The Art of Activism: An Interview with Ai Weiwei on Human Flow (Web Exclusive)
by Lux Chen and Cynthia Rowell

Ai Weiwei (courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio)

Ai Weiwei (courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio)

Artist, activist, filmmaker, social-media guru, Ai Weiwei consistently uses his work to push boundaries and resist borders. The most famous contemporary artist from China began his life as an exile, growing up in a remote labor camp in Xinjiang Province in the Gobi Desert with his entire persecuted family, where they endured austere conditions. After returning to Beijing in 1976, Ai soon became a founder of the avant-garde Stars Group. Later, whether as a street artist in New York or the mastermind of the Beijing East Village artistic community, Ai continued engaging in and advocating for experimental art in China.

Ai’s works spread across multiple media. He is adept at uniting art and activism to challenge social injustice and advocate for humanity. In particular, the iconoclastic artist emerged prominently in the Chinese consciousness with his Citizens’ Investigation into the thousands of student deaths due to shoddy construction of school buildings in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Despite government intervention, Ai and his studio collected the names of dead students from the devastated area and posted them online. In his art, Ai allowed the reality to speak for itself. He made the films Little Girl’s Cheeks (2008) and Disturbing the Peace (2009) to document his investigation and confrontation with the state apparatus. After being severely beaten by the local police, Ai named his exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Berlin So Sorry (after a clichéd government response to the issue of disaster causality) and devoted several works to the national tragedy. His installation “Straight” (2008–12) untangles thousands of tons of steel bars mangled by the quake; Remembering (2009) filled the facade of Haus der Kunst with nine thousand red, blue, green, and yellow backpacks composing the sentence (in Chinese) “She had lived happily on this earth for seven years,” a quote from a heartbroken mother about her dead daughter.

The Citizens’ Investigation put Ai in the spotlight of state surveillance that finally led to his eighty-one-day detention without charge in 2011. Ai has since relocated to Berlin, where he witnessed the global refugee crisis from its epicenter, and responded passionately and creatively, including a five-column installation wrapping the facade of Berlin’s Konzerthaus with over fourteen thousand orange life vests salvaged from Lesbos, Greece (2016); covering his “Zodiac Headssculptures on display in Prague in golden thermal blankets (2016); re-creating the image of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, who drowned off the coast of Turkey, with his own body (2016); and organizing an eight-mile “Walk of Compassionthrough London hand-in-hand with the sculptor Anish Kapoor (2015). His installation “Law of the Journey(2017) features a two-hundred-foot inflatable boat carrying 258 refugee figures; Laundromat (2016) filled a New York City gallery with meticulously arranged clothing and personal mementos discarded by refugees in makeshift camps in Idomeni, Greece. The multisite, multimedia exhibition Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” now on display in public spaces throughout New York City, is Ai’s powerful response to the escalating xenophobia plaguing our world. His feature documentary Human Flow for the first time merges the sweeping planetary scope of Ai’s art with his humanistic, cinema-verité directorial style to lead us on an epic journey into the greatest human displacement since World War II. [See Catherine Russell’s article, “Migrant Cinema: Scenes of Displacement,” in the Winter 2017 issue of Cineaste, which discusses Ai’s Human Flow as well as several other documentaries on the refugee crisis.]

Cineaste interviewed Ai in October 2017 in the office of Magnolia Pictures in Manhattan. In addition to premiering Human Flow, Ai was also in New York to speak at The New Yorker Festival (October 8) and to open his public art project Good Fences Make Good Neighbors (October 12, 2017–February 11, 2018) as well as the documentary film series “Turn It On: China on Film 2000–2017” (October 13, 2017–January 4, 2018), which he curated with Wang Fen as the signature public program in conjunction with the exhibition Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World at Guggenheim Museum.” Despite his busy schedule, Ai gave gracious and heartfelt answers to our questions.—Lux Chen

Refugees walking near Idomeni Camp, Greece in Human Flow.

Refugees at the Jordan-Syria border in  Human Flow.

Refugees at the Jordan-Syria border in Human Flow.

Cineaste: Human Flow, in your words, is a “personal journey with refugees.” You’ve been a displaced person in your own country, but that is not mentioned in the film. Would you talk about your personal experience?

