Media saturation is, of course, a dangerous game, the media being a fickle beast that can turn on you at any point, but one Ai has navigated fairly well to date. His prolific tweeting connects not only to his legions of fans, but relentlessly exposes inequality and corruption—he famously used it to document his surgery to treat a cerebral hemorrhage linked to being attacked by police in 2009. In spite of the often sobering issues he deals with, perhaps Ai has remained so prolific because he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He also has the rare ability to feel utterly sincere without being overly earnest. “They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself,”
once said. This seems particularly apt, given that Ai’s latest project deals with the refugee crisis (also the topic of his teaching for the next three years at the Berlin University of the Arts). He recently announced that he has established a studio on the Greek island of Lesbos, the landing point for many of the refugees coming into Europe and a site of intense, polarizing debate. It’s there that our conversation begins.
Anna Wallace-Thompson: Why Lesbos?
Ai Weiwei: I know what it’s like to be desperate, to lose everything you’re familiar with. For these people [in Syria], to lose everything—their very past and history—it’s a human tragedy, and I can’t think of a worse tragedy except for death. These people are simply trying to survive.
I was in Athens to talk about having a show there and Lesbos is extremely close, so I went there, only knowing that it was a connecting point for refugees coming into Europe. It’s such a beautiful island, and we were driving along, the sun was shining, there were tourists around. And then, in an instant, we saw a boat approach full of women and children. You see how desperate their situation is. People drown. Children drown. Nothing can prepare you for seeing all these people in their desperation.
Nobody who’s witnessed this, surely, can stand by and do nothing. By setting up a studio in Lesbos we can be right in the middle of it, and document what’s happening. It’s like a war zone there. This does not reflect the ideology and beliefs of the EU! The UN treaty on refugees is very clear: Anybody who seeks to be in another place due to political [persecution], war, or religious discrimination is a refugee and should be treated equally.
Do you worry that people will think you’re exploiting refugees for the sake of your art or your own gain?
People will always have opinions. I’m ready for anything as long as I can generate discussion on this issue. If I can use being in the spotlight to highlight what’s happening in Lesbos, then that’s a starting point.