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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Ai Weiwei: Without the prison, the beatings, what would Ibe?’

His combats with the Chinese nation stimulated him an artist. Now a rootless exile who rarely leaves his studio in Berlin, he explains why his new documentary about the global predicament of migrants will haunt him for the rest of his life

Human Flow, the debut feature from the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, is a bold documentary about the refugee crisis. The film bounds from the cardboard the two cities of Europe to the burning oilfields of Mosul and from the unmarked graves of Turkey to the Texas-Mexico border. It plays out across 23 different countries. It contains a cast of thousands. In 2010, the artist packed Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with 100m hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds that broke up underfoot and filled the air with dust. Here, he crams an entire global tragedy into 140 fraught minutes.

If there’s a unifying thread in all this teeming human traffic, it’s the shambling figure of Ai himself. There he is, a burly, beetle-browed human of 60, handing out hot tea on the beaches at Lesbos, comforting a traumatised girl inside a makeshift studio and cooking kebabs on a barbecue at a dusty refugee camp. He says that he never wanted to appear on-screen as a tourist. His mission was always to find common ground.” I am a refugee, every bit ,” he says.” Those people are me. That’s my identity .”

Human Flow premiered in competitor at this year’s Venice film festival. Ai says he’s astounded; he never imagined this happening. So now he sits in the vestibule of a five-star hotel, gulping from a glass of iced-water and sporadically get up to shake hands with well-wishers. His sky-blue T-shirt is matted with sweat and his bristling beard seems as though it has expended the night in hard frost. But if you’re going to identify as the status of refugees, there are worse places to shelter. Ai has seen them and been there, and survived to tell the tale.

Even those who would struggle to name one of Ai’s installations are familiar with the man’s history. He’s the dissident artist, at odds with his homeland; jailed for 81 days back in 2011 and now, for all practical purposes, living in exile in Berlin. ArtReview magazine once called him ” the most powerful artist in the world “~ ATAGEND, a visionary who has taken a lifetime of social activism and conjured it into a kind of continuous performance piece. His critics view him rather differently: as a petroleum provocateur, trading in stereotypes and bankrolled by the west. His presence in Venice is hardly going to assuage their concerns.

Ai shakes his head; he knows this line of assault.” All day long, the media ask me if I have shown the movie to the refugees:’ When are the refugees going to see the cinema ?’ But that’s the wrong topic. The intent is to show it to people of influence; people who are in a position to help and who have a responsibility to assistance. The refugees who need help- they don’t need to see the movie. They require dry shoes. They require soup .”

The artist in a refugee camp in Macedonia last year. Photograph: Valdrin Xhemaj/ EPA

It helps, of course, that the cinema is such an extraordinary feat- a sweeping humanitarian epic with its feet on the ground and grime under its nails. In one memorable shoot, taken by a droning over a camp in Iraq, the beige tents are arranged like some vast abstract canvas. Then it drops by degrees to show us all the people who live there. Ai puts faces to statistics, tells individual stories and shrewdly decides not to spare his own blushes. At one stage, he playfully swaps passports with Mahmoud, the status of refugees fleeing Syria. Mahmoud, for his part, is happy to do so. He adds they should probably swap homes as well: a nice Berlin studio in return for a hot, crowded tent. The director laughter gamely, but won’t take him up on the offer. It’s a moment that exposes the gulf between them.

Ai winces at the memory.” Yeah, that was the worst feeling. That actually got me. Because[ if] you’re passionate, you think you mean what you say. You tell these people that you’re the same as them. But you are lying because you are not the same. Your situation is different; you must leave them. And that’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life .”

He was raised in the teeth of the Cultural Revolution, the son of a poet who fell contaminate of the party. The family home, then, was in exile, first in Manchuria and then a labour camp on the edge of the Gobi desert. His father was put to work cleaning toilets; he attempted suicide several times. Witnessing that helped shape Ai’s worldview.” My father went through an unthinkable journey ,” he says.” But it was one small segment of a wider human conflict. There’s no end to that fight. It’s the reality we deal with. We all have a short life. We have just been a moment to speak out or to present what little skills we have. And if everybody does that, perhaps the temperature changes .”

The Human Flow trailer.

Back in Beijing in his late teens, Ai enrolled at the cinema academy. Cinema, alongside poetry, was likely his first love. He adored the work of Fellini, Taxi Driver and the Godfather movies, yet now feels the heyday of narrative cinema has passed.” If you watch the news, you realise that movie has lost its advantage in indicating daily reality ,” he says.” So it’s over, it has gone, it has already happened. We have too many images on the internet every second. Spend half an hour on social media and you get much more information than you could ever get into a cinema .”

