Artist and activist Ai Weiwei on exploring the absurdity of national borders

“This is my honest approach to refugee crisis.”

What do borders mean in today’s world of mass migration? In a sprawling art project and companion documentary, Ai Weiwei ponders the question.

A cultural figure with an international reputation, Ai Weiwei is not just an artist — he’s a political activist, architect, filmmaker, curator, and publisher, too. His large-scale installations at international museums, and his architectural feats — he helped design the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for Beijing’s 2008 Olympics — explore the relationship between the contemporary world and traditional Chinese thought.

Ai was detained by the Chinese government for 81 days in April 2011 for voicing political criticism, then put on house arrest until July 2015. After being able to leave China for four years, Ai has turned his attention to the global refugee crisis. The artist’s first feature film, Human Flow, attempts to give a bird’s-eye view of the ebb and flow of migration around the world, with a particular focus on the Middle East, North Africa, and the US-Mexico border.

The film, which was released last month, feels like a celebrity’s high-budget video diary, punctuated by poetic text quotes, newspaper headlines, and striking landscape shots taken with drones. Over the course of his refugee crisis world tour, Ai Weiwei himself appears in scenes, interviewing people in refugee camps, walking along the Mediterranean coastline, even getting a haircut. The scenery is beautiful, but the refugees interviewed are caught in dire situations. Children run around cramped, poorly maintained refugee camps, newcomers pile out of overcrowded boats on the Mediterranean with little food or drinkable water.

A week after the movie’s release, Ai Weiwei installed on the streets of New York City Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, his biggest public art project to date. Cage-like fences have been placed in all five boroughs to draw New Yorkers’ attention to the limits borders place on migrants in desperate situations. (Ai Weiwei lived in New York in the late ’80s and early ’90s.)

 Spencer Platt/Getty Images
One of Ai Weiwei’s art installations for “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” in New York City on October 10, 2017.

Last week, he opened a new photography exhibition at FOMU in Antwerp, Belgium, where I interviewed him about the film and other topics. The interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Zoe Cooper

This past week, the Chinese government announced its new leadership — Xi Jinping has been written into the Communist party charter, consolidating his power and all but guaranteeing a second term as president. What are your thoughts on the recent news from home?

Ai Weiwei

Maybe to the outside it’s recent news, but to me, it’s been the same news for the past almost 70 years. In Chinese we have an expression, “You wear a new pair of shoes, but you walk on the same old path.”

Zoe Cooper

You’re famous for having been a kind of refugee in your own country. How have your experiences shaped your view of the current global refugee crisis?

Ai Weiwei

The global so-called current refugee crisis is not so current. Our civilization has always had people moved around, kicked around, rejected, put in desperate situations. In recent years, after globalization, I think the political structure and the economic structure has been dramatically shifting and adjusting itself. At the same time, the adjustment of our thinking, or our understanding of the world, has still stayed in old times. It’s stuck there. We never really had a moral and philosophical improvement, or adjustment.

You see on the surface a refugee problem, or Trump, or Brexit, or whatever, but, deeply, it’s not that. Those are just symptoms of the deep illness that nobody wants to mention. People still enjoy trying to say, “Nothing happened, this is just a regional problem.” It’s not true.

Zoe Cooper

Can you comment on the role that fences — both literal and metaphysical, from border walls to discriminatory policy — play in forming identity? It seems to be a running theme in your artwork.

Ai Weiwei

Because we never really adjusted to so-called globalization, identity gets lost. Walls and fences built along country borders have dramatically increased from 11 countries at the time of the Berlin Wall to more than 70 countries now. And they’re still building more. So we see this kind of border — on the map it’s physical, but it’s also in our heart, our mind. We no longer want to accept or talk to [anyone who is] different, or to really try to tolerate or understand each other. Rather [we are] more exclusive and defensive. And of course politicians use this kind of danger or risk to scare people, and to increase their reputation.

Zoe Cooper

Your artistic approach is strikingly multidisciplinary. Over the course of your career, you’ve been involved in art, architecture, film, publishing — the list goes on. Why so many different mediums?

Ai Weiwei

As a Chinese person, I realize whenever we go to a restaurant, unlike the West, we never just choose one dish for yourself. We always have a combination of dishes put in the center. People pick things in their own way [to create] their own combination. That kind of variety creates millions of possibilities. So that kind of order makes each person at the table eat a completely different dish, even while sitting together.

But, that’s very different from the West. It’s very individualistic. I like to play a few different hands. At the same table, a million ways are happening, rather than just one way. It’s just habit.

Zoe Cooper

In your film, you take a high-altitude approach to the topic of migration, moving from place to place. Why take an overarching approach, instead of exploring more fully the nuances of each situation?

Ai Weiwei

I’m not interested in a specific region or one person or one story. I’m very much interested in the global situation. Otherwise, you would only talk about regional problems. But if you look from above, you see five-, ten-hundred roads there, and you can easily see what those roads are like, and the conditions. So that means by understanding [all the roads], you have a better intellectual understanding of a situation.

Zoe Cooper

There are several scenes that just show you traveling with your family, getting a haircut, taking a video on your phone. In a film about other people’s struggles, why put yourself in front of the camera?

Ai Weiwei

This is my honest approach to refugee crisis. It’s only my personal journey. It’s not a textbook, or national geographic book, or a history book, so when I introduce myself, I give an honest introduction of how I deal with the situation. And how I look at the people, and how they look at me.

Zoe Cooper

As an internationally renowned artist, you have the ability to use your own clout to draw attention to an important cause. On the other hand, some people have criticized the film as exploiting refugees’ struggle in order to promote your own art. How do you handle that?

Ai Weiwei

I don’t care if other people are criticizing. They don’t have to watch the film if they don’t like to. I have to make an honest film about myself and my condition. If I care about [the critics], I would never make a move.

Only a few people are doing things. And the people very often they do not appreciate that you’re doing things, but rush to offense because they do nothing. That’s the problem.

Zoe Cooper

But hopefully your work will help inspire people to wake up and take action? Is that your hope?

Ai Weiwei

I have to take the journey to understand it — it’s a very complicated situation. And second, I think by doing that, I made my action in response to the situation as an artist. Me as an artist, I have my skill, and my way of doing things. Basically, it’s very selfish. It’s for myself — but if maybe people pay attention to the film, I would be very happy. If people don’t care about this, it’s still okay.

Zoe Cooper is writer with a focus in arts and culture. Her writing on art, architecture, and film has been published by Artsy, Flash Art Magazine, AnOther Magazine, Disegno: The Quarterly Journal of Design, and more. Find her on twitter @zoecooper91.