This week, President Donald Trump doubled down on his anti-immigrant rhetoric and plans for the US-Mexico border in his first televised address from the Oval Office. While debate continues to rage over whether a wall would even deter migrants from entering America, there’s one would-be migrant who it may keep out: Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
“Even (though) I spent 12 years in the US before, (doing so in the) current situation is very hard for anybody — especially a foreigner,” Ai said from his studio in Berlin, where he has lived in political exile since the Chinese government returned his confiscated passport in 2015. “So I’m still very hesitant to … make the decision.”
In particular, he identifies Trump’s wall as a cause for uncertainty.
Ai Weiwei calls Trump’s border wall a “ridiculous gesture”
The artist spent time at the US-Mexico border in 2016 while producing “Human Flow,” a documentary investigating the impact of human migration on more than 20 different countries. He said the situation there has since worsened, but he described the proposed wall as a “ridiculous gesture.”
“It will not solve any problems, and all the reasons (given) to build this wall on the border (are not) true,” he said. “It’s obviously just an excuse for some kind of political reason.”
‘Re-addressing’ human rights
The comments reflect how Ai’s artistic and political agenda has broadened since he left China three years ago. Having earned his dissident tag through explorations of state suppression, intimidation and surveillance in his home country, the artist has since turned his focus to global injustices.
In a wide-ranging interview — where he also discussed the plight of China’s Uyghur population and Myanmar’s displaced Rohingya — Ai addressed the array of crises affecting the world during what he calls a “dramatic time.”
An art installation by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei that consists of life vests worn by refugees bound to the columns of the concert house at Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin. Credit: Clemens Bilan/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
“We have a major crisis with refugees, and we have a lot of uncertainties in European and American politics,” he said, adding: “I think human rights need to be re-announced and need to always be protected by each generation.
“If anyone’s rights are violated, it doesn’t matter if it’s a minority or whatever kind of religion, we have to think that it’s our (own) rights being violated,” he said. “Only by doing that we can come (together) as humans, humanity as one, and we can protect our very basic rights. Otherwise we are always divided by politicians or by special interests.”
Ai’s recent artworks have seen him responding to pressing social issues, including refugees and global migration. In 2017, he temporarily installed fences and cages around New York City, as part of a provocative public art project entitled “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.”
Installation view of the ‘Law of the Journey’ by artist Ai Weiwei in Sydney, Australia. Credit: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
The same year, he created “Law of Journey,” a 196-foot-long inflatable migrant boat, filled with anonymous human forms, that has since traveled to museums around the world.
His latest work continues this focus on the disenfranchised and voiceless: A flag designed to mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Set to be flown around the UK for seven days in June, the striking blue flag features a single white footprint at its center.
The design was, he said, inspired by his visit to a refugee camp in Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of Myanmar’s Rohingya population have lived in desperate conditions since fleeing violent persecution.
“In the camp we saw so many children and women and elderly people — they had no shoes,” he recalled.
“I see the same conditions in Africa (and) in different kind of camps, globally. So I made (the flag using) their footprints.”
Eyes on his homeland
“Ai Weiwei explains his initial decision to move to America last October.”
Despite the increasingly global scope of his art, Ai remains vociferous about human rights abuses in his homeland. He continues to be highly critical of a regime responsible for his detention, harassment and ultimate exile.
“This is (a) horrifying situation (to be) happening in the 21st century: You put people in this kind of location unwillingly and force them to study some kind of ideology, which is really being put on them by the Communist Party,” he said.
It is an issue close to the artist’s heart — and not just because of his commitment to human rights. In fact, Ai spent most of his childhood living in Xinjiang after his poet father was denounced and his family expelled to a remote part of the northwestern province in the early 1960s.
A scene of the Disposition event at the the 55th Venice art biennale addresses Ai Weiwei’s April 2011 arrest by the Chinese government and the 81-day period subsequently spent in captivity. Credit: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
“So the same idea — to re-educate people, to brainwash them and to force them (into) labor camps — is to maintain some kind of control,” he added. “This is not going to work. And it’s been proved that it’s not going to work.”
The artist is at pains to point out that alleged human rights abuses in the region are longstanding. While mass detention camps have thrust Xinjiang into the international spotlight, its people have endured decades of strict controls, tight policing and, in the eyes of many Uyghurs, discriminatory government policies.
“Since 1949, they (the Chinese government) are not only doing this to minority people, like Uyghur people or Tibetans, they also do that to Han people,” Ai said, referring to the country’s majority ethnic group.
“My family’s not Uyghur but we have been sent into Xinjiang, and my father had been doing hard labor and we spent about 20 years there. This is just one of the tactics to maintain the so-called ‘stability’ of this kind of state.”