Ai Weiwei is arguably the best-known contemporary artist alive today. Years of beatings, detention, and house arrest by the Chinese government only fueled his fame in the West. Now living in exile in Germany, the artist has shifted focus from the repressions of his homeland to the global refugee crisis.
"In the year I was born my father was exiled," Weiwei told Reason. "As a poet he was forbidden to write for 20 years. I grew up...being completely discriminated [against] and mistreated. Yes, it is very similar to a refugee's condition."
His debut feature film, Human Flow, which will be released in the U.S. this week, chronicles the physical and emotional journeys of some of the world's 65 million refugees as they flee their homelands. It was shot in over 20 countries.
"It's not only tragic to the refugees," says Weiwei, "but it's rather tragic to humanity, to our understanding about who we are."
Coinciding with the release of the film, Weiwei is unveiling a major public art project in New York City, erecting hundreds of symbolic barriers around the five boroughs. "It's about territory. It's about borders. It's about immigration."
State restrictions on the rights of individuals to travel is a major theme in Weiwei's work—and life. For over four years, the Chinese government held Weiwei's passport, making it impossible for him to leave the country.
"As an artist, I would have shows in worldwide institutions I could not really attend," he says. The government was "trying to reduce my voice or my possibility for creativity."
In 2015, the Chinese government returned Weiwei's passport, freeing him to leave China. Recently he's been traveling to promote his film and oversee the installation of his work in New York City—enjoying a freedom of movement the artist wants none of us to take for granted.
Produced and edited by Meredith Bragg. Shot by Austin Bragg. Music by Kai Engel.