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Chinese Dissident Ai Weiwei Explores the Tragedy of the Refugee Crisis

The famed artist has a new public art project going up in New York City, which coincides with his debut feature film, Human Flow.

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.

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  • Hugh Akston||

    Another massive immigrant destroying #westernculture. smh

  • Juice||

    But look what he's doing with his eyes. He's trying his best to assimilate.

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  • damikesc||

    We've been asked, for a long time, to stop trying to "fix" the world.

    So, we listen to the request.

    The refugee crisis is not our crisis. Let that area of the world prove that they are capable of doing anything with us doing all of the heavy lifting.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I don't understand why refugees get special status. It's weird too, because now we just pick and choose which countries are considered bad enough to deserve refugee status. Fuck you Democratic Republic of Congo, you're not close enough to Europe to count for major refugee status.

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    What's not to understand?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    That's shorthand for I think it's unreasonable and I don't understand what the reason is beyond pure politics.

  • Domestic Dissident||

    What "global refugee crisis"?

  • I can't even||

    I think it's the Germans who were kicked out of Prussia. As soon as they are back home it will be over.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Turkey hosts 2.5 million externally displaced people. Followed by Pakistan (1.6 million), Lebanon (1.1 million), Iran (979,000) and Ethiopia (736,000). It is the second year in a row that Turkey hosted the largest number of refugees worldwide.

    Does this just mean that they have that many refugees period, or that they explicitly invited that many refugees?

  • colorblindkid||

    America hosts 11 million refugees.

  • Homple||

    We have 11 million (or more) illegal migrants. Way more legal immigrants than 11 million.

  • Mark22||

    The figure that includes refugees, asylum seekers and people uprooted inside their own countries was some 300,000 higher at the end of last year than at the end of 2015

    And the refugee crisis will continue as long as Western nations tolerate and reward illegal migrants.

    State restrictions on the rights of individuals to travel is a major theme in Weiwei's work

    Drawing an equivalence between China restricting the freedom of movement of Chinese citizens, and the US protecting its borders is absurd. Weiwei is a moron.

  • uunderstand||

    Ai Weiwei is arguably the best-known contemporary artist alive today.

    So, everybody who plays in the NFL then ?

  • Radioactive||

    isn't H. Weinstein...oh thought it was contemporary rapist...never mind

  • rpullman||

    Brave guy but his art is derivative and boring

  • gphx||

    H...h...h...h...he said 'wei wei'...huh...huh... huh.

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