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'Being a Refugee Is a Human Condition': An Interview With Ai Weiwei

The celebrated artist's new documentary makes the case for incorporating more compassion into our approach to displaced persons.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei attends a gathering with media in front of the Trade Fair Palace run by the National Gallery on February 5th, 2016, in Prague, Czech Republic.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei attends a gathering with media in front of the Trade Fair Palace run by the National Gallery on February 5th, 2016, in Prague, Czech Republic.

Ai Weiwei, the world-famous artist, is snapping my picture. We're 25 minutes into an interview at the hotel room where he's staying in Beverly Hills when I glance up from my reporter's notebook to find Ai's iPhone trained on me; his lined, often inquisitive face is screwed now in concentration as he tinkers with the focus on his phone. I pause mid-sentence and stare, waiting for some kind of explanation: Have I asked a threatening question? Do I have something on my face? Am I going to appear in his next MoMA exhibit, probably looking self-conscious and slightly alarmed? None comes; he's still playing with his phone, clearly more adept with a touchscreen than any other 60-year-old I've ever met.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised: Non-stop self-documentation has long been both a statement and a safeguard for Ai, who is an outspoken critic of his native China. It was his opposition to the regime—recording his monitored, heated confrontations, and even physical abuse at the hands of Chinese authorities—that helped Ai achieve international fame. It was also his opposition that inspired his Chinese supporters to meet with him in person, despite close monitoring by the Xi administration.

Ai will later Instagram my picture (#nofilter), just as he will Instagram the photos of other journalists visiting him that day. It's all part of his daily routine for documenting his life on Instagram and Twitter for his cumulative 700,000 followers—in between major exhibitions, public performances, and documentary releases.

We're here to discuss Ai's latest major release, and one of his most ambitious, the documentary Human Flow. Many may be most familiar with Ai's works about China—his 1995 performance piece in which he dropped a Han Dynasty urn, or his 2009 installation of 9,000 children's backpacks, commemorating those who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake due to poor school construction. Human Flow, in theaters today in New York, represents something of a departure from his more famous pieces, focusing instead on the global refugee crisis. The crisis has been a frequent subject of Ai's work after he became a refugee himself in 2015: In 2016, he covered Berlin's Konzerthaus venue in a curtain of 14,000 life vests discarded on the Greek island of Lesbos, a popular entry point for refugees to Europe, and filled the New York Gallery Deitch Projects on Wooster Street with cast-off clothing from a refugee camp in Greece. Last March, he installed a 200-foot sculpture of an inflatable boat occupied by hundreds of refugees in the National Gallery of Prague, among other projects.

Human Flow documents the lives and travels of refugees in over 23 countries, including Afghanistan, France, Kenya, and Turkey. It combines drone photography documenting the immense scale of camps and ongoing human migrations with intimate on-the ground storytelling in which Ai meets with, asks questions of, and occasionally comforts and jokes with displaced peoples.

The ultimate goal, Ai tells me, is to challenge stigmas surrounding refugees, helping to create a new, universally understood definition for their status. Ai believes that, only by viewing refugees not as migrants, but rather as displaced persons, will the world arrive at a more compassionate policy for welcoming them. On Sunday we talked about the advantages of documentary, the challenges of production, and Ai's message for President Donald Trump.


Over the last few years, the refugee crisis has been the subject of your installations, sculpture, and public performances. Why do you return to the crisis again and again?

Well, my work not only focuses on the refugee crisis. I've also done many works relating to freedom of speech, human rights—especially while I was in China—and also about justice and judicial practices. But certainly refugees have attracted my attention for the past three years. Before I got my passport in China we already started to do research.

Why it attracted my attention is because it's getting overwhelmingly large-scale, and I have a strong curiosity to know what the story is and what is behind it. I didn't have the opportunity when my passport was [denied to me by] the authorities. Once I [finally got the passport], I started to be involved.

Tell me a little bit about how this documentary began to takes shape.

We did recording before I even came out [to the filming locations]. We sent our people to Iraq, and they started doing interviews and taking some film. But once I came to Berlin, I brought my family to Lesbos, which is a Greek Island. There I met refugees who had just come to Europe. I started filming it with my iPhone and made the decision to move my studio [from Beijing and Berlin] to Lesbos. That gradually got me involved. We had one team documenting, but that wasn't enough, and we had to organize another one and another one; the whole situation developed very fast.

Is there something that a documentary can convey in a way that your other installations and works about the refugee crisis don't?

Documentary is like you're holding up a mirror to have a direct reflection of [humanity]. It has this kind of intimacy and has this so-called "realism," which always can be quite powerful and sometimes even shocking. That's a good way to talk about effectual conditions. And also it's easier to view the communication between the audience and the work.

