We meet the artist slash activist to discuss Human Flow, his family and how social platforms fragmented the planet
Since he was a child, Ai Weiwei has understood what it means to have your human rights taken away. His father, Ai Qing, was a beloved poet, but was branded an “enemy of the people” during the Cultural Revolution, and sent to a labour camp in the Gobi desert, where Ai Snr was forced to clean a village’s primitive public toilets.
The family’s exile ended when Mao died and the political temperature cooled. Ai was 19. Inspired by injustice, he would go on to turn himself into an outspoken artist-slash-activist who wasn’t afraid to hold the Chinese state to account for its abuses. A fearless dissident, he’s now one of the most iconic artists of our times. In 2011, during a crackdown on objectors, he was arrested at Beijing airport; his passport was removed and he was detained for 81 days. Following his release, Ai was put under house arrest, and not given his passport back until 2015.
Having experienced exile as a child, human rights have been at the core of Ai’s work, and when he was free to travel again, he threw himself into exploring the refugee crisis. He built installations in galleries in Europe which drew attention to the human tragedy that was unfolding in various hotspots; then he made a documentary, Human Flow, which brought the massive scale of the problem to the big screen.
The film had its world premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival to critical acclaim and next month is being released on DVD. Dazed caught up with Ai Weiwei to discuss Human Flow, his personal connection to the subject matter, and what he believes is missing from people’s and governments’ responses to the problem.
When did you start to take notice of the refugee crisis?
Ai Weiwei: My first step into this issue, physically, was when I was still in detention in China. I was softly detained (under a form of house arrest) until July 2015. Finally they gave me back my passport and I could start to travel. Before that I was not allowed to travel, so I sent two of my studio members to a camp in Iraq.
What came out of that early foray?
Ai Weiwei: If you see the film, and the first maybe 5 or 10 minutes, you see a figure standing there, and then another, and another. We did that footage before we started this film. I gave them [his colleagues] a list of questions and they interviewed 100 refugees. It was for my personal curiosity and art work, to understand the refugee situation. Then, finally, when I have my passport back, I go to Germany, and then travel to Lesbos, with my boy, and meet those refugees.
You settled in Berlin where you set up a studio. Germany is sort of Ground Zero for the refugee crisis in Europe. Merkel received a lot of praise and criticism over her open-door policy. How was the issue being discussed when you arrived there?
Ai Weiwei: I think [it was being talked about] a lot because almost a million people came to Germany and there were a lot of concerns, of course. But it’s almost all mostly domestic politics.
Did the kind of language that was being used make you feel that there was something missing that you would be able to bring to the issue?
Ai Weiwei: I think the debate is very, I should say, narrow. It’s all about visibility between some political discussions, and Merkel, as Chancellor, she really defends some kind of ideology rather than just talk about tactics.
Was the human element missing?
Ai Weiwei: Obviously the human element is missing in the whole discussion relating to the crisis and refugees. People immediately see the result, but not what made this happen and how to stop it. Maybe that’s human nature. When things get very bad, then you start to react.
Watching the film it’s clear that you were interested in the causes of the crisis as well as the effect.
Ai Weiwei: We tried to find out the history, not just symptoms. The result is clear. It’s desperate. But you cannot really solve it if you just look at the result, because the result creates a new result and it becomes a cause. You see the terrorists, or you see this kind of anti-immigrant movement in the United States, in Germany, in many, many locations, but people avoid looking back to see what is the cause.
Terrorism and immigration frequently get conflated. Do you think an effort has to be made to disentangle them?
Ai Weiwei: Yeah I think that there is some kind of notion that terrorism, somehow, relates to immigrants or refugees, which is absolutely ridiculous. Terrorists relate more to killings by drones than they relate to immigrants. Who pushes those terrorists or creates those terrorists at the beginning? Why do those extremists have to come so far away to seek some kind of stupid revenge? Very often you see some kind of desperate, I should say cases, that have been exaggerated by mainstream media. So you then see that if we have been misinformed, then the tragic thing is not in reality but in our mind and in our heart. So the modern society creates an imbalanced view and a crippled intelligence, and a knowledge [a way of thinking] which can be more dangerous.
And this is what you’re challenging with Human Flow?
Ai Weiwei: Of course, I’m challenging it in every respect. I’m like a man standing in the middle of sections of traffic. But, of course, you cannot point fingers, you have to try to disappear. Try to defend but also disappear at the same time, because people have to make their own judgement. So I’m just one person struggling in this whole scenario.
“The most fragmenting thing that has ever happened to human society is social media” – Ai Weiwei
At one point in the film the Greek minister for migration says Europe has two choices: it can choose xenophobia or openness. Do you think the scales have tipped towards embracing xenophobia?
Ai Weiwei: I think the Greek minister is a very admirable man. His vision’s very clear. His humanitarian approach and understanding is profound. Since 1951 we have had this refugee treaty, the United Nations [treaty], and the definition is very clear. But now you see it deteriorating so much in every aspect, in every nation and every policy. People are becoming more cold, with no vision and less imagination, and it only shows that they don’t trust each other.
You’re a big fan of social media and the way it helps you communicate with people. However, do you think that rather than bringing people together, it is actually fragmenting society?