Ai Weiwei: I was born in 1957. The same year my father, Ai Qing, who was a poet—the most famous poet in China—was exiled to a labor camp, along with half a million intellectuals throughout the country. So, my family had been sent away from Beijing to remote Xinjiang Province, where I grew up. During the Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966, the situation deteriorated and my father was ordered to clean public toilets. I was still in school, but I remember the humiliation of the insults and the harsh conditions when we were discriminated against because we were “anti-revolutionaries” or “enemies of the people.” Those in power made up negative and untrue images about us. What I experienced in my childhood helps me to understand that once you are being discriminated against, it is almost impossible to survive the popular assumption about who you are. There is no escape. Take the refugee situation today: there are over 65.5 million people being forced out of their homes. None of the refugees, not a single one, wants to leave their home, and not a single one of them does not want to go back where they belong. They speak different languages; they have very different religions, habits, and cultures, but all of them are displaced by war, famine, environmental change, among other reasons. As a result, they have lost everything.

Cineaste: Right now, since you presently live in Germany, do you feel displaced from China, and do you want to go back?

Ai: As a political dissident, I faced tremendous danger and difficulty in a place I am supposed to call home. I had been put in jail. It’s not even real jail: I had been kidnapped. I was forbidden to have any connection with my lawyer or family. I encountered police violence and suffered a serious, life-threatening injury. My studio in Shanghai was torn down right after it had been built. They levied a fifteen-million-yuan tax on me. I was living under soft detention for years, under constant surveillance and unable to travel outside the country. I can say I’ve been pushed out simply because I’ve given my opinion. I’m an artist, but the channels for self-expression are very limited in China. My name is blocked on the entire Internet in China. Even if I use a fake name, the authorities can find out and my posts will disappear. Most foreign Websites are inaccessible in China, including Twitter and Facebook. It is like I do not exist. That’s why I say that I have been forced out.

Two women pictured in Mosul, Iraq in  Human Flow.

Two women pictured in Mosul, Iraq in Human Flow.

Cineaste: You studied at the Beijing Film Academy in the late Seventies, yet when you came to New York, you went a different route, not taking up film again until 2003 when you made the road movies around Beijing. How is it that you returned to film?

Ai: During my struggles as an artist, I have always tried to find the right language to express my message or concept. I studied film, but I never finished. I stayed in film school for two years before going to the United States. In China back then, simply making a film was not possible because all the studios belonged to the Communist Party and the only films you could make were propaganda. At that time, it was not so attractive, nor very practical, for me to work under such conditions. So I went to the United States to try to become an artist. But that is also quite impossible for immigrants. To survive is difficult enough, and I didn’t know the language, so I just spent time in New York. I didn’t do much, but I did start to take some photographs, including of demonstrations in Washington Square Park in 1988, which I also participated in. Now I’m installing a public sculpture [part of the citywide “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” exhibition] under the arch.

Demonstration in Washington Square Park in 1988. (Photo taken by/courtesy of Ai Weiwei)

Cineaste: So, you were already an activist or a dissident even when you were in New York?

Ai: Oh, yes, long before that, even when I was still in China. In 1979, when I belonged to the earliest avant-garde movement in China called the Stars Group, we exhibited our paintings in front of the National Gallery and the police confiscated all of them. It’s in my blood to try to be different, or to try to create my own form or language, to define my world. It’s not something foreign to me; it’s very natural. I have this character, but only when I find the right tool—for example, when I started to work on the Internet, in 2005. At that time, I didn’t know how to type. I had never touched a computer, but I learned. I learned very fast and started to post on average three articles a day. It’s more than any journalist can do, I guess, and in the following three or four years, I wrote about 250,000 words.

Cineaste: The Internet was crucial in your growth as an activist?

Ai: Yes. They shut down all my blogs because I became too influential, with a readership of over twenty-seven million. People would repost my writing, causing a daily riot on the Internet. The state decided this had to be shut down. Since then, I cannot have a blog in China anymore. During that time, I also made many films. I would edit and put them on the Internet. I never thought there was a possibility to show them. I also had no interest whatsoever in making a film through official channels.

Cineaste: In the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012), you said (in Mandarin): “Freedom is such a wonderful thing that once you experienced it, it would root in your heart and nobody could take it away.” What is your understanding of this life-changing freedom? How does it impact your art?  

