It’s a torrential day in Sheffield, made worse by the fact that my umbrella collapses on the walk across the city to the hotel where I’m to interview the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. He’s waiting for me in a nondescript meeting room, typically low-key himself in a grey jacket and dark-blue sweatshirt, his greying beard positively well-mannered compared to some of its more unruly outings. In front of him is a notebook, in which Ai happens to be drawing a quite luxurious umbrella.
It seems impossible for Ai not to respond to his environment in some way – whether it’s this amusingly prescient drawing or the Instagram photos of everyone he meets, or a personal and artistic engagement with injustice. It’s for the last that he’s in Sheffield for the documentary film festival Doc/Fest, at which he’s presenting his second film about the refugee crisis, The Rest.
In contrast to 2017’s epic Human Flow, with it’s A-Z of global hotspots and dizzying array of talking heads and statistics, the new film focusses on the horrific deadlock as Europe began closing its borders against thousands of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. The cameras are now squarely pointed at the victims and their often heart-breaking stories.
The clue to the second film’s content is in the title. Having shot 900 hours of footage for Human Flow, Ai felt the material contained “a lot of other possibilities”, so set out with his editor Wang Feng (who is also his partner and mother of his son) to craft a new, different documentary. “So there is ‘the rest’ of the footage,” he says, “but I also think the refugees are treated like the leftovers of society. They are not ‘us’. We know they’re there, but we try not to look.”
With Ai and his team following refugees as they’re driven from one unwelcoming country to another –Italy, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, France —the result is an angrier, even more disturbing piece of work than the first. Among the many shocking scenes, the most appalling may be the tear-gassing of hundreds of refugees, including children, on the Greek/Macedonian border.
Ai has spoken of feeling “deeply connected” to the refugee experience, having grown up in exile with his late father, the poet Ai Qing, and experiencing extreme hardship alongside him in a labour camp. The family were exiled from Beijing when Ai was one — first to the labour camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang province, in northeast China, then to the desert region of Xinjiang in the northwest, where they remained for 16 years. They were allowed to return to Beijing in 1976.
So was such deep immersion, involving two years filming in 40 different camps, emotionally difficult for him? On the contrary, says the 61-year-old. “As Nietzsche says, ‘All too human’. As an artist, as someone from China, someone who has been active in defending human rights, freedom of speech, I’m very much trying to [experience] reality. How much do I know about the world – in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, in Bangladesh, in Gaza, on the Mexican border? I just want to expand my knowledge and my capacity for feeling.” Yes, he admits that it is “overwhelming”, but equally that “it’s not my choice.”
He suggests a quite terrifying exercise in empathy. “Maybe you’re a sportsman. You can swim 100m, with all kind of styles. But if you’re dropped in the ocean, what are you gonna do with your perfect skills? All you want to do is survive. So [imagine] those boys, never been put in the water, but suddenly the boat is sinking – 50 people, 100 people, 700 people are just like dumplings in the boiling water.
“If they’re lucky, some will be rescued. But a lot of people refused to rescue them. This is a war crime.”
While he won’t be drawn on Brexit (“I’d like to know more”) he does lament the European-wide tide of intolerance and the continent’s crackdown on accepting refugees. “By refusing these people, eventually you hurt yourself, your own understanding of society. We all know we’re the same. What they want is very simple: safety, the right to work, some care about the community. If a society which is so prosperous, with such a privileged condition, cannot share or care or even understand those demands, that’s a true tragedy for Europe.”
He doesn’t believe that his work influences politicians, but “the people who care and already have it in their heart to want to be influenced.” Melanie Iredale, Doc/Fest’s interim director, says that the festival’s predominantly young audience find Ai inspirational. “He’s really significant as an artist, and he’s really significant as an activist. And for me, documentary lies in the sweet spot in the middle. The Rest is a great piece of work.”
Ai is about to finish a third refugee film, this time turning the spotlight on the Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh. The subject has dominated Ai’s time since leaving China for Berlin in 2015, after years of intimidation. High-profile criticism of the Chinese government came at a cost, including a savage beating by police in 2009 (for his involvement in investigating the student death toll of the Sichuan earthquake) that was believed to be the cause of a brain haemorrhage, a highly controversial, 81-day secret detention in 2011 and the withholding of his passport.
“When Chinese police arrested me,” he recalls, “they said, ‘You’re not a lawyer, but you’re doing a lawyer’s job. You’re not a reporter, but you’re doing a reporter’s job. You’re just an artist, focus on your art. Why are you doing this? It has nothing to do with you’.”
