When his passport was returned after years of arrests, detentions, harassment and surveillance in China, the first places Ai Weiwei went were at the chaotic crossroads of the global refugee crisis.
The artist and activist has spent the last several years with migrants, trying to tell their stories and to mobilize the world to help them. Ai believes in art’s ability to shape the world and change the tide of history.
“If art can change how man sees his relationship with society, then it does change society,” the Chinese dissident said in a recent email interview.
This week, Ai will speak in Aspen and Snowmass Village about his work as an artist, filmmaker and refugee advocate as Anderson Ranch honors him with its International Artist Award.
“Anderson Ranch’s International Artist Award is a big honor for an artist who is defending aesthetic and moral conditions in every aspect,” he said. “I’m proud to be a part of this effort.”
Ai rose to international prominence as he clashed with the Chinese government and remained an outspoken critic of its human rights abuses, even after the artist was placed on house arrest and barred from leaving the country. But since his passport was returned in 2015, Ai — now based in Berlin — has turned his formidable talents and superhuman energy toward global refugees.
Ai, 60, will accept the prize at the Ranch’s Annual Recognition Dinner on Thursday in Aspen. He will give a free public talk on Wednesday at Anderson Ranch in Snowmass Village, fielding questions from Guggenheim Museum curator Alexandra Munroe. Later that evening Anderson Ranch is presenting a free screening of his documentary “Human Flow”at the Isis Theater in Aspen, followed by a conversation between Ai and Time editor Edward Felsenthal.
The award and the chance to address the public in a forum like Anderson Ranch is deeply meaningful to the artist.
“Growing up in China, we didn’t have public awards — both in reality or as a part of our private vocabulary,” he explained. “There was no such thing. There was no way to extend an individual’s ideas to the wider public. That is why I so love public platforms, like a plant loves the sun and water.”
For Anderson Ranch, hosting one of the world’s most acclaimed visual artists and most influential political activists is a watershed event.
“We have been working very hard to be a leading platform for dialogue in issues in contemporary art,” Anderson Ranch executive director Nancy Wilhelms said in February when the nonprofit announced Ai’s visit. “He is at the forefront of that dialogue right now. He holds a mirror up to us and deals with the most important issues of our times.”
To make his 2017 film, Ai spent a year with migrants inside refugee camps, at barbed-wire border fences and on the seas with cameras rolling. The film takes viewers to 23 countries — across Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and to North America. Short-listed for the Academy Award for Best Documentary and now streaming on Amazon Prime, “Human Flow” uses drone footage and a globe-trotting narrative to capture the mind-boggling enormity of the populations moving around the world right now during the largest displacement of humans since World War II.
But it manages to also express the personal tragedies within the masses as they flee war, famine and climate change. Ai’s camera lingers several times, silently focusing on a single refugee for an extended shot that seems to insist the viewer pause and recognize that each of the 65 million refugees is an individual.
As he puts it, “My involvement with the so-called refugee crisis over the last two years is a continuation of my personal struggle to understand the global human condition.”
Ai mostly stays behind the camera in the film, though you can glimpse him greeting refugees as their rafts land on the Greek island of Lesvos, meeting people in refugee camps and comforting a woman so upset during an interview that she begins to vomit.
In a brief section set on the U.S.-Mexico border, he has a comic interaction with a border patrol agent who attempts to explain to Ai where the border is and where the artist is allowed to go.
The theatrical release of “Human Flow” last year coincided with his epic city-wide public art project “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” in New York, which used cages and fences as a potent symbol of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in more than 300 sculptures around the city for four months.
While he was prohibited from leaving China, Ai recalled, he was still eager to get involved with the worsening refugee crisis. He sent two studio assistants on a research trip to a refugee camp in Iraq and when he was granted permission to travel again in 2015, Ai went with his family to Lesvos, where “Human Flow” begins.
“I stood on the shore and watched as the refugees approached the shore,” he said. “At that moment, I made the decision to move my studio to Lesvos. That is when this year-long journey to document the global refugee condition began.”
Rather than silencing him, Ai’s persecution in China, he said, emboldened him and gave him a deeper sense of mission to speak out and effect global change.
“Once I regained my freedom to travel, I went to over 150 destinations and conducted several hundred interviews,” he said. “I worked harder than ever because I felt more responsibility to make my voice clearer and louder, for those without the opportunity to do so.”
The mission, as he describes it, is primarily to spark public dialogue.
