Photo: Incoming refugee boat, Lesbos, Greece. 17 February 2016 © Ai Weiwei Studio.
“My definition of art has always been the same. It is about freedom of expression, a new way of communication. It is never about exhibiting in museums or about hanging it on the wall. Art should live in the heart of the people. Ordinary people should have the same ability to understand art as anybody else. I don’t think art is elite or mysterious. I don’t think anybody can separate art from politics. The intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention,” Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) told Der Spiegel in 2011.
Ai Weiwei rose to global prominence in 2011 Chinese authorities arrested him at the Beijing Capital International Airport, although no official charges were ever filed. He was placed under 24-hour supervision, accompanied by two guards who never left his side, then released after 81 days. It was a very different outcome from that of his father, the poet Ai Qing, who spoke out against the government in 1957. The whole family was exiled to a labor camp when Ai Weiwei was just one year old, then transferred to the remote province of Xinjiang, where he was forced to perform five years of physically demanding work in his 60s.
These early experiences did not cow Ai Weiwei into submission or defeat. In the face of oppression, he committed his life to calling out exploitation and fighting for justice for those who could not speak. As he told The Guardian in 2010, “I also have to speak out for people around me who are afraid, who think it is not worth it or who have totally given up hope. So I want to set an example: you can do it and this is okay, to speak out.”
His courage lead him to forge new paths to transgress the authority of the Chinese government by subverting the idea of surveillance. Prior to his arrest Ai Weiwei began to livestream his life on four webcams in his studio that streamed worldwide then took up blogging to give voice to his inner world. The Chinese government shut down both sites—but it was too late. The artist had established an international following that closely followed his arrest and detainment.
After he was released, his passport was taken and he was forced to remain in China, under constant surveillance. In July 2015, his passport was returned and he was free to travel again. He settled in Berlin and turned his attention to the European refugee crisis, which Ai Weiwei describes as, “the biggest, most shameful humanitarian crisis since World War II.”
More than one million people have fled the war torn lands of Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, traveling across the Mediterranean Sea in the most hazardous of conditions, often times at the hands of human traffickers. European Union states, which received over 1.2 million asylum applicants in 2015 alone, have proven ill-equipped to take on the burden, and the public backlash has been severe.
Feeling a personal affinity to the refugees, Ai Weiwei began visiting camps in Greece, Syria, Turkey, Italy, Israel, and France. It was a deeply personal journey for the artist, who understood the struggle they were facing: forced to flee and risking their lives to find a safe place to start over, the refugees now face rampant xenophobia and rigorous asylum procedures. Many are stuck in the purgatory that is these refugee camps, ignored by the world and kept in a state of indefinite state of homelessness.
Here, Ai Weiwei feels a kinship and so he is compelled to act. His new exhibition #SafePassage, now on view at Foam, Amsterdam, through December 7, 2016, takes on the issues of the individual versus the systems of the state. The exhibition features thousands of photographs taken on his mobile phone to create a massive collage that reveals his personal encounters through the refugee camps.
The exhibition also features works reflecting on Ai Weiwei’s personal experiences with living under surveillance in China. He reveals the various ways in which he has worked to subvert the system to regain control, finding the space where personal expression and pop culture merge and remix into something entirely unexpected. In the midst of the narcissism and thirst that drives so much of Selfie culture, Ai Weiwei finds the political edge to trangressive ends. You can follow Ai Weiwei on Instagram @aiww to discover where he is, for he hides neither himself nor the faces and conditions of those who the world is trying to erase.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.