Under Surveillance: Ai Weiwei’s Eerie Art Installation Spies On the Audience

In our brave new world, we live in a state of constant surveillance, where our every moment can be shadowed. Our phones can track our footsteps while cameras can use facial recognition software to identify who, where, and when. People presume because “they have done nothing wrong,” such invasions are in their best interest. As author Aldous Huxley predicted, “People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacity it think.”

Also: Secret Histories | “Surveillance” Asks “Who Is Watching You?”

It falls to the provenance of artists to question the status quo, to remind us not to take things at face value. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has dedicated his life to this: to calling out injustice, hypocrisy, and violations of the state, corporations, and anyone who would be so inclined to use technology to dig into someone else’s affairs.

Ai Weiwei, courtesy of Studio

Ai Weiwei, courtesy of Studio

Yet it seems no matter how much we speak of the “other,” people are by and large unmoved. Many simply refuse to perceive the impact of abject violations until it happens to them. Understanding the self-centeredness that is innate to so many people these days, Ai taps into the inherent need many people have to use personal experience as the primary path to learn.

In Hansel & Gretel, now at the Park Avenue Armory, New York, through August 6, 2017, Ai Weiwei has collaborated with Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron to create an immersive, interactive installation where the art spies on the people who have come to see the show. Visitors are placed in the curious position of being observer and object, where their every movement is tracked and recorded.

The show begins with visitors required to enter the Armory through a small, street level-doorway in the back of the grand hall, then be shuttled down a long, narrow, dimly-lit hallway, until finally funneled into Drill Hall, the 55,000-square-foot exhibition space with a ceiling that rises eight stories tall. The room is pitch black, and the floor is sloped. Then projections begin to appear on the floor as visitors’ movements become the subject of the work.

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Drones fly overhead, unseen, capturing images of attendees, then project them on the ground inside grids that suggest “top secret” configurations. It’s like something out of a declassified document that gets replicated for video games and Hollywood films, where we recognize the technology of surveillance of “the enemy.”

The effect is eerie in the way it plays on references encoded in the culture of “us vs. them,” inferring that “we” are on the side of “good” based on the propaganda we are fed. When we become the subject of surveillance, can we continue to align ourselves with Big Brother and his all-seeing eye? Do we know what happens to the data that is amassed, how it is organized, stored, and compiled for reuse? How do we manage technologies not know what they are privately being used to do?

As with all great works of art, there are no easy answers: only uneasy questions. Each and every person’s reaction becomes a singular expression of self. Undoubtedly there will be people excited by the show of power and dominance that some unknown person has over the group, able to manipulate the masses.


Assuredly there will be others who feel unmoved, smug in the fact that they can never be “othered,” with their illusions to protect them from the truth. Then there will be those who simply adapt: horrified at first, then resigned to powerlessness. Lastly there will be the few who are moved to continue to question what we are told, to ask if being “safe” isn’t actually putting us inside an airless vault. There will be those who refuse to follow in the footsteps of people like Theresa May, who insist that civil liberties must be sacrificed in order to maintain control.

Invariably, Hansel & Gretel will do what art does best: hold a mirror to each of us so we may see inside the soul underneath the flesh.

All photos: © James Ewing, courtesy of the Park Avenue Armory.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.