‘It’s about human dignity’: Artist Ai Weiwei targets Australia’s refugee record

Ai Weiwei is in Sydney for the 21st Biennale and the screening of his documentary on refugees, <i>Human Flow</i>.

Ai Weiwei is in Sydney for the 21st Biennale and the screening of his documentary on refugees, Human Flow. Photo: Roadshow Films

He is one of the world’s most famous artists and China’s best-known dissident, and 60-year-old Ai Weiwei has a message for Australia when it comes to the treatment of asylum seekers.

“I struggle with Australia’s record towards refugees,” he said.

“Australia is a nation of migrants and its culture accepts and tolerates difference.

“But Australia’s refugee record is quite poor internationally. This is a very bad position for a state because people judge states on their acceptance and tolerance of people who need help.

“There is no excuse for any kind of policy which does not consider or protect very basic human rights.”

Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees at the border of Syria and Jordan featured in artist Ai Weiwei’s documentary Human Flow. Photo: Roadshow Films

Two of his artworks are the headline installations at Sydney’s 21st Biennale, which opens this week along with his documentary on the plight of millions of asylum seekers called Human Flow.

“It looks like it was made for this place,” Ai said, referring to his art installation ‘Law of the Journey’ which dominates Cockatoo Island’s historic shipbuilding space.

Sixty metres long and made out of the material used in the manufacture of dinghies, the massive raft is filled with 300 larger-than-life inflatable men, women, children and babies.

The work and his documentary was inspired by a holiday on the Greek island of Lesvos with his family, where he saw rafts filled with desperate asylum seekers washing up on the beach.

“Children, women, elderly people climbing out of the dinghy boats, very poor vessels packed and thousands lost their life searching for freedom,” he said.

Chinese contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei in front of his installation, Law of the Journey, featuring a giant inflatable boat filled with people wearing life-jackets made from PVC. Photo: AAP

Ai said, as an artist, he had a responsibility to “speak out about important issues” and he wants people to acknowledge the suffering and struggles of millions around the world.

“It’s about human dignity. Where is our humanity in the 21st century? Did we forget it or always take it for granted?”

The life of Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei was born in 1957 and grew up during China’s cultural revolution.

His famous poet father was exiled to a the Gobi desert in remote Siberia when he was one and the family spent the next 16 years in labour camps.

The Nizip refugee camp in Gaziantep, Turkey

The Nizip refugee camp in Gaziantep, Turkey. Photo: Roadshow Films

A few years after returning to Beijing, Ai headed to New York speaking no English and with just $30. It is there he met the poet and philosopher Allen Ginsberg who was an early influence on his work.

He went on to become a force in architecture, designing Beijing’s Olympic “bird’s nest” stadium, but he is just as well known as a high-profile political activist and fierce critic of China’s regime.

His citizen investigation into the deaths of thousands of children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake shone a light on the shoddy, corrupt building deals which saw schools collapse on top of children in the disaster.

Months later he was badly beaten up by police and required emergency brain surgery. In 2011 he was arrested and spent 81 days in prison without charge, his passport was only returned by China’s authorities in 2015.

The news from China’s annual Parliament, the People’s Congress, that it had amended the country’s constitution to remove presidential term limits, allowing President Xi Jinping to remain in office for life was not lost on Ai.

“China has always been an Emperor state, it doesn’t matter, communist state, now capitalism, it’s a fatalistic society, it changes leader, it not changes leader, the system and the culture always stays the same,” he said.

Ai Weiwei with a refugee on the Greek Island of Lesvos

Ai Weiwei with a refugee on the Greek Island of Lesvos. Photo: Roadshow Films

Ai said he believes life is getting better with so many young people studying outside China and “the western idea of respecting basic human values are becoming more and more important for society”.

Regarding his own relationship with China: “China is my nation, I hold a passport. I will never take it as personally, it is a struggle of a nation as it becomes modernised.”

Ai said he could not predict whether he would ever live in China again but added: “I remain optimistic about human beings seeking freedom, individual rights and a chance to help others.”


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