Artist-ac­tivist Ai Wei­wei: ‘To­day we have more fences than ever’

The National - News - Arts & Life - - Front Page - Jo de Frias

Ai Wei­wei has been de­scribed as many things: artist, ac­tivist, dis­si­dent and film­maker. To him it is all part of his work.

“I don’t care what they call me. I never wanted to be called any­thing,” he says.

His hu­mil­ity and quiet voice drew in the au­di­ence dur­ing a re­cent ap­pear­ance at the Mu­seum of Is­lamic Art in Doha.

It was a ret­ro­spec­tive evening, a dis­cus­sion of his life and work – but Ai is look­ing to the fu­ture.

“I have a lot of cu­rios­ity,” he says. “I have a habit to doc­u­ment some­thing I wit­ness but is larger than I can un­der­stand.”

His work will ap­pear at the 21st Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney next year, a fes­ti­val of con­tem­po­rary art. This au­tumn, he’ll present Good Fences Make Good Neigh­bours, for which he will be in­stalling fences across New York City. “To­day we have more fences than ever,” says Ai. “Peo­ple are try­ing to sep­a­rate and they try to pic­ture oth­ers as a po­ten­tial dan­ger, try­ing to di­vide the peo­ple as dif­fer­ent groups. I think this is a re­ally dan­ger­ous con­di­tion, for politi­cians to use this kind of ha­tred.”

He is also fin­ish­ing a doc­u­men­tary called Hu­man Flow, which takes a hard look at the global refugee cri­sis. The United Na­tions es­ti­mates 65.3 mil­lion peo­ple were displaced by conf lict and per­se­cu­tion in 2015 alone, a record num­ber. Ai set out to meet some of them, trav­el­ling to more than 40 refugee camps in two years.

“They’re part of us, we are part of them – there’s no way we can es­cape this,” he says of the refugees. “There’s no way you can turn your eyes away, to say: ‘ I don’t see them, it’s not my prob­lem.’ This is not pos­si­ble. We have to help them.”

The Syr­ian conf lict fea­tures promi­nently in his work, and he has called on Arab states to do more to help.

Ai’s own ex­pe­ri­ence as a refugee pro­vides some in­sight into the emo­tion be­hind his re­cent work. In 1958, the year af­ter he was born, the Com­mu­nist Par t y of China de­nounced his fa­ther, poet Ai Qing, as an en­emy of the peo­ple and banned him from writ ing. Kayak­ing in Abu Dhabi’s man­groves and ex­plor­ing the well­hid­den Fox Is­land is San­dra Sfeirova’s favourite out­door ac­tiv­ity.

“Fox Is­land is a lit­tle beach in the East­ern Man­groves Na­tional Park only ac­ces­si­ble by kayak or by boat, and you can catch glimpses of a fox if you’re lucky,” she says. The fami ly ended up in ex­ile in labour camps in Xin­jiang prov ince. As a boy, Ai watched as his fa­ther cleaned toi lets in the sum­mer and broke ice in win­ter. He says that though his dad was not al­lowed to be a poet, his life was po­etry.

The fam­ily re­turned to Beijing in 1976. Ai stud­ied an­i­ma­tion and moved to New York City in the 1980s. He went back to Chi- na in 1993, where he sup­ported ex­per­i­men­tal artists, fought for hu­man rights and in­ves­ti­gated govern­ment cor­rup­tion.

In 2011, he was ar­rested and de­tained for 81 days with­out charge. He was later ac­cused of ow­ing tax and fail­ing to pay fines. Af­ter his release he re­mained un­der sur­veil­lance and was not al­lowed to leave China un­til 2015.

“The sys­tem there is very much ag­gres­sive and bru­tal,” says Ai. But he con­tin­ued to cre­ate and in­spire through his art and ac­tivism. He now uses so­cial me­dia to get his mes­sage out.

“I don’t think I’d be who I am to­day with­out so­cial me­dia,” he says. “To­day is very dif­fer­ent. You can ex­press your­self. It’s pos­si­ble to have your voice heard.”

So should emerg­ing artists fol­low his lead? “My case [is] not rec­om­mend­able,” he says.

With ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Reuters

Cour­tesy Qatar Mu­se­ums

Ai Wei­wei, cen­tre, dis­cusses his life and work at Doha’s Mu­seum of Is­lamic Art.

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