Ai Weiwei: 'Refugee crisis is a political tool for populists'

In an interview with DW, China's dissident artist Ai Weiwei has said that some groups are trying to incite hatred against immigrants in Germany and Europe, and that the world needs to rethink the idea of humanity.

DW: In a recent interview with the media, you described the current mood in Germany and Europe as a reflection of the 1930s. Could you elaborate on trends and events that made you feel that civil society in Europe was becoming hostile?

Ai Weiwei: In 2015, Chinese authorities gave me back my passport and I was allowed to travel abroad. Almost immediately after, I went to the Greek island of Lesbos. I gradually became more involved with the refugee crisis. I visited refugee camps in Germany and in Greece. Our team also went to camps in France and in Italy. Altogether we traveled to over 20 nations and dozens of the largest refugee camps while filming Human Flow. My understanding of the refugee crisis developed from those experiences.

From the start of the project, I realized that Europe was refusing those who were most vulnerable and needed rescue. Different nations and political parties set up obstacles to frustrate and push refugees away. The number of global refugees has continued to grow since we made the film, now reaching almost 70 million, according to the UN.

Read more: 'Ai Weiwei Drifting': China's most famous, displaced artist

12 important films about refugees

40 refugee camps, 23 countries: Human Flow

Ai Weiwei's documentary Human Flow presents the problem in a globalized context. The Chinese artist aims to draw attention to the refugees' plight, and generate compassion for them. His documentary premiered at the Venice Film Festival and is now released in Germany.

12 important films about refugees

Swiss perspective: The Boat is Full

The title of the film The Boat is Full (1980) has become idiomatic. In this movie, Swiss director Markus Imhoof depicted the fate of six people who had fled from the Nazi regime. At the time, films about refugees were typically set in the context of a historical conflict.

12 important films about refugees

African conflicts: Hotel Rwanda

Many European films featuring refugees describe the fate of people fleeing to Europe. In comparison, there are way less movies set in Africa, dealing with the causes of flight and migration. In Hotel Rwanda (2004), director Terry George from Northern Ireland focuses on an episode of the Rwandan genocide from 1994.

12 important films about refugees

Border conflicts: Riverbanks

Two years ago, Greek director Panos Karkanevatos shocked audiences with his film Riverbanks. Here, refugees taking off from Turkey with the aim of reaching Greece have to face several problems at once at the border river Evros. Smugglers exploit their situation, and the region has been mined during earlier conflicts between Turkey and Greece.

12 important films about refugees

Flight to England: Welcome

The French film Welcome (2009), by director Philippe Lioret, focuses on the fate of an Iraqi-Kurdish boy who wants to cross the Channel to Britain. Another character in the film is a French swimming teacher who supports the boy. It's a moving drama on humanity and friendship.

12 important films about refugees

The Kaurismäki touch: Le Havre

Like his colleague Philippe Lioret, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki tells the story of a refugee boy trying to get from France to Britain. In Le Havre (2001), Idrissa from Gabon makes the acquaintance of an older and unsuccessful writer. And like in Welcome, the film depicts how a relation develops between the man and the boy.

12 important films about refugees

Another Kaurismäki: The Other Side of Hope

In 2017, the Finnish director moved his audiences once again with a heartwarming film on the same topic. The Other Side of Hope premiered at the Berlinale. The protagonist is a Syrian refugee stranded in Helsinki. In scenes showing an encounter between Khaled and textile merchant Waldemar, the film showcases Kaurismäki's typical bizarre sense of humor.

12 important films about refugees

A comedy: Willkommen bei den Hartmanns

Last year, German director Simon Verhoeven daringly approached the difficult topic with a satirical touch. His comedy turned out to be a hit in the country dealing with a strong influx of refugees. Willkommen bei den Hartmanns (Welcome to the Hartmanns') tells the story of a German family which has welcomed a refugee in their home.

12 important films about refugees

When young and old meet: Nightshapes

Long before the current debates about the refugee crisis emerged, German director Andreas Dresen shot his film Nightshapes in 1999. It's all about a German businessman encountering a young refugee boy from Angola in Berlin. The latter immediately starts to cling to the old man, initiating an unusual friendship.

