Chinese Dissident Artist Ai Weiwei on Responding to the Syrian Refugee Crisis and His New Life in Berlin

Anna Wallace-Thompson
Feb 8, 2016 9:13PM

In protest of the Danish government’s decision to seize asylum seekers’ assets, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei pulled out of two exhibitions in Copenhagen—at the ARoS Aarhus Art Museum and the Faurschou Foundation—two weeks ago. One week later, he posed on a beach as drowned Syrian infant, Alan Kurdi, a move which some have suggested steps outside the boundaries of artistic provocation. This week he begins filming a documentary about asylum seekers in Lesbos. Amidst these developments, Ai spoke to Artsy about responding to the Syrian refugee crisis, his new life in Berlin, and a pressing sense of urgency to do what he can to change the world while he still has time.

Portrait of Ai Weiwei in his Berlin studio by Wolfgang Stahr for Artsy.  © Artsy and Wolfgang Stahr.

“The one thing I should give the Chinese government credit for is the fact that being unable to travel allowed me to focus on my work,” says Ai Weiwei with a wry smile. “Today I really miss that—my schedule is booked months in advance and it feels as though all I do is go from one place to the next. I’m not entirely sure how long I can keep this up.” There is, of course, an irony to this statement, which Ai acknowledges with a soft laugh. We are sitting next to a small arrangement of colorful Lego blocks at one of the long wooden trestle tables that inhabit the high, domed vaults comprising his impressive subterranean Berlin studio space. (Olafur Eliasson is a neighbor, albeit above ground.) A former brewery, the studio spans a vast, cavernous network of tunnels leading off in all directions. At one point we walk past a dark alcove containing what must be hundreds of wooden stools, not unlike those used in Ai’s iconic Grapes (2010) sculptures. The temptation to wander off and explore is overwhelming.

By now, most are familiar with the Chinese activist/artist’s story: When Ai was only one year old, his father, the poet Ai Qing, was exiled along with his family first to northeast and later to northwest China, where the family dwelt for a backbreaking 16 years, at one point living in a hole in the ground. Upon then-Chairman Mao Zedong’s death the family was able to return to Beijing, and Ai subsequently studied animation at the Beijing Film Academy, became a member of the original Chinese avant-garde, and spent 12 years in the U.S.—10 of those in New York, his home serving as a hub for visiting artists and musicians. He returned to Beijing in 1993, and it wasn’t long before his specially-constructed studio-house in the city’s Caochangdi district attracted other artists and galleries to the area.

Career highlights include collaborating with Herzog & de Meuron on Beijing’s National Stadium (before infamously sharing his disenchantment with the project as a vessel to promote the ruling party), and participating at Documenta 12 in 2007. When he was introduced to the internet in 2005, prolific blogging saw his fan base increase even more. However, it was his probing “Citizens’ Investigation” of the deaths of over 5000 schoolchildren in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that brought Ai global attention and sealed his difficult relationship with the authorities (including the shutting down of his blog and demolition of a newly constructed studio in Shanghai). In 2011, he was arrested without being officially charged for any crime and secretly detained for almost three months. By the time he emerged, he had become a global sensation. Last year, Ai finally received his passport and, with it, permission to travel again. After years of being under virtual house arrest, he was free. The media went into a fever pitch and by the end of 2015, it felt as though Ai was everywhere. And he was. 

Left: Ai Weiwei, Rebar and Case, 2014. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Right, top to bottom: Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective, Viking Line, 2001; Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective, Helsinki Cathedral, 2001. © Ai Weiwei, images courtesy of HAM Helsinki.


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,” Andy Warhol 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.

Installation view of Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008-2012, at Royal Academy. Photo by Royal Academy of Arts, London. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.

A significant amount of your work deals with children—often as the innocent victims of the machinations of adults (even your son was put under surveillance). Was this interest amplified by having a child of your own?

I think this focus has become stronger after my son was born, yes, but also probably stems from my own childhood. Children are so incredibly vulnerable. They are subject to conditions that are forced upon them. They don’t understand the world: they’re not religious, they’re not divided. A child is a child, they’re all equal. They’re innocents. Women and children are always the first to be victimized and bear the brunt of war, violence and poverty. I hadn’t really thought of this as a special focus of mine, but now that you mention it, I realize the issue of children shakes me the most, because children are our future—we cannot see lives shortened or deprived of potential simply because we saw something wrong and hesitated to act. We have no excuse. If we’re not happy with the way things are, we better do something so we create a better world for our children. Otherwise parenthood is a joke.

In works such as Straight (2008-2012), which memorialized the children killed in the Sichuan earthquake, your outrage is palpable.

