Originally published: Aspen Daily News
Jul 16, 2018
Even if you’re not a major art buff, you’ve probably heard of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and social activist who will be speaking with Time magazine editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal Wednesday night at Aspen’s Isis Theatre, following a free 5:30 p.m. showing of his 2017 documentary film “Human Flow.” He’s one of the rare artists whose fame transcends his work, landing him squarely in the realm of global celebrity.
A vocal critic of the Chinese government, Ai has achieved international recognition as much for his political happenings – including a 2011 arrest in Beijing and 81-day jail stay for alleged economic crimes – as his major works, which include the famous “Bird’s Nest,” the Beijing National Stadium where the 2008 Olympics opening ceremonies were held.
Currently a resident of Berlin, Germany, and having lived in the U.S. from 1981-1993, Ai finds himself in an enviable position from which to juxtapose various belief systems, be they political, social or artistic. Informed by this viewpoint and spread across a wide variety of media, much of Ai’s work – giant stadiums aside – seeks to expose society’s ills, investigate wrongdoing and inspire positive steps.
“A lot of his art is about social change, and that’s what has people’s attention in this world,” said Nancy Wilhelms, executive director of Anderson Ranch Arts Center, which is co-presenting Wednesday’s free event with Ai. “He’s able to use his skills as an artist to focus the attention of the world on problems and challenges and questions that are universal.”
Ai was originally coming to the area for a Summer Series conversation with Guggenheim Museum senior curator Alexandra Munroe at Anderson Ranch’s campus in Snowmass Village Wednesday afternoon, and to receive the center’s International Artist Award at the 22nd annual Recognition Dinner Thursday night at the Hotel Jerome. But when both of those events sold out well in advance, the film screening and talk were added to the calendar.
“Human Flow,” shot in 2016 over the course of a year in 23 countries from Afghanistan to Israel to Mexico, is a sprawling epic about the world’s refugee crisis and the estimated 65 million people worldwide displaced from their homes by famine, war and climate change. Ai was inspired to direct the film after shooting footage of refugees coming ashore on the Grecian island of Lesbos on his iPhone.
“It was a very personal experience to see them all coming from the boats – children, women and elderly people,” said Ai in the film’s production notes. “I could see in their faces an expression of uncertainty. They were scared and had no idea what they might find in this new land.”
While massive in scale, with a cast of millions, the film is nevertheless very intimate, putting real human faces to the word “refugee,” which tends to mask the true impact of the crisis. It’s also a very personal work for Ai, whose family was exiled to a remote area of China when he was a child after his artist father was deemed an anti-communist and enemy of the state.
“My whole youth I grew up seeing the worst kinds of treatment of a human being, discrimination and hardship,” said Ai. “I wanted to visit all the locations around the world where refugees are arriving – first for my own understanding but also at the same time to record on film all that we found.”
The results make for a documentary that scores a 91 percent fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes and has been hailed by critics as “powerful,” “beautiful” and “necessary.” One Austrian reviewer hit the nail on the head, calling the film “exactly what Ai is best known for: a visually striking piece of art that contemplates a vital subject.”
The very idea of trying to visit all of the world’s refugee hot zones is staggeringly ambitious, to say the least, but dreaming up such a vast concept is nothing new for Ai.
“The scale of his thinking is huge. An artist talking about global migration, that’s a huge thought with big ideas,” said Wilhelms. “He has an ability to draw our attention to a single object with a transformational message or to a universal problem that is huge, huge in scale. I think he’s truly unique.”
Expect the showing and talk Wednesday evening to be not only powerful and informative, but very well attended. Be sure to get to the Isis early if you plan on scoring one of the coveted free tickets.