Ai Weiwei: It’s true. The most fragmenting thing that has ever happened to human society is social media. Everybody can talk, everybody can reflect, which is great. But it’s still hard to make a voice matter. How to channel it into an energy which profits society still takes a long time to grow. I think it is still a very new and growing process, and will develop [over time].
Human Flow is not your first project dealing with the refugee crisis. The subject matter has consumed you for a while. How much are you looking through the window of your own experience as a child in exile when you look at the refugees?
Ai Weiwei: When I met them they’re so foreign to me. But then you see children trying to find a dry area to play in. Or you see how the adults put their children on these dinghy boats, often without adults attending, and you think, what kind of courage, desperation and hope must it take to do that? I grew up in a very difficult situation but would my father do that or would I do it to my children?
As a child, did you have artistic aspirations? When did you start to think of yourself as an artist?
Ai Weiwei: Very much later. Actually, I am still questioning that position of being an artist. It’s true. Artist means what? That’s why I am doing all kinds of things - architecture, filming, writing - because I think as an artist the first thing you have to question is your own position, your own judgement, and your own aesthetic judgement.
So how would you define yourself?
Ai Weiwei: I am an old man, 60 years old, wandering around, who gets into all kinds of awkward situations.
“You see how the adults put their children on these dinghy boats, often without adults attending, and you think, what kind of courage, desperation and hope must it take to do that?” – Ai Weiwei
Because you’re talking about universal human rights in Human Flow, are you also implicitly talking about China without mentioning China?
Ai Weiwei: Of course. I think that’s a very good question. In China they said, ‘Why don’t you talk about the Chinese, you’re such a good defender?’, and I tell them – humanity is one. When rights have been protected, everybody’s rights are equal – that’s the idea of everyone is created equal. So that means human rights in Australia, or in India, or in China are the same. You cannot just say it’s a regional problem, it’s an understanding of humanity. So without that profound protection, you can never solve the problem.
Do you still go back to Beijing to visit your mother?
Ai Weiwei: I can go back. I am a Chinese citizen and the government even said, and the secret police says, I can come back. But two of my lawyers are still in jail. And the one before when I was moving out and one after I was moving out, both are sentenced. My friends are still in jail. So the danger is still there. My ma said don’t come back. She cannot bear that I get ‘lost’ again and nobody knows where I am.
Presumably you have to think about your son as well. Because of the experience that you had as a child, your father’s arrest and so on, you know how it can affect a child.
Ai Weiwei: Exactly. That’s the reason I am in Germany. Not because I’m scared, I’m not scared, I know what’s going on. My father has lived his whole life in China in a much more difficult time. Today I have a lot of recognition and a lot of support even. But to put your son in the same situation, I feel is not fair.
Did your childhood leave you with any trauma?
Ai Weiwei: That time I had no choice. It was like night-time. The whole nation was dark. There was no way even to light up a candle. But today you do have choice. It’s not like you have totally no choice.
Your son is still very young. Why did you want him with you in Lesbos?
Ai Weiwei: I want him to know who I am. I want him to later remember this guy, somewhere, who held his hand. Even if he doesn’t understand what’s going on there, those feelings are so important, because I don’t remember even once my father taking me anywhere. If I wanted to see him I had to get off school early and go to the public toilet where he’s doing the cleaning. But I cannot help him with this, it’s too heavy the job, digging all the shit out of very primitive toilets.
That must have had a profound effect on you.
Ai Weiwei: I understand everything about how low humanity can go. I don’t see how high it can go, but I can see how low it can go.
Did witnessing what the State did to your father influence the focus on human rights in your art?
Ai Weiwei: Yeah, it’s like you’re standing in the rain and you cannot keep yourself dry. It doesn’t matter what way you face, water comes down, but you tell people, ‘I am dry.’ [Smiles]. You need an umbrella. That umbrella is protection of basic human rights. But who’s handling the umbrella? Where is the umbrella?
Something that amazed me about the film was how you always seem to be in the right place at the right time. How quickly did your teams have to be able to move?
Ai Weiwei: We had to react so fast because in many, many cases, many things happened at the same time. And also many areas are dangerous and unpredictable, and many areas are hard to negotiate to get into. But those things are technical things, and you can achieve it. It’s a matter of resources and money, which we didn’t have much difficulty with. The real problem is after seeing people who experience this, you leave. And then you think: ‘Is this really going to help them?’
Were there places you couldn’t go to? I think it says in the press kit you couldn’t get into Syria.
Ai Weiwei: There’s many, many, many. Of about 23 nations in the film, I have been to only 11 or 12 of them. Some, because of the danger, you don’t get a visa. Some I tried to smuggle in, with much effort, and couldn’t, because it’s really a war zone. And some because it happens at the same time and you cannot be in two places at the same time.
Have you been changed by the experience of making this film?
Ai Weiwei: For me, I am grateful I moved one step ahead to understand the international politics better, understand human rights – the really profound meaning of human rights – and to meet those people and to see them not as foreign or dangerous, but rather just like me, or just having the exact kind of identity as me. It’s such recognition and it’s so beautiful.
It’s a privilege?
Ai Weiwei: Indeed. I am so privileged I could have an experience like this.