Ai: Freedom comes from struggle. Freedom does not exist if the struggle is empty. Freedom is not an absolute condition, but a result of resistance. The satisfaction of this struggle, in fact, gives shape to our lives. Life does not originally take a form of freedom; only through the process of resistance does this form take shape. At other times, life is just an empty frame requiring freedom to fill it, which requires constant effort. To fight for freedom is to fight against the political, ideological, or social structures imprisoning the individual.

Ai Weiwei with a refugee at the Jordan–Syria border in Human Flow.

Cineaste: Has your stance on humanity developed in the course of your career? In your early works—e.g., Study of Perspective (1995–2003) or Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995)—you often appeared as an outlaw, a lone wolf fighting against an unjust system with a defiant stance. Your recent documentaries, such as Human Flow and those about the Sichuan earthquake, are more concerned with the human condition as a whole. Is there a change in your focus from individualism to collectivity? Why?

Ai: This is an accurate observation. In my case, I have created works focusing on personal struggles and individual situations. But for the Citizens’ Investigation into the Sichuan earthquake and Human Flow, both cases could be seen as tragic for society, as opposed to just an individual. I was astonished by the massive casualties and the impact those situations had on humanity. I had to calm down and rationally examine and learn about what had happened to the system and to our culture—to see humanity as a whole.

If under these difficult situations we don’t arrive at a more profound understanding of collectivity—about our human condition—the argument for individual cases becomes less convincing.

Cineaste: Human Flow presents the human condition on an epic scale. It is also an example par excellence of collective filmmaking. What gave you the first spark for the project?

Director Ai Weiwei in Human Flow.

Ai: On my initial trip to Greece, to visit the island where many refugees were arriving, I started with my iPhone. It dawned on me that filming is a natural thing for me. I needed my studio team to also come to Lesbos. Then I realized that one film team was not enough because we had to visit many other locations. We sent out four, five, six…ten teams to different locations and that’s how this all started.

Cineaste: It must have been a lot of work to coordinate filming in so many different locations.

Ai: I’m very good at coordinating. I organized the Citizens’ Investigation during the Sichuan earthquake. It was extremely difficult to find out the details about the five thousand students who died during the earthquake. The state police arrested us a few dozen times. On another occasion, I also organized for one thousand Chinese citizens to go to Germany as part of an art project called “Fairytale [2007]. I’m an architect. All architectural practice is about coordinating. So, for this kind of project, I’m the perfect person to do it. [Everyone laughs.]

Cineaste: You were talking before about your struggle as an artist to always find the right language. What is the specific struggle in this film?

Ai: The struggle with Human Flow is with its structure and its content. Refugees, for me, are not an original problem. It’s a human struggle that has lasted as long as humans have existed, even before there were nations. Out of Africa, out of Egypt, before biblical times, and during the last century, especially after World War II. It has never stopped. And, of course, new border fences and walls have been built. When the Berlin Wall fell, there were eleven such structures in the world; now there are seventy. Soon, President Trump is going to build a very long wall along the United States–Mexico border... Such a topic has a long history, involving very complicated logic, different religions, mixed conditions. Refugees can result from war, environmental change, famine—all kinds of causes create the human flow.

We had to come up with some kind of structure so that we could find the most profound logic to illustrate the human flow. To understand from a historical point of view, we studied all kinds of literature and poetry relating to the topic. We looked at what was written in the Bible, the Koran, and how Buddhists talked about human migration, so as to put everything in the context of human knowledge. At the same time, we had to deal with the real difficulties, the sadness and cruelty confronting individual human beings, among them the elderly, babies, and children, and to give them enough space to show their faces, their bodies, and their voices. All those things needed a new structure to hold everything together.

Mother and son at the Shariya refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan in Human Flow.

Cineaste: The film starts with refugees first landing in Europe, follows their hard journeys, but does not end exactly with homecoming or settling down. What effect do you hope to achieve through the narrative structure?

Ai: From the beginning, we understood that we were coping with a situation that we would be incapable of resolving—there would be no tidy conclusion. However, the effort would remain the same. It’s a struggle just like every individual refugee’s struggle. Our film sought to protect and extend life in the most difficult and dangerous way. At the same time, it doesn’t clearly understand what path fate would lead these lives toward. Nothing is guaranteed. There isn’t a right move.

