Ai Weiwei at Anderson Ranch: ‘Try to know less, but to care more’
The artist and activist Ai Weiwei traveled to Aspen this week directly from Bangladesh, where he’d been visiting the largest refugee camp in the world.
“It changes my practice,” he said of spending time with refugees, in a talk at Anderson Ranch Arts Center on Wednesday. “If I can be called by any means successful and I cannot by any means help with this kind of condition? Now you feel ashamed. You basically lead a double life. You have two sets of moral systems. That is the challenge.”
Ai was interviewed by Alexandra Munroe, curator for Asian art at the Guggenheim Museum, at Schermer Meeting Hall on the Snowmass Village campus of Anderson Ranch. He is in town to accept the Ranch’s International Artist Award. He also screened his 2017 documentary film, “Human Flow,” about the global refugee crisis, at the Isis Theater on Wednesday evening, and gave a free post-screening talk.
The camp in Bangladesh that Ai came from is currently home to some 900,000 stateless people, including an influx of hundreds of thousands of Muslims driven out of Myanmar in the short time since Ai finished making “Human Flow” last year.
He said he feels called to use his voice, as a globally recognized artist, to amplify the stories of the dispossessed and the 68.5 million migrants currently displaced around the world.
“I’ve never met a group of people so pure,” he said of the camp’s residents. “They really need help, but they’re not even asking for that.”
His success as an artist, he said, makes him responsible to improve the lives of others.
“I view success as an alarm,” he said. “It tells you, you may have to rethink your condition or you may have to take a different kind of approach. It’s a warning.”
Ai emerged on the global stage over the past decade as one of the most prominent and vocal critics of the Chinese government. Since 2011, the government has cracked down on Ai’s dissent and treated him as an enemy of the state — arresting, beating and jailing him on multiple occasions. After barring him from leaving the country for years, they returned his passport in 2015. He has since settled in Berlin.
During his years of detention and house arrest in China, Ai said, he still felt free.
“Even in detention, I think I’m free,” he said. “Because I don’t think anyone can stop your thinking, your understanding, even in the most difficult situation.”
Still, he said, he was deeply saddened to be separated from his son during his years of persecution. Reuniting with the boy in Germany, he said, was what meant the most to him when his passport was returned. (Ai and his girlfriend went rafting on the Roaring Fork River with him this week.)
But, given his lifelong persecution in China — from his childhood in labor camps, where his poet father was sent soon after Ai’s birth, through his own imprisonment in recent years — he does not miss his homeland.
“I never miss anything about China because I never felt China was my home,” he said. “I was always discriminated (against).”
Asked about the current panic in the United States and Europe about the breakdown of the post-war world order, Ai said he hopes for a day when people and governments stop seeing issues like the refugee crisis as regional problems and begin understanding them as human rights issues that affect everyone.
“There is no such thing as an American future or a Chinese future,” he said. “There is only a global future. So we should understand that.”
The rising division and conflict around the world, and the success of fear-driven political campaigns in the U.S. and Europe, he said, are a reaction to globalization and the information overload of the internet. The confusing and rapid change of the internet age, he said, has led to a callousness among the privileged.
“We can’t cope with the situation,” he said. “We simply know too much but we care very little.”
Asked what artists, in particular, can do in response, he called on artists to embrace empathy over intellectualism: “Try to know less but to care more.”
The global community, he argued, is undeniable in the internet age.
“After globalization and the internet, the whole universe is more as one, it’s so much related,” he said. “The border and our understanding of politics is not the same border on the map. It’s much more complicated.”
Ai said that his diverse output as an artist — from documentary film to social media posts, public art installations, gallery and museum exhibitions — is all one body of work that he doesn’t differentiate between.
“In modern society, people give categories and names to certain kinds of activities,” he said. “For me it is one. It’s about human expression. It’s about communication.”
Ai characterized himself as a sort of creative beef cow: “You have to recognize different parts of meat.”
The artist is now beginning to work with Lego bricks — an initiative inspired by his son’s affinity for the toys and by Ai’s desire to explore a new medium. The company, however, attempted to distance itself from him and refused to supply him with bricks for political artwork. This has caused an outcry from museums around the world. His Lego projects are moving forward.
“The Lego company regrets what they said, because it is very hard for them to define what is and what is not political,” he said. “They’re used for ‘Star Wars’ or whatever, that can be considered political.”
As Munroe put it: “I think the Lego company learned what the Chinese government learned, which is, ‘Don’t f— with Ai Weiwei.’”
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The Aspen Winter Words series will host four in-person author talks at Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen and two online-only events.