12 important films about refugees

From one conflict zone to the next: Dheepan

Two years ago, French director Jacques Audiard was awarded a Palme d'Or in Cannes for his refugee drama Dheepan. It tells the story of a family from Sri Lanka that has found a new home in France, in a rough Parisian suburban housing project. The refugees face another type of conflicts in their new home.

12 important films about refugees

Welcome to Europe: Mediterranea

The film Mediterranea from 2015 shows what two African refugees have to go through shortly after their arrival in Europe. American-Italian director Jonas Carpignano depicts the fate of two friends, Ayiva and Abas from Burkina Faso, who made it to southern Italy, where they face more hostility and violence.

12 important films about refugees

A disastrous reality: Fire at Sea

Last year, Italian director Gianfranco Rosi shocked viewers at the Berlinale with his documentary Fire at Sea. The winner of the Golden Bear depicted the fate of refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean to Europe. Some of them die along the way. Although Ai Weiwei's Human Flow is more ambitious in its expanse, critics found this documentary more convincing.

As someone who came out of a so-called communist nation, I believed that Europe would protect its most valuable ideologies — respect for human rights, human dignity and freedom of speech. My research on the refugee condition led me to a very different, almost shocking conclusion. What I saw was Europe's developed nations — with their tremendous resources and capabilities — attempted to avoid bearing any responsibility.

With the deterioration of political ideology and growing economic difficulties, there is an effort to blame outsiders, to become more exclusive and fan hatred. The refugee crisis has become a political tool wielded by populists and right-wing movements all over the world, including in Europe.

Read more: Artist Ai Weiwei says goodbye to Berlin after three years in exile

We can only study the current situation with the lessons of the past. We can see how populism gradually led to the Nazi movement of the 1930s and 40s. We suffered not only a great loss of life, but also our fundamental trust in society and a belief in the goodness that humanity can provide. That loss takes much longer to restore than any economic depression.

What do you think governments in Europe, including the German government, should do in order to restore the respect for human rights in civil society?

It is essential and urgent for society to rethink what humanity is. We must strongly emphasize that humanity is one. We are living in an ever-shrinking global village. Physical borders cannot stop human struggle or state and business interests.

Related Subjects

The West has profited from globalization more than anyone else. Without continuing to protect the essential values of human dignity and human rights, we could easily see society fall apart; political leaders and business leaders must be conscious and alert to the possibility that the establishment could be reduced to ground zero.

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42:31 mins.
DocFilm | 27.01.2018

Ai Weiwei Drifting

There have been some media reports about your plan to relocate to the US. Could you tell us why you decided to move and also about the years you spent in Germany?

I intend to establish a studio in an English speaking society. I spent over ten years living in the United States and am familiar with the culture in New York. That is why I am seeking a studio in the New York area. That is not to say I will give up my German studio, which will always function as my base in Europe.

I have many strong feelings about Germany. I like the country's rationality and it has strongly defended human rights and free speech. When I was living under soft detention in China, the German government and civil society steadfastly demanded my release. I was also given the opportunity to teach at the Universität der Künste in Berlin.

I spend most of my time in my studio conducting research and planning my exhibitions. I have little contact with German society, but I can still sense strong negative feelings toward foreigners. In some, there is the deep belief that those who come from elsewhere are not contributing to society; that they are not making society more colorful and lively both culturally and economically and are a burden instead.

Read more: Ai Weiwei's film 'Human Flow' makes Oscar shortlist

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02:51 mins.
DW News | 10.07.2018

Exiled Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on Liu Xia being allowed t...

Advocating for human rights through art has been a big part of your career. What inspiration did you find in Germany?

Recently, Germany announced that it would stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia following the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Germany made a clear gesture to cut itself off from an evil act carried out by a dark society. This is never an easy response.

England, France, and the United States view the journalist's murder as something that can be ignored, or as something separate from their business interests. It's so rare to see a political leader like Chancellor Angela Merkel stand out on the right side of history in defense of essential principles. Germany should value this because a horrible price was paid to learn this lesson.

As we head into 2019, are there any major projects planned for the upcoming year?

I will have a major exhibition in Düsseldorf next year at K20/K21 — the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen. It will be my largest exhibition in Europe. At the same time, I am producing several films on human rights, social justice and environmental concerns.