Does he see any difference between his art and his activism? “It’s not the same thing, but I will say that without my experience, my sensitivity, my knowledge, or my curiosity, I would not even have the desire to make so-called art. It gives me the courage to do what I do.”
It’s hardly surprising that Ai was chosen by a grouping of UK arts organisations and human rights charities to create the signature work for Fly the Flag, a project marking the 70th anniversary of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights. Between 24-30 June, people will display the flag that Ai has designed at events around the world, reaffirming that landmark international commitment in 1948.
© Helen Maybanks
Appropriately, Ai’s potent symbol – a footprint on a blue background – was inspired by his experience filming refugees. “These unfortunate people have lost everything,” he says. “And very often you see they are barefoot. Even at the poorest time when I was in China, we still had shoes. They might be totally broken – we’d have to repair them by hand – but still you had something under your skin. These people don’t even have that. This is skin directly on earth, on the rocks, on the seashore, on the mud, on the burning hot sand. You see babies like that. They’re no different from animals, with no protection at all.
“So this touched me, but we never really connected it to something that could be symbolic, until I accepted the idea to design the flag. And of course I explained that the footprint was the image with which the first humans recognised themselves.”
The gesture is typical Ai, akin to his symbolic use of lifejackets in exhibitions in Berlin and Vienna, and his Sunflower Seeds installation at Tate Modern in 2010, featuring literally millions of hand-designed porcelain seeds that resonated with ideas about China’s huge population (the interactive effect of which was lost when the Tate identified a health risk in inhaling ceramic dust and banned the public from walking through the installation).
He points out that the UN declaration “was written only because we had been through such a tragic time. What they wrote was very profound and impressive, lightning through the dark sky. But time passes, Europe has been without war for the past 70 years, and China the same, two or three generations in peace. It seems human beings always need tragedy to be alert; otherwise we become lazy, we don’t care anymore, we don’t consciously think of those values that unite us.”
Having been “allowed” to leave his country four years ago, does he regard himself as an exile or a self-exile? “Both. I think artists, if they are fortunate, should be self exiles. That’s the general condition for the artist, because you’re seeking another path, you go through your own journey.
“But I was being forced out. I was under police surveillance all the time, they followed me everywhere, they bugged my phone. Which is fine. If I could still tweet in China I would never come out; it doesn’t matter how difficult it can be. But if they secretly detain me, put me away with no voice, that hurts me the most. That scares me.”
While professing himself content in Berlin, Ai seems he have his eye on London, a city whose continuing diversity he admires. “Tomorrow my son [10-year-old Lao Ai] comes to London. We’re having school interviews,” he reveals. “He has been at international school in Berlin for five years, so this is the moment for him to change. And I want him to be in purely English-speaking surroundings, where he can understand many things. London is different, a fascinating city.
“If he gets into a school I would be here more often,” he adds. “You’ll see me on the street.”
Wang would join their son in London, while Ai would split his time between Berlin and London. Lao has already surprised Ai with his first English sentence. “He said, ‘No more Ai Weiwei.’ So I can see his attitude.” He pauses. “It’s a good title for a book.”
Ai accept the difficulties his life has imposed on his family. “My life never has any certainty. It’s very hard for us to see where is home. When I was with my son in the park in China we had to struggle with police. It’s too much. When I was detained I sent him to Berlin. I tried to call him. He’s very philosophical. He says, “Daddy, I really think the people on the run’ – like me – ‘and the people trying to catch them are the same.’ I say why? He says, ‘Both are running’.”
As I’m leaving, I ask if it’s true that he recently purchased 30 tonnes of buttons from a factory that was closing down in south London.
“Yes, I bought them,” he confirms quite gleefully. “Very crazy. I don’t know exactly how many, thousands and thousands. Some are mother of pearl, beautiful ones, some are plastic, some are wood.”
They’re currently stored in his Berlin warehouse. Does he know what he’s going to do with them? “I don’t. I don’t. I really don’t. Give me ideas.”
But already his own cogs are turning. “I have a little story. During the 1960s my brother departed from Beijing to try to see my father. When the train starts to move, my cousin runs after it and shoves something into his hand. And when my brother opened his hand there were a few buttons.
“You see at that time, in China, if you lost even one button you couldn’t buy another. It was like treasure to have a few different buttons to give to someone who’s going to take a train, for three or four days, to go to the area my father was exiled. So my cousin thought it was important for my brother to have them.
“Now I have 30 tonnes of buttons. It’s almost like revenge on life, right?”
This interview first appeared in The Times