Ai Weiwei: The New Fences and Walls Betray the World's Sagging Courage

The world-renowned Chinese artist and political activist tells Haaretz how his new documentary gives refugees a voice – and why he cooperated with the Israel Museum

Chinese activist artist Ai Weiwei, right, and Chief Curator Nicholas Baume of the Public Art Fund, in New York's Central Park, October 10, 2017.
Richard Drew / AP

NEW YORK – Sitting in a black office chair on the seventh floor of a luxurious Manhattan office building, the internationally renowned Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei takes a deep breath when asked whether there is a place he can call home. “This is a question I have been recently thinking about,” he tells Haaretz. “There is no place I can call home, since home is a place that can accept the totalness of you. It is the place where you feel most comfortable. I am still Chinese by nationality, but China has never been a location in which I can feel comfortable.”

After being detained, prosecuted and closely watched by the Chinese government, Ai moved to Berlin, where he established an art studio in a 150-year-old underground beer cellar. He recently traveled to New York to promote his new ambitious documentary, “Human Flow,” a 145-minute chronicle of the global refugee crisis shot in more than 40 refugee camps in 23 countries. The film, which premiered in September at the Venice International Film Festival, will open this weekend in the United States and will be released online by Amazon this February.

Over 200 crew members were involved in this grand-scale production, but to some extent the main protagonist of the film is the 60-year-old Chinese dissident himself. “Human Flow” opens with a beautifully shot sequence in which a seagull circles around what seems to be a small, yellow vessel. The striking contrast between the clear sky and the vast ocean mistakenly creates the impression that we are about to watch a maritime legend like Sinbad the Sailor. But as the camera zooms in, the small yellow dot is revealed to be a dangerously packed boat carrying refugees to Greece.

The next scene replaces the tranquility of the drone footage with the shakiness and urgency of hand-held cameras: We see exhausted, confused refugees approaching the shores of the island of Lesbos. Amid the relief and hectic encounter with volunteers and activists, one of the refugees meets Ai, who hands him a cup of tea. The nameless man then tells the star of the contemporary art world, “you’re a good man.”

This opening scene introduces the viewers to the two main subjects of “Human Flow”: the refugee crisis and Ai Weiwei. The film rapidly shifts between disheartening depictions of Syrian refugees heading to the Greek-Macedonian border, refugees from Nigeria and Sudan who somehow managed to reach southern Italy, and a group of Palestinian girls describing the Gaza Strip as “a huge prison.”

The cinematic visits to each camp seldom lasts more than several minutes, during which nameless refugees tell stories of survival, agony and boredom as they wait for the border to open or for a European country to provide them with shelter. To ease the cumulative sense of helplessness and despair, the film uses short interviews with experts who provide some context, and includes poems and short literary citations (such as the poem “In Jerusalem” by Mahmoud Darwish).

True to his reputation as a provocateur, a human rights activist and an artist famous – among many other things – for giving the finger to historical sites such as the Eiffel Tower and Tiananmen Square, Ai provides comic relief. He takes selfies with refugees, barbecues food in the middle of an improvised camp, gets a haircut, and displays his penchant for mischievous behavior.

But when I meet him in the New York office of Magnolia Pictures, which distributes the film in the United States, he seems to be in a much more solemn mood.

“Following my detention and legal issues in China, I was forced to leave the country,” he says in his typical tone, something between a murmur and a whisper. “Berlin, where I am currently based, accepted me with open arms. However, I do not speak German and do not have a German passport. My only passport is Chinese, and I didn’t have it for quite some time. So I don’t have a home country.”

When asked whether he describes himself as a refugee, Ai hesitates. He then replies: “I never saw myself as a refugee but I have so many qualities or characteristics identified with this term, which means you have been forcefully relocated from your home country. I did not choose to leave China.”

Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei walks in front of one of his new art installations in New York's Central Park, part of the series of works 'Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,' October 10, 2017.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images / AFP

Obsessed with walls

Ai already raised the question of freedom of movement during Documenta 12 in 2007, when he laboriously organized the travel of 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel, Germany, to take part in that art event. He says that as an artist, he has always been fascinated by the question of why people like to divide their territory and surround themselves with walls.

“Is it because they think those they call ‘others’ are inherently dangerous and might pose a threat to their survival? Why did it become such a powerful and prevalent political practice in the past two decades?” he asks.

“When the Berlin Wall fell in 1998, 11 countries around the world were cut off by border fences and walls. By 2016, some 70 countries had built border fences and walls. The U.S. is now trying to build a new wall with Mexico and for me this is unthinkable. This solution has never worked, but it testifies to the notion that we have become less courageous.”