The interview was conducted by William Yang.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

'Good Fences Make Good Neighbors'

Ai Weiwei knows what it means to be a refugee. He was persecuted in his homeland China. His fall 2017 show in New York deals with the global refugee crisis through artwork distributed over the city's five boroughs. One of the largest of his installations, entitled "Gilded Cage," is located on the edge of Central Park (above). It invites viewers to enter and exit it by passing through turnstiles.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

Focusing on refugees

His largest work to date, "Law of the Journey," is a 70-meter-long inflatable boat with 258 faceless refugee figures that was shown in Prague. Ever since he moved to Berlin in 2015, Ai Weiwei has worked on numerous projects related to the plight of refugees, often meeting them personally. His documentary "Human Flow" was up for the Golden Lion Best Film award at the 2017 Venice Film Festival.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

Art or self-representation?

In late 2015 the image of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed up lifeless on a beach made headlines around the world. In January 2016, Indian news magazine India Today published the above image of Ai Weiwei on the Greek island of Lesbos. While some praised the image as artistic activism, not everyone found the visual protest against European refugee politics ethically acceptable.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

Luther from Ai Weiwei's perpsective

The exhibition "Luther and the avant-garde" features contemporary art. According to the 16th century religious reformer himself, images are neither good nor bad; they can inspire belief and prompt contemplation of God. Martin Luther's perspective on artistic freedom paved the way for modern art. Above, Ai Weiwei displays his take on individuality, religion and resistance in the exhibition.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

Political art with Legos

In 2015, Lego refused to deliver Ai Weiwei a bulk order of the toys on political grounds. Supporters around the world sent millions of pieces in protest. Ai had already used Legos for a work of art on freedom of expression, shown in the abandoned prison of Alcatraz. It featured over 175 portraits of political activists and prisoners of conscience, such as Edward Snowden and Nelson Mandela.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

'Berlin, I Love You'

During the 2015 Berlinale film festival, Ai Weiwei directed a movie which depicts his long-distance relationship with his six-year-old son, Ai Lao, who lives with his mother in Berlin. He delivered his instructions for the short film using satellites and via Skype, a logistical tour de force.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

First-ever solo exhibition in China

Ai Weiwei was allowed to hold a solo exhibition in Beijing in June 2015: This was seen as a sign that the government was easing on his case. Although he avoided direct political works in the show, the authorities pushed back its opening date by a week, as they did not want it to be accessible to the public before June 4 — the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

Sunflower seeds

This is part of another famous work which counts millions of pieces. These sunflower seeds are deceptively realistic, yet they were all handcrafted in porcelain by hundreds of artisans. The installation comments on the current "Made in China" economy and also refers to Mao Zedong’s brutal Cultural Revolution (1966—76), where sunflowers were typically used in propaganda images.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

Sign of the zodiac

There are different versions of this installation, "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads," which features 12 animal heads reproducing the traditional Chinese zodiac once part of a fountain clock at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. The sculptures were looted after French and British troops destroyed the imperial retreat in 1850. In June 2015, a bronze version of the work was sold for 3.4 million pounds.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

Preserving tradition

In 2014, Ai Weiwei held a huge solo exhibition in Berlin, which he also managed without leaving China. These 6,000 wooden stools filling the atrium of the Martin-Gropius Bau museum, collected throughout the countryside of his Homeland, did make the trip. Wooden stools have been used for centuries in households, and the artist sees them as a symbol of the disappearing traditions of rural China.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

From two wheels to four

Private car ownership is growing exponentially in China, while the bike fleet is declining. Cyclists are being blamed for causing accidents and congestion. This work is made of 150 bicycles and also commemorates Yang Jia, a Beijing resident arrested for riding an unlicensed bicycle. During his detention he was assaulted and accused of murdering six police officers, leading him to a death sentence.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

Artist with gas mask

Ai Weiwei constantly posts pictures of himself on the Internet, such as this one. Air pollution is a major source of protest in China. Social media has become an integral part of the artist's work, allowing him to reach a very wide audience and establish his reputation as a dissident — inspiring many others. He was the recipient of Amnesty International's 2015 Ambassador of Conscience Award.