Ai Weiwei

I first learned about the artist Ai Weiwei in a documentary production class I took last term when watching Ai Weiwei Drifting (1). This film painted an introduction to him, sharing details about his experience as an immigrant, and how this phenomenon has shaped what inspires him as an artist. This relates to the themes that artists like Tanya Aguiñiga and Hiwa K share on what inspires them to create art. Ai Weiwei is a refugee who creates art that holds the purpose of amplifying the stories of other refugees. He shares in Ai Weiwei Drifting (1) that his connectedness to and understanding of the refugee condition is what drives him to create art. This film shows behind the scenes of Ai Weiwei creating his own documentary titled Human Flow (2) as well as other art projects, so it is very reflexive. 

The above photo is of Ai Weiwei’s installation featuring 14,000 refugee life jackets covering a Berlin landmark. He shared in Ai Weiwei Drifting (1) that these life jackets were donated to him by the mayor of Lesbos, a place where he met many refugees. His experience in Lesbos inspired this installation which he produced to center the refugee crisis to the people of Berlin and of Europe as a whole. Art historian Ellen C. Caldwell once said that “Ai draws upon the global refugee crisis as his subject, explicitly calling out the way people have been neglected” (3). Another example of an art piece centering on the theme of immigration is the portrait of Yousef included in Tania Bruguera’s exhibition in the renamed Natalie Bell room in London (4). Ai Weiwei’s life jackets installation is very powerful because it made tangible a crisis to people who may have only been witnessing its occurrences remotely. 

Ai Weiwei’s life jacket installation reminded me of Tanya Aguiñiga’s project titled Border Quipu (5). Border Quipu offered a way to document the presence of people as they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. The embodiment of this project is an accumulation of knots, each one tied by one person crossing the border. This is similar to Ai Weiwei’s life jacket installation because both of these works bring attention to the scope of the issues at hand in a way beyond statistics, and each of these works includes using objects touched by a person.

The above frame is from the documentary titled Human Flow (2) created by Ai Weiwei which amplifies the shared stories of refugees across 23 countries around the world. Human Flow is a film that documents the circumstances of immigration. His film encompasses the stories of refugees from many different places, in a way Ai Weiwei himself describes as being from the of an above being. “It becomes so abstract,” Ai Weiwei shared on his film, “then gradually you see some movement. It’s beautiful and shocking at the same time. As you jump from one location to another, you need an overview. Luckily, we have a technology—only God can have a view like that. It shows how fragile our human condition can be” (7). The cinematography in this film is beautifully well done. 

This work engages its viewers to watch it actively, prompted by including between sequences text that relates to what is being shown. Sometimes this text is a fact reported by a news organization, sometimes it is a quote from a proverb or other figure which has withstood time, and sometimes it is just knowledge being shared to understand the context of what is being shown. In every instance, the text on the screen is meant to be read by viewers to keep them actively engaged with the film’s content and keep them from watching voyeuristically. 

Ai Weiwei, Self-Portrait in LEGO, 2017.

While Ai Weiwei is sharing the stories of people in the process of migration, he is also sharing his own story of interacting with them and shows this throughout the film: he takes selfies with people, journeys with them by boat, and gets haircuts with them.  In 2011, the artist Hiwa K participated in, while documenting through film, the Arab Spring in Kurdistan, in reflection he shared “I don’t like to hide behind my camera. To jump in front of your own camera you make yourself vulnerable, and you are not looking at things as an object, you are a part of it, and this engagement is really important for me” (6). I think Ai Weiwei shares a similar philosophy to why he portrays himself in his film Human Flow (2). “I call myself an artist, but not really” Ai said “that’s why they call me political activist I guess” (8). Ai Weiwei himself is a refugee from China, while he priorly understood certain aspects of the refugee condition he still does everything he can to emerge himself into the lives of the people he chooses to cover in his art, this makes it so that he portrays people in a comprehensive and also journalistically ethically way.

Works Cited

1. Mehl, Eva, Bettina Kolb, Ai Weiwei Drifting, 2017

2. Ai Weiwei, Human Flow, 2017

3. Caldwell, Ellen. “Ai Weiwei’s Readymade: Politics.” JSTOR Daily, 30 November 2018,

4. Dahl, Sonja. “Artist Feature, Tania Bruguera.” ART 111: The Artist Experience, 08 Mar. 2023, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR. Lecture. 

5. “Borderlands” Extended Segment.  Art in the Twenty-First Century. PBS, 2020.

6. Johnson, Brian D., Ai Weiwei, an artist in exile, turns to the refugee, Maclean’s Magazine, 2017.

7. “Berlin.” Art in the Twenty-First Century. PBS, 2018. “Change.” Art in the Twenty-First Century. PBS, 2012.

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