In the film, we have largely tried to illustrate human movement by using aerial views, which are shot by drones flying high above the human visual perspective. This would not work, however, if we did not also have close-range, intimate footage shot with iPhones, to give a layer of sensitivity and immediacy. In combination, these two shooting styles solve the problems presented by the structure of normal narrative storytelling, creating poetic imagery that can freely jump from scene to scene. The structure of the film, with the shots from a distance as well as those shot up close, maximize the strength of both our visual and emotional ability to capture these unthinkable and illogical sequences.

The structure of the film is open like a river. There is no beginning or end. It can be circuitous, flowing, rapid or peaceful, but it is only fragmentary. It is always part of the whole history. Human movement will neither stop nor fully disappear because it is tied to human nature. As long as humans exist, there will be a human flow because we are animals with free will. People's free will far exceeds the power of the wind, clouds, and rivers. Our movie tries to create a structure and a kind of rhythm from language, like endless waves in the sea.

Cineaste: You embarked on the same journey as the refugees, interacting with them and trying to help, while many other documentary makers would be an “objective” observer behind the camera. Could you explain your decision to be very present on camera?

Ai: I don’t think any documentary is objective. By claiming so, it would totally withdraw personal effort or personal understanding. It would not be real because this is really coming from one individual’s effort. It’s not the History Channel; it’s not something that has a conclusion. I want people to feel this real connection, to experience the irony and absurdity of the situation, to see the direct involvement. Personal involvement is important because the problem confronting today’s society is that we have accepted what is taking place as status quo, rather than to question it and to engage. That indifference does not liberate us, but instead cuts us off from reality and puts us in a very vulnerable condition because we become apathetic and hopeless.

Cineaste: Is personal involvement a new calling for the artist in the age of globalization?

Ai: I think the role of the artist never changes. Artists always work with humans’ innocent eyes or hearts, trying to have sensitivity even before we can make a judgment. It is the artist’s responsibility to open up the heart and to step into situations people normally would consider dangerous or a violation of some kind of common judgment. An artist is always putting himself in a condition where there is conflict or danger. That is the only kind of art I can appreciate; otherwise, it is just an irrelevant decoration of our time. I think that in every progressive society, or any society requiring a new definition, art should stand out by creating a new language to reflect the times.

Refugees facing an uncertain future in Human Flow

A refugee boat crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

Cineaste: Your film shares images with some Chinese independent documentaries: images of destruction, demolition, ruins, and the drifters. While Chinese independent documentary makers like Zhao Liang and Xu Tong aim to show the ugliness of the reality and the misery of the human condition, in this film you present a warmer attitude; there is a strange kind of beauty in these images, especially the drone shots from above. The camps almost look like art.

Ai: A film reflects the filmmaker’s inner world. My worldview is quite arrogant, you know. I cherish beauty or aesthetics even in the worst conditions. I think that is related to the best part of our humanity—we are dreamers, we have imagination. We are not satisfied with what we see, but are always trying to establish the proper relationship between our work and reality. I am not going to give what is already a tragedy a dirty look. I think that, even in the worst conditions, there is still beauty, and that’s what I always defend.

Cineaste: This documentary was produced in conjunction with Participant Media, a company that focuses on producing a social impact through film and prompts viewers to take further action after leaving the cinema. Human Flow does an excellent job of showing the massive scale of the refugee crisis, which could leave some viewers overwhelmed and unsure where or how to get involved. Are you encouraged by the global rallies of people speaking out in support of refugees, even while governments are exacerbating the problem by imposing further restrictions? Your film is very focused on the power of the people, with the majority of the interviewees being refugees, volunteers, or NGO workers.

Ai: The film began with an individual’s conscience and involvement. It ended up with a much broader existence through the help of others, especially in conjunction with Participant Media, which has extended our effort in raising awareness and involvement with NGOs and other social organizations that are actively defending human rights. It was crucial for this film to generate this kind of effort. We all understand that, without an individual’s involvement, the words “civil liberty” are empty and freedom for any society cannot be achieved. I am happy that the film has provided a platform for further discussions and has inspired individuals to become involved, both emotionally and by way of direct action against this global situation.

Human Flow is distributed theatrically in the United States by Amazon Studios. All photographs except for ones noted are courtesy of Amazon Studios.

For more information and to take action, visit the film's official website.

Ai Weiwei's official website.

Lux Chen is a Chinese-English bilingual writer, translator, cinephile, and feminist looking for opportunities. 

Cynthia Rowell is an assistant editor at Cineaste

Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 1

Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine