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Ai Weiwei captures the global refugee crisis in ‘Human Flow’

International artist and political activist Ai Weiwei has long mixed art and protest, gravity and playfulness. Now he's turned his creative powers to the global refugee crisis with a new documentary called "Human Flow," which opens nationwide on Friday. Jeffrey Brown interviews Ai about what drew his interest as well as the state of free expression in China.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

      And now: A well-known international artist and political activist turns his creative powers to a global crisis.

    Jeffrey Brown explores “Human Flow,” a documentary by Ai Weiwei which opens in theaters around the country tonight.

  • Ai Weiwei:

    A group picture to see how human rights are being treated globally.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     At the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., portraits of leading dissidents from around the world.

    But they’re rendered in LEGO toys, the mix of art and political protest, gravity and playfulness, for which Ai Weiwei has become internationally renowned.

  • Ai Weiwei:

    It takes time for people to realize, but, of course, you have to introduce a new language. Otherwise, what are you offering to the world, it’s nothing but a repeat of the same kind of aesthetics, which is not interesting at all.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     The Chinese artist likes to think big, and now he has created a film titled “Human Flow” about an enormous problem, the refugee crisis, on a vast canvas, shot in 23 countries around the globe.

  • Ai Weiwei:

    I think that will make a big difference, to show people the total landscape, and so they have a chance to think and to make a more profound judgment.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     The film begins on the Greek island of Lesbos, where many Syrian refugees have come to shore.

  • Woman:

    (Through interpreter) How many more days can I live like this?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     And then takes the viewer to humanitarian trouble spots around the world.

    There’s no narration, and just a handful of interviews with the displaced and experts.

  • Man:

    As you see, there’s no bath, no showering facilities. The hygienic situation is very bad.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     The artist himself is occasionally seen interacting with people in desperate situations.

    Much is familiar from news stories, but Ai wants to capture the big picture.

  • Ai Weiwei:

     It’s a symphony. It’s not, you know, solo. You can see the humanity much larger, very different scales and very different skin, or different race, and for different reasons, they have been pushed out from their home.

    So, there is less individual cases, because we see this individual type of film quite often, short films about one person, or one child, or to talk about their story.

    So, I was much — ambitious to know the global situation.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     That global situation, some 65 million on the move, more every day, displaced by war, poverty, environmental disruption, leaving governments in richer countries wrestling with a response.

    For Ai Weiwei, though, all this is personal. His father was a renowned poet who was forced to leave Beijing with his family to be reeducated in a rural village during China’s cultural revolution.

  • Ai Weiwei: 

    My father spent 20 years in a very remote area, and forbidden to write words. So I have a natural understanding about people who are forcefully leave their home, and their fate can be really decided by themselves, and they’re constantly feeling of uncertainty and distrust.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     Among Ai Weiwei’s best-known projects, helping design the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

    But other work has led to continuing battles with Chinese authorities, including exposing poor construction that contributed to the death of thousands of children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He spent 81 days in prison in 2011 and wasn’t allowed to leave the country for the next four years.

    You have always talked about not separating art from activism, so what is this film? Is it a work of art? Is it a work of activism?

  • Ai Weiwei:

    It’s art, it’s a documentary, it’s activism. It’s all combined.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     It is?

  • Ai Weiwei: 

    Yes, it’s always combined. I think, as a human being, you cannot separate this. And for many people, maybe they don’t have to be — come to this conscious level. But, for me as artist, my duty is to express myself and to build this kind of communication with the audience

    So I’m always interested in the issues which relate to most people, what affects our humanity today, and what is our politics in relating to those issues, and which I feel I’m very privileged to have a chance to speak out.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     For some, he goes too far at times, inserting himself into others’ tragedies. A photo recreating the body of a drowned Syrian infant refugee on Lesbos drew derision and scorn.

    Do you worry about crossing a line of art and tragedy, or how people will see that?

  • Ai Weiwei:

    My art, in principle, is about crossing the lines. If I don’t cross the lines of the common assumption, I will never make a single piece of art.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     But you do have a privileged position, as an internationally famous artist, to come in and show these things.

  • Ai Weiwei: 

    My privilege is, I have to bear the responsibility for the people who are voiceless, the people lost their life before they understand the world, and people have to die in this ocean.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     Ai Weiwei lives and works mostly in Berlin now. I asked about the situation for free expression in his homeland of China.

  • Ai Weiwei:

    I’m as free as a bird.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

      You’re as free as a bird?

  • Ai Weiwei:

    Yes, but a bird always can be put in a cage. Many of my friends are being held in jail without trial, and many of them even disappeared. Nobody knows where they are. And those people will never have the same kind of voice as I have. So I have such a responsibility to speak for them.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     Do you feel protected by the international position that you have?

  • Ai Weiwei:

    It’s very hard to say. It’s like to ask a boxer why, after 12 rounds, they’re still standing there. Who knows? The next punch maybe can just knock him down, you know, and maybe he’s pushing the limit. So it’s very hard to say.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     Ai Weiwei will continue his provocations this fall in a large-scale public art exhibition throughout New York’s five boroughs. It’s titled “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” and again explores immigration and borders.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Washington.

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