Ai Weiwei on the US-Australia refugee deal: ‘Its exactly like slave trading’

Chinese artist brings three tackling runs about refugee crisis to Australia with a message

The internationally renowned Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei believes the US and Australia are engaging in a slave trade.

His claim comes amid a discussion of worldwide refugee movements, the impact of globalisation on human suffering and a lack of humanity in the west- which form the context of his contribution to this month’s Sydney Biennale exhibition.

Ai is well aware of Australia’s refugee policies, including its most recent chapter- a deal with the US to take up to 1,200 refugees languishing in offshore detention centres.

” That is a complete insult to the understanding of refugees ,” he says.” It’s exactly like slave trading. You cannot deal with human being by violating their[ rights ].”

Ai is in Australia this week to launch three of his runs- two exhibiting at Sydney’s Biennale. All confront and question the west’s complicity in the refugee crisis gripping the world.

One, Crystal Ball, is a two-tonne installing made of crystal and lifejackets, offering a chance of reflection on the chaos of the crisis.

The other, Law of the Journey, is an imposing 60 -metre-long rubber boat crammed with almost 300 gigantic faceless figures. It fills a warehouse on Cockatoo Island.

Ai Weiwei in front of Law of the Journey, a statement on the therapy of refugees, at Sydney’s Cockatoo Island. Photo: Ben Rushton/ EPA

The oversized life raft and its occupants are all black, made of the same rubber and by the same company that manufactures the barges most often used by refugees for the dangerous Mediterranean crossing.

Ai built it to sit in the National Museum of Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic- which accepts no refugees- and it was coincidence that it resolved so perfectly into an Australian space, one with its own history of displacement and detention.

Ai will also deliver a keynote address to launch his refugee documentary, Human Flow, for Australian audiences.

He spent two years traveling the world, visiting 23 countries and more than 40 refugee camps, to generate the confront movie and he remains shocked by what he saw.

” You just couldn’t believe it’s in Europe. It’s not shocking to find people escape, from fire, killing- this is natural. People bring their loved ones and just leave ,” he says.

” But it’s not natural to see Europe, which has been so superior in every aspect- not only economically but morally … their work on human rights has been the foundation of our modern society .”

Instead they are building walls and fences and camps, and changing migration laws and chasing down the boats, Ai says.

” It’s so cold, virtually pushing them back in the ocean if they can ,” he says.” Greece said … it’s just not possible for us to push them back to the ocean, otherwise they would do it .”

Australia does. For many years the Australian government has operated the legally contentious policy of boat turnbacks in the seas to its north, sending asylum seekers back to where they last came from- usually Indonesia- in purpose-built barges to stop them landing in Australia.

The numbers are tiny as compared with Europe, but the governmental forces tells it has stopped people drowning at sea in their thousands. Thousands of others are in the offshore camps or on tenuous temporary visas in Australia.

Ai appears to target countries with his exhibitions, displaying the Law of the Journey first in the Czech Republic and now in Australia. But he says he has thought about boycotting to send his message and has done it at least once- pulling down his show in Denmark in protest against the government’s decision to confiscate the belongings of refugees.

” I tried both ways, but most of the time I want my voice to listen to ,” he says.” I guess, as artists, to give just a gesture is sufficient to. The fight takes a real conflict. To devote a moral kind of superiority presents a problem, because we have to see that we’re all together. The struggle builds the meaning. I prefer to have a real fight than withdraw from the fight .”

‘ You simply couldn’t believe it’s in Europe ‘: Ai Weiwei at a refugee camp between Greece and Macedonia. Photo: Valdrin Xhemaj/ EPA

Ai has been arrested, jailed and beaten for his activism. Friends and coworkers have been arrested, some have disappeared.

” It’s always personal ,” he tells.” When I run very personal, it always becomes political, all my work is like that. I’m always searching for answers: “whats happened to” my father’s generation, what would it be if a writer lost his chance to express himself ?”

Twice during the interview, Ai brings up those pre-dawn hours on Lesbos, watching a mob spill from a refugee boat. His own background is one of displacement and exile, and his research clearly affected him.

” Very often people say,’ what can we do ?’ … I think if we as individuals- all those tragedies are made by humen- we are genuinely can solve it if we want to ,” he tells.” If it’s not solved, it’s simply because we don’t want to solve it, because we is beneficial for the situation. Other people’s suffering and desperation is beneficial, so if those questions are not being answered, we will never solve the problem .”

He hopes people who ensure his run will be moved towards activism.

” I think everybody who respects “peoples lives” should be activists, because liberty is struggle ,” Ai concludes.” If for a long time you’re not used to fight, it is because you don’t care and you don’t treasure the freedom .”

* The Sydney Biennale opens on 16 March and operates until 11 June

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