When the earthquake occurred, it kind of knocked me out, the idea that over 5,000 children could disappear. I thought the very least I could do was find out who they are. What names did their parents give them? What were their birthdays? In which classroom did they lose their life? Which building and under what conditions? The only trace they have left on this earth is their name…a name that their parents poured all their hopes and love into. Humankind has a very short memory. Those children who suffocated in the garbage container were left because their parents had been forced to go and find work in the city. In the same town as those boys there were three or four children who committed suicide out of desperation—they had been left by their parents with nothing but a pail of corn to sustain themselves. Even an animal needs more than the bare minimum to survive—it needs love; it needs affection—and this is how we treat children!

Portrait of Ai Weiwei in his Berlin studio by Wolfgang Stahr for Artsy. © Artsy and Wolfgang Stahr.

Why did you choose to settle in Berlin?

I came to Berlin six years ago and felt this city was quite broken. It’s kind of like New York in the ’80s in the Lower East Side. It also has qualities of Beijing: It’s very loose, it doesn’t have a strong identity; it’s not like Paris or London in that sense. Berlin is a little…scruffy. I like that. I like that I can walk down the street and nobody pays me too much attention. Well, that’s started changing recently and now people want selfies and to shake hands. The Germans, well, they have a very firm grip; I think I’ve broken all the bones in my hand! This location also immediately interested me—I have a history of being underground. I’m comfortable with it. I also like being surrounded by this place’s history. The architecture is a work of art in itself.

You went back to China for two weeks in December. Are you afraid your passport could be revoked again if you go home?

The fear is always there because they may have reversed their decision on me, but China itself has not changed. For me, a free person is somebody who doesn’t have to be pushed out—it’s important to be able to go back when I want. However, if it happened once it can always happen again. They never officially acknowledged that what they did was wrong.

Did it ever feel overwhelming? Does the constant fighting make you tired?

I’m so tired. You realize the more you do the less you did. There’s so much more that can be done. And of course, you know, I’m not young any more, so how far can I stretch myself? There is a sense of urgency, as well as a sense of physical tiredness because there is so much to do and limited time and energy.

Installation view of Ai Weiwei, White House, 2015, at HAM Helsinki. © Ai Weiwei, photo: HAM / Maija Toivanen.

Do you ever worry the Ai Weiwei “brand” will become bigger than you can control?

People will always see what they want to see. I don’t really worry about what other people think. There’s so much more I want to be doing that I need to focus on. I think a person is only in danger of getting lost inside celebrity or the like if they are not solid in the definition of who they are. When you let the world tell you who you are or you try to prove yourself to it, that’s when you lose your way.

This is what’s so interesting about “Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei.” Warhol was in many ways an intensely private person. Your life is so public—how do you divide public and private?

I often say that I don’t differentiate the two, but that’s not true. The more you are exposed, the further within yourself you have to go to find a place that is all your own, where people can’t touch your innermost private self. Warhol is a great example. It was only after his death that people found out what his life was actually like. He used to serve people in the soup kitchen of a church every Christmas, for example, and his house was the opposite of his modern image, filled instead with antiques. None of it related to his “look.” He was deeply in his own, other world. If all you have is what’s on the surface, what’s left?

How conscious are you of your audience?

Very. I think of the specific location, and imagine how the works would look there—what kind of visual language will they convey? It’s a little bit like flirting—you have to get to know the space a little bit first. I like having shows in different locations and don’t like having a show twice in the same city. New locations mean new challenges.

Ai Weiwei, Garbage Container, 2014. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.

After Lego refused to fill your bulk order, it was your audience that came together to donate pieces for you.

When Lego refused to fill our bulk order, it came as a surprise. Lego’s stance was that they have a policy not to get involved in anything potentially political. My argument is that water is not political, air is not political, freedom is not political—freedom is necessary for artists. We have no other way of life. So I vented my frustrations on Instagram and people began asking how they could donate Lego. I thought of setting up cars, they’re easy to move and you can park them anywhere, and suddenly we had 20 museums and institutions volunteering space for them. [It should be noted that Lego changed its bulk buying policy on January 12th, after the backlash it received from this.]

Is this the stuff that keeps you going?

Yes it is, and the internet is so important here because it’s a celebration of people. I think the internet is like a modern church. In a church, you worship something, the divine, but people on the internet worship individualism and freedom of speech.

What, ultimately, is “freedom”?

For me? Freedom is a vehicle that leads me to ever more difficult conditions. It brings me to areas that I would never even have imagined and it questions my existence.

Anna Wallace-Thompson