But Ai is indiscriminate as to the form and medium he uses in doing so, busting out from the art world into popular culture and far beyond the walls of galleries and museums.
He’s using documentary film, museum and gallery exhibitions and public art to draw attention to refugees, along with personal appearances and speeches like this week’s in Aspen and Snowmass Village. He published the book “Humanity,” released in May, collecting his thoughts on the refugee crisis. He’s harnessed the power of the web for events like his global live-stream conversation in April, through which he discussed the crisis with students and activists in hundreds of locations around the world. And he’s using social media, mostly Instagram these says, where he chronicles the refugee crisis in real time.
This week, he has been posting photos and video from Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Last month, on World Refugee Day, he placed six limited-edition works on eBay and donated the proceeds to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Refugee Committee and the Public Art Fund. The large-format portraits of immigrants — from the early days of Ellis Island to today — went for $750 each, a remarkable rate from an artist whose works have sold for upward of $25 million.
And, yes, he’s still bringing work to galleries and museums, confronting people with the refugee crisis in works like the installation piece, “Laundromat,” which displays more than 2,000 clothing items abandoned by refugees on Lesvos and cleaned up for the show. It has been exhibited in the U.S. and Qatar. Other recent public art projects include the bronze sculpture installation “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” which has been to some 50 cities and last year was installed in Denver’s Civic Center Park. He currently has a show running in Marseille and has three openings in Los Angeles this fall.
‘RESPONSIBILITY IS TIED TO PRIVELEGE’
Both of Ai’s parents were writers. His father, Ai Qing, was a prominent poet who was persecuted by Mao’s government in China. The family was exiled to labor camps in northeast China when Weiwei was a boy. He grew up as an internal refugee himself, banished to the hinterlands of China — at one point living in a hole in the ground with a thatched roof pulled over it for shelter. The family was not allowed to return to Beijing until after Mao’s death in 1976.
That experience helped shape the artist’s perspective, his commitment to justice and to the dispossessed. It also goes a long way to explaining his rebellious streak.
The artist first came to the U.S. in 1981, studying art in New York and living on the gritty Lower East Side of Manhattan. Ai paid his bills by doing street portraits in Times Square and playing blackjack in Atlantic City (he’s a notoriously skilled gambler) and immersed himself in Duchamp, Dadaism and street photography.
He returned to a rising China in 1993 and was soon courting controversy in works that challenged power structures and honored the country’s history while pushing the envelope (he once photographed himself smashing an ancient Chinese pot).
After designing the Beijing National Stadium, the “Bird’s Nest” that debuted at the 2008 Summer Olympics, he quit architecture. He would later describe those Olympics as a “pretend smile,” as he ramped up his criticism of the Chinese government’s human rights abuses and spoke out about the deaths of thousands of children in shoddily constructed schools during the Sichuan earthquake earlier that year. From the wreckage of schools, he salvaged rebar to make sculptures and staged a massive memorial out of children’s backpacks, bringing international attention to the tragedies and drawing scrutiny from Chinese authorities.
Since 2011, the Chinese government has cracked down on Ai’s dissent and treated him as an enemy of the state — arresting, beating and jailing him on multiple occasions as he sought to testify about human rights abuses and as he lobbed criticism at the state through his blog and social media. In 2011 he spent 81 days in jail, then was placed under house arrest and had his passport revoked.
Since his freedom was restored he’s turned his work away from those experiences and away from China toward helping the most desperate people on Earth. He calls on privileged Americans and ordinary citizens to step up in the same way and to take action for the displaced.
“Responsibility is tied to privilege,” he said. “As much as you take from the world, as much as you enjoy freedom and luxurious lifestyles, there must be an equal weight of responsibility. We cannot ask desperate people to bear it. Only those living in privilege have that responsibility. Failure to do so would be a tragedy for humanity.”
Ai is hopeful that more artists will engage with world issues and that the next generation of creative people — emerging artists like those working at Anderson Ranch — will follow his lead in art and activism.
“In a world with so much trouble and change, artists should take a more global view and a more philosophical understanding of what life is about,” he said. “We cannot just live superficial lives and give any meaningful definition about today’s aesthetic. To find yourself is not an easy matter.”
Asked what he might say to President Donald Trump, if he had his ear on the refugee crisis and the travel ban, Ai wrote: “To be exclusive at this moment only shows that the leadership, and the nation, lacks courage and vision, and will not be a leading force in the contemporary moment.”