As Ai explains, he made “Human Flow” first and foremost to educate himself and others about the scale of the current crisis. In 2016, when the film was shot, 22 million people – over half of them children – were registered as refugees (in comparison, in 2005 global refugee numbers had hit a 26-year low of 8.4 million). “The moment I decided to make this film came when I was standing on the shore of Lesbos and saw the first boat approaching us, carrying between 80 to 100 people. I saw an old man crying and parents desperately holding their babies,” Ai recounts.

“These people do not speak my language so we could not communicate directly. At that moment I felt I knew very little about this crisis, which involves the lives of millions of people forced to relocate and who fled their homes in recent years due to war, famine and persecution.”

While poetic, moving and impressive in scope, “Human Flow” jarringly moves between short poems, hand-held footage and interviews. The film therefore runs the risk of decontextualizing the various atrocities and hardships it aims to highlight. Despite the frequent use of intertitles, it’s sometimes hard to figure out where we are at any given moment.

“Whatever you do will create an illusion. If you follow one person’s journey you risk missing the bigger picture of a worldwide crisis. We deliberately decided to document refugees escaping environmental crisis and famine alongside those who escaped wars. These are all extremely complicated stories, but all of these refugees were victimized by different conditions and forced to give up their homes,” Ai says.

“Yes, it is highly confusing, but our current world is confusing and multilayered. We interviewed dozens of internationally renowned experts and even they could not offer a clear-cut explanation to many of these issues. The roots of the current crisis could be traced back, in some cases, to two or three generations ago. We wanted to document the reality of displacement, as confusing as it may be.”

When asked why he chose to provide the names of the experts while most of the refugees he interviewed are nameless, Ai explains that “for the experts we needed credibility. Those people have some kind of knowledge and we need to know where it is coming from. The refugees tell personal stories and many of them did not want to include their names in the film since this exposure might endanger relatives who were left behind.”

A personal journey

The decision to include himself in the film should not surprise anyone who has been following Ai’s rise to fame. He is an avid social media user who posts selfies on Instagram and Twitter on a daily or weekly basis. Yet he does not fear that his stardom might draw attention from the very complex issues explored in “Human Flow.”

“I think this is a very personal film documenting my personal journey,” he explains when asked about the decision to step in front of the camera. “It is not a scientific film made for the History Channel. It is about an artist and his approach to this crisis. We also wanted to pull people back into the film. And this is why we included a scene in which I get a haircut, or another scene where I make kebab.

“We didn’t want the viewers to think, ‘this is something that has nothing to do with me since it happens far away.’ I think it was very important to include some jokes and humor to reflect the way I am being viewed by others. It is the kind of structure I like to highlight in my work.”

Alongside Iraq, Bangladesh and Greece, Israel is also briefly featured in “Human Flow” – and not in a very flattering light. In a segment dedicated to the Gaza Strip, the camera documents the journey of a rare tiger as he is transported from Gaza to his new home in South Africa. An intertitle reminds the viewers that “4.7 Million Palestinian refugees live in the Gaza Strip.” Next, B’Tselem’s Hagai El-Ad tells the camera, “Gaza is an hour drive from Tel Aviv, but as far as Israelis are concerned it could have been located on Mars.”

When asked why he chose to present his art in Israel while criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in his new film, Ai replies that “I included the Gaza Strip [in the film] since it is a location in which people cannot move; they are being ‘pushed-in’ rather than ‘pushed out’ like other refugees. It is inhuman.”

Ai criticizes Israel’s treatment of refugees, though he is not part of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. While he recently canceled his exhibition in Denmark to protest its treatment of refugees, Ai decided to show his work in the Israel Museum for the 2017 exhibition “Maybe, Maybe Not.”

“My decision to collaborate with the Israel Museum in Jerusalem was an attempt to make this reality more manifest,” he says. “I believe that the people and their government are not one and the same. I have a deep respect for Israelis. The work I chose to present in Jerusalem is deeply political: We showed a film about a tiger stuck in Gaza, for example.

“As for Denmark, I was in Lesbos and drove to the shore to film, and I heard on the radio that the Danish authorities decided to confiscate the belongings of asylum seekers. I was so angry at that moment I decided to protest by canceling my exhibition, ‘Ruptures,’ at Denmark’s Faurschou Foundation Copenhagen. It is always difficult for an artist to make these decisions because sometimes they create contradictions. I personally know many artists who refuse to show their work in Israel,” he adds.

“However, I believe in involvement. Almost every art piece that I’ve made was shown in places where human rights violations take place, whether it is China or other places. Only by being directly involved in these situations can one inflict a change of minds.”