He took his first flight from China in 1981, when he boarded a plane for New York, intending to shake off his shackles and start a new life in the west. He still recollects his descent into JFK.” It was just a sci-fi movie; like being dropped on to an alien planet. All the language, the knowledge- they just didn’t work any more. I appeared out of the window and watched the city below. The inundate of light- that entirely absorbed me. Because I grew up without light- not even candles- merely this very low-quality gas; the fumes would construct your mouth black. And then, all of a sudden, to watch those suns. All that energy; that surreal monster city. I felt like a moth. I wanted to die in those illuminates .”

At the time he referred to himself as an artist. These days he says that wasn’t really the instance. He worked on house sites and as a gardener; very occasionally as a sidewalk caricaturist. Fairly much everything that he painted he flung in the bin. New York was an education, but it never became home. It was merely back in China, in the early 90 s, that he finally began to find his range.

Ai’s work is rooted in conceptual art and dadaism; mercurial Marcel Duchamp remains a vital touchstone. So he found objects and then set about them, often with subversive intent. He smashed an antique Chinese pot for his photo triptych Falling a Han Dynasty Urn; doused others in industrial paint for the exhibit Coloured Vases. And as he gained in confidence, his activism crept into the art to the point where the two elements became indistinguishable from each other.” All creative activism, if it works well, is a work of art ,” he tells me.” The same way that every good work of art, if it concerns itself with reality and politics, is a form of activism. Sometimes, yes, they are separate. But maybe not for me. I was born into all that. I am are applied to it now .”

His run-ins with the authorities are not just a biographical footnote. One might better claim that they are central to his art. First, he outraged the government with a political blog. Then he hounded them over their listless response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, documenting the names of every student who perished and mounting a huge installation of 9,000 children’s backpacks. For his trouble, he has been thrown into jail and punched by police. When the blow was revealed to have caused a bleed on his brain, he filmed his medical treatment and posted the picture on Twitter. In this way, perhaps, even the plastic bag of his blood has become a Ai Weiwei work of art.

A scene from Human Flow.

He describes his present base in Berlin as a dormitory existence. He says that he doesn’t speak German and rarely leaves his studio. He works through the weekend and says he never takes vacations. And all this is OK; the work keeps him occupied.” Also, it’s still very dangerous for me to go back to China. Twelve of my lawyers are still serving sentences. One for five years, another for 10. I call my mum on the phone; she’s well over 80. And she always tells me,’ Don’t ever come back .'”

I ask what he believes of China’s current prospects. To a western eye, his homeland seems to be in the dominance. It is well placed to profit from the actions of a wayward, bellicose US administration; poised to become the undisputed global superpower.

But Ai pulls a disgusted face. He thinks I’m missing the phase.” Can China be a global power? I don’t think so. It can gain an advantage, that’s true. But it doesn’t have soul. It doesn’t have heart. It doesn’t trust its own people. So it has no self-identity in the sense that it has never accepted human rights as common values. No freedom of speech , no independent judicial system. If those don’t exist, how can you have imagination? How can you be a country? So keep forgetting China. China is an illusion. It’s there, it’s big. But nobody can tell you what it is .”

The way Ai tells it, he exists in a perpetual state of flux; rootless to the core. He likens himself to a leaf on a stream, carried this route and that, never knowing where he is going to wind up next. Up to a point, this stimulates perfect sense. But it strikes me that there’s another way of framing the man’s narrative; one in which he is a far more active agent. In this version, Ai has expended their own lives in opposition to his homeland- in a perpetual country of friction , not flux. If anything has defined him, it is his relationship with China. Without China, I suggest, he wouldn’t be an artist at all.

” Yeah, precisely ,” says Ai. The notion pricks his interest.” I would be what ?” he asks.” Without all the scream, without the prison, the beatings, just what would I be? Probably right now I’d be walking down Broadway, just like all the other immigrants. Trying to find the next task, pay next month’s rent. Or I’d be back in China, running a restaurant. Or in a suit, in an office, another Chinese citizen .” He reaches for his water.” But maybe not, even then, because my father was a poet. He brought me up on Whitman, Neruda and Rimbaud. All that induced “i m feeling” there was another prospect, and that struggle means freedom. That, I believe, is the revenge of life .”

Does he ever wish that it could have been different? Imagine for a moment there had been no banishment to the desert. No humbled father , no prison , no Berlin. He might have led what passes for an ordinary existence. Wouldn’t he sometimes prefer to be running a restaurant in Beijing?

” Good topic ,” he says.” Of course you are human – you sometimes wonder these things. But I still think I would choose exactly the same route, even though the steps that I have taken have been very hard. It has been so ugly, so painful, but it has also brought so much elation. I guess I’m a person who detects exhilaration through difficulty .” He barks a short chuckle.” No difficulty , no pleasure .”

Human Flow is released in the US on 13 October

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