So many recent documentaries about the refugee crisis are narrow in scope—they follow one refugee family, a team of rescuers, or one camp. Human Flow, though, is epic, spanning 23 countries and many camps. Why choose this vast approach?

From the beginning we took a very different approach. I don't want to do a documentary just about one person or one family's pain because I think this situation needs some scale to understand what a refugee is about. Our name of the film is called Human Flow, which gives some justice to immigration and refugees from the beginning of the human evolution. It's a nature of humans' development, it's not just a temporary incident or current crisis. It has to be understood as part of human rights. To argue that, we had to go to a lot of locations and also go through the modern history to see different types of refugees, who can be casualties of war, environmental problems, or religious problems. To [convey] that concept, we had to come up with a language that would capture this kind of understanding. In the later editing, it was very important to find that one image from about 100 hours of footage.

Human Flow accompanies its story with statistics, facts, and news headlines, but also poetry. That's not something you normally see in a documentary—why did you decide to include it?

We tried to give a more profound understanding of this topic so we did deep history research. Literature and poetry are important textbooks of the human condition; we found quite rich materials from writers, thinkers, and the Bible and Quran, all those books relating to the human condition, about someone who has to leave their home, or someone who has to travel but at the same time about their dignity and their humanity.

The movie, as you said, depicts people moving between states as a human condition. There's probably a balance between showing all those people as a mass, and as individuals.

You cannot just make a film about historical facts or large activity—you have to build up this human connection. I am an artist and an individual; I have a curiosity and I am learning from the whole process. I learned how to swim by jumping in the water. My contact with the refugees is very crucial. It shows this is sometimes a very intimate condition, or a humorous condition. Those scenes show my attitude and how I react to the situation; it draws the audience back to see, "OK, this is an individual's journey, and those scenes he's showing are not just epic and large-scale, but from a private viewing of the situation." My personal involvement in response to this kind of unthinkable, large-scale [condition] is also crucial because very often once it gets too large, it loses personal relations [with the viewer].

The press notes for this movie noted that, in some cases, you were forbidden from going into these countries?

In many cases we were not successful. I wanted to go really deep to film in Syria, which—even with paying [bribes]—it's not possible. In certain areas we could only shoot the film with a local team, such as in Iraq, and [then] we have to find this war zone combat journalist and give them clear instructions and definitions of what we want. Either because it's extremely difficult language-wise, or the nature of the physical war, [sometimes] we cannot really be there.

We're talking about this two days after Trump ordered a cap on refugees that's the lowest this country has seen since 1980. We have a new travel ban in effect, and Trump continues to frequently use "America First" rhetoric. If you could say something to this country's leaders about the way they are handling right now, what would you say?

If the U.S. or any nations or so-called leaders or lawmakers have no clear knowledge or profound understanding about human nature or the cost of human flow, then it will come out in policies such as the travel ban, or viewing a war between nations, or sending unregistered immigrants back—all those policies now almost in practice in the U.S. Which not only shows a very shallow understanding about humanity, but also betrays what the U.S. is all about—it betrays its own tradition. [It betrays] the quality that it represents by being basically an immigration nation. The consequences of this kind of shortsighted "tactics" are hurting values that made America become a very strong nation in the past. It basically shows the world that the U.S. is becoming less missionary and has less courage and confidence in defending those very essential human rights. And it sets a bad example for the whole world. After World War II, [this era] probably this has set up the worst conditions in dealing with desperate people.

In the course of researching this movie, did you see any potential solution that gives you hope?

From my experience, as we read news all the time and do all kind of studies, what's lacking is global leadership in a collective effort to give new definition about what the word "refugee" is. The old definition was created [over] 60 years ago, and it doesn't really apply to refugees with environmental problems or new problems [that have arisen]. [We should] not just come up with a new definition and understanding, but also come up with a new policy that can guarantee certain kinds of social practice to make things much easier, safer, and helpful for the whole global political condition to see it as one, rather than see it as divided or original. This is very common in today's practice, but this is really narrow-minded and it should be ended.

If somebody leaves this film really wanting to do something about the refugee crisis, where would you suggest they start?

Everybody in society should start with ourselves first, and ask ourselves about the conditions we feel are not successful. After we have that kind of conclusion, then we know what to do. Each individual—yes, you can see you're powerless, you are just an individual—but think about all those refugees: they are also individuals. And think about our whole global situation: We are all made of individuals. This crisis is made by humans, and can be ended by humans. The only [reason] the crisis [exists] today would be because people don't act, because they've given up their right to act. This has become a real potential crisis in humanity: the one who's privileged refusing to act.

And if you want to do something, today there are a million ways to do it with the Internet. We can find a community or [non-governmental organizations] or volunteers who are working on the front line, really standing with the refugees, and in extremely difficult conditions. And after all, the act itself is a [redemption]. It is not only making the refugees survive, but making ourselves survive from this corruption.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.