It would be difficult to find a man who enjoys freedom as much as Ai Weiwei does. At least that is the feeling one gets from watching the Beijing-born artist and political activist, who has been suffering repression in his country for years and was arrested for three months in 2011 for his opposition to the Chinese regime.
In 2015 his passport was returned to him, and the 59-year-old has since been unstoppable. This much is evident as he strolls down the streets of Buenos Aires, where he is constantly stopped by people who want to have their picture taken with him. Watching him evidences his dual dimension as a renowned artist and as a free man.
Ai has come to the capital of Argentina to work on a major exhibition of his art at the Proa Foundation, a private museum located in La Boca, the city’s most popular neighborhood.
Inside the museum, he is a professional who takes measurements, thinks about the best spots for his giant installations, and imagines new ones. Out on the street, he is a tourist who takes selfies with his son in front of a papier mâché likeness of Pope Francis that he spots outside a souvenir store.
It would be difficult to find a man who enjoys freedom as much as Ai Weiwei does
Cameras are tagging along, documenting his trip. But he prefers to focus on social media, which he is addicted to. Ai Weiwei constantly uploads photographs of everything that he sees, and is always ready to have his picture taken with fans.
In the middle of this whirlwind of activity that seems more typical for a rock star than an artist, Ai sits down with EL PAÍS at Proa café, a local institution that has been drawing famous artists from all over the world to this culturally conscious capital for the last 20 years.
Right now, Ai is focused on his work on refugees in Europe and elsewhere in the world. He set up a workshop on the Greek island of Lesbos, filled the Berlin Konzerthaus with life jackets, and covered the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence with rubber boats. And soon before traveling to Buenos Aires, he learned that his documentary on this issue, Human Flow, will compete in the official section of the Venice film festival this year.
The Chinese artist has spent time living with refugees, and even set himself adrift on a boat once to experience the same feelings as many migrants on their sea crossings. That experience left him with a very critical view, and the determination to reinforce his own activism, which is the central part of his art.
“The West does not want to accept its responsibility,” he says. “There’s going to be millions of Africans fleeing war. The population is growing, it’s going to double, there will be more famine, more wars, and more refugees. This is not just about Syria. Are Western leaders hoping that the problem will just resolve itself? That’s ridiculous.”
The artist devotes most of his art to denouncing the refugee drama. He spent months interviewing new arrivals every day for his documentary, and recorded more than 600 hours of footage. And this year, in Prague, he inaugurated Law of the Journey, an installation featuring a 70-meter-long migrant boat with 258 inflatable human figures sitting within.
He is an activist and will always be so, yet he remains skeptical about the power of his own art, and stresses that the truly important thing is for citizens to get individually involved. And then he slips in a bit of criticism for other artists who are not as politically engaged as himself.
A return to the land of Pablo Neruda
Ai Weiwei had never been to South America, but he has a link to the Southern Cone. His father, Ai Qing, one of the most respected poets in China, was friends with Chile's Pablo Neruda, to whom he dedicated one of his poems. Both were communists, but in 1958 the regime accused Ai of being a right-winger and exiled him on farms in Manchuria and Xinjiang, where Weiwei lived as a child.
Ai will now travel to Chile, where he exhibited a gigantic 900-square-meter canvas in 2013 that he dedicated to Neruda. Ai does not believe that things are now worse than back in his father and Neruda’s time, although he warns: “Humanity has been improving, but there is a greater risk now. Power has become even stronger. These days, a German company or a US bank can be bought out by China. You no longer know who your enemy is. The powerful are really united, but not so the poor. There are no longer different powers in communist and capitalist countries... They have all become one and the same.”
“My art is just the art of a stupid Chinese artist, they’re my own feelings, my relationship with these things that are happening,” he says. “Art in itself cannot accomplish anything. I can do something for my own conscience, and perhaps have an influence on the odd person. A lot of people know what’s happening. But they pretend that it is of no concern to them, that it’s none of their business. Some pretend to be busy doing a higher form of art, and they do not discuss human dignity.”
The pessimist view that he took away from his experience with the refugees makes him think that “humanity is losing its vision and courage.”
“I think that humanity is becoming more cowardly with each passing day, not just with the refugees but also with climate change. Many pretend that it’s got nothing to do with them, that someone else will solve the problem,” he says.
Ai is especially concerned about Donald Trump. “Many people have lost their jobs and fear for the future because of globalization, because they’d been sold a really pretty picture of things. But what Trump is saying, at a police academy recently for instance, is really unbelievable, he is encouraging violence. If we were told that he said those things, but could not see it with our own eyes, we would not believe it.”
Ai believes that the key resides with young people, who should be aware of their own power. “People also have more power with social media, but we have yet to see them transform it into political power. If you see what is happening in Venezuela these days, and in many other places where things used to be quieter, young people are much more informed, but at the same time they might be more disengaged because the West has experienced half a century of peace.”
Ai, a historical champion of human rights in China, has learned from the refugee crisis in Europe that “freedom and democracy are a constant struggle, and nobody can take them for granted. As long as there is one person feeling despair, all of humanity is wounded, ruined. If we don’t have this notion of humanity as a single entity, we will never manage to solve the problem.”
China has accumulated great wealth, but has not developed human rights
The artist is especially pessimistic about his own country, where he returns periodically – if warily. Most of the year he lives abroad, and has his home base in Germany. And Ai believes that things have only gotten worse ever since his own arrest in 2011.
“There is no establishment in China because intellectuals are always persecuted,” he says. “China has accumulated great wealth, but has not developed human rights. It has a fifth of the world’s population but there are no labor rights and no individual rights; everything is controlled by the state, even social media. The country is moving backwards at a terrible pace. When I was arrested, my family, my friends asked themselves: where did he go? Nobody knew. What kind of state are you if you make a citizen disappear? What’s the difference between the Chinese state and the mafia? If you’re that powerful and you have all the money, why can’t you earn respect for yourself?”
English version by Susana Urra.