If it seems Ai Weiwei is everywhere, it’s because he is—his film screenings draw politicians and A-listers, his installations dot the globe, sparking debate on hotbutton issues, and the media and art world intelligentsia can’t get enough. His greatest talent though might be his ability to turn all the attention into action.
It’s a quiet Monday night in downtown Washington, but the scene is buzzing at Landmark E Street Cinema. This is star power capital style—internationally renowned artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei is in attendance accompanied by Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission members Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), along with a packed house of human rights activists, journalists, art enthusiasts and, more than likely, a few incognito state actors.
We are all here to preview the artist’s documentary film, Human Flow, which chronicles the impact of human migration. Or maybe we’re here to take selfies—with Weiwei it’s hard to tell where activism ends and celebrity starts. He has an almost Andy Kaufman-esque ability to impart meaning through layers of complex showmanship.
“I used to think of his art and his politics as separate, especially before 2008 [and the Beijing Olympics], but the more he does, the more those two become intertwined,” explains Melissa Chiu. As the acting director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Chiu oversees the curation of Weiwei’s current installation, “Trace,” which runs until Jan 1, 2018. “Now it’s all part of his life work—the conceptual idea that life is art.”
Weiwei surmises the same, stating, “Whatever you do can be art. Art is life, life is art. So I do art. I cook. I like to play games. I do design. I write. I make a lot of interviews. I paint and sculpt. I do installations. I make music. There’s almost nothing I don’t do.” I could add architecture and about 15 other trades and mediums to his list.
"He drags people in so he is able to talk about the topics that interest him,” Chiu tells me.
In the case of Human Flow, Weiwei is prodding the viewer to act on human migration. According to the United Nations there are 65.6 million people around the world who have been forced from home. Among them nearly 22.5 million are refugees.
“There are many remarkable moments in this film,” Hultgren tells Weiwei during the post-film panel. “One moment that struck me was when you swapped passports with a Syrian refugee and said, ‘I respect your passport, I respect you.’”
Weiwei responds, “I think for the refugees, they have really sacrificed everything to go to another land. Not one wants to leave their home. They travel so far away. The only thing they always have with them is a passport... even if that passport means nothing, they still wrap it in plastic and put it in the most secure place.”
Moderator Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post interjects, “Do you consider yourself a refugee?”
“My father was a poet and he was purged during a political moment,” answers Weiwei. “He was sent to a remote area for 20 years. So I grew up in this very difficult situation when you have to leave your home and go to another area. There was forced labor. People see you as a stranger. They don’t understand who you are. I had the same type of experience as a refugee.”
As the night progresses, the mood turns more town hall. An audience member rants that the American military industrial complex is to blame for refugees and presses the representatives on their Iraq war authorization votes; another stands and asks if “we can take all the money we’ve spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and use it to rebuild countries so there are no refugees?”
Rep. Lieu responds, “In a lot of these places, the U.S. is involved. We are in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. I believe we not only have a moral responsibility in general, but specifically because we are involved in these places, to do more. To help the refugees.” A smattering of applause follows.
The scattered nature of the panel is a microcosm of Weiwei’s nonlinear relationship with his audience and subject matters which meander between his backstory, public persona and the missive of his work.
“To reach out to a broader audience, to bring a large topic to an audience, is always a challenge,” Weiwei tells the crowd. He overcomes this challenge using scale.
Human Flow humanizes the immensity of the refugee crisis using the big screen; “Trace,” a collection of 176 Lego portraits of dissidents, political prisoners and activists took over Alcatraz Island; 100 million handcrafted porcelain sunflowers turned the Tate Modern into a meditation on the Chinese cultural revolution; “Laundromat” in New York showcased 2,046 discarded refugee clothing items; 14,000 refugee life jackets were placed on the facade of Berlin’s Konzerthaus; a 230-foot-long inflatable boat filled with 258 faceless refugees is in Prague; and recently for “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” more than 300 large-scale public sculptures were placed across New York City’s five boroughs.
“For [Weiwei] scale is important… it feels very inclusive and participatory. Social media increases that sensibility,” Chiu says.
When you go to Weiwei’s Instagram feed you see pictures of the people he meets along the way. That’s what he wants. Like his camera, he wants you to see beyond him. You can debate motive. You can wax eloquently on the relevance and meaning of his work. It doesn’t matter. He will continue to create and hope someone internalizes his theme and acts.
That dynamic is on full display this night when another woman addresses the panel. “I’m the child of boat refugees and I’m also a rape survivor, and now that I’m grown up I pay it forward writing civil rights laws for rape survivors and refugees. I’m writing the U.N. General Assembly resolution that will protect the rights of over 1.3 billion sexual violence survivors and refugees,” she passionately explains, ending, “I never thought I‘d have a chance to tell you this in person, but your sunflower seeds was one of the biggest moments in my life that motivated me to be an activist.”
Thirty minutes and 20-odd selfies later, Weiwei is whisked into a SUV and slips into the sleepy city night. Was this art, activism, publicity or catharsis? While we debate, he’ll create, and his message will get passed on. That’s his art.