinging to marble inner tubes, or wearing marble life-jackets, or tied to marble tombstones.

Five months later Ai Weiwei lies down on a rocky beach on Lesbos and has someone take his photo and he posts it on his Instagram with a caption saying he wanted to “be in the same condition” as Alan Kurdi, to touch his face on the same sand. Social media trashes Ai Weiwei, calling it a “stunt,” saying it’s “lazy, cheap, crass,” saying it’s “disrespecting Alan Kurdi,” suggesting that Ai is guilty of self-aggrandizement, guilty of appropriating the refugee crisis for his art.

Just now, December 2018, typing these words, you wonder if you haven’t done the same with this essay.

And then you remember Auden again: “For poetry makes nothing happen.”

In Tornillo, in Brownsville, in Tijuana, in Uganda, in Bangladesh, in Jordan, in a dozen other places around the world, they are still tearing children from their parents, putting children in leaky boats, in tent cities, in chain-link cages, behind razor wire. They are tear-gassing them. Barefoot children wearing diapers.



Luke Whisnant is the editor of Tar River Poetry. His most recent book, In the Debris Field, won Bath Flash Fiction’s 2018 International Novella-in-Flash Award.

“Report on the State of the World’s Children,” by Susan Cohen, originally appeared in Tar River Poetry, Spring 2017. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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