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Ai WeiWei:

Highlighting Humanitarianism
and the
World Wide Refugee Crisis

Ai WeiWei, Human Flow still, 2017

The Refugee Crisis
ref·u·gee/, refyo͝oˈjē/, noun,
a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to
escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of

race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a
particular social group. Every minute, 24 people are forced to
flee their homes, most commonly from war or tribal violence.
That equates to 34,000 people a day who have fled from their
home and cannot return to their country so they remain
displaced, often indefinitely.
There are 65 million refugees in the world today, most of them
are forced to flee from the following 3 countries:
-Syria: 6.3 million refugees
-Afghanistan: 2.6 million refugees
-South Sudan: 2.4 million refugees
It is a humanitarian emergency of epic proportions, and has
spread globally. Each country is addressing the crisis in their
own way, with the US and Germany accepting a combined total
Ai WeiWei, Human Flow still, 2017
of 3,234,500 permanent refugees in 2016 alone, while Hungry
has reduced their intake, processing only two refugees a day.
Ai WeiWei
Ai WeiWei was born on August 28th, 1957 in Beijing to
writer Gao Ying and poet Ai Quing. His father was
denounced during the Anti Rightist Movement for his
writings and ideas and the family was exiled to the
Xinjiang province in northwest China. With the end of
the Cultural Revolution, they were allowed to return to
Beijing in 1976. Following China’s reform in 1980, Ai
moved to the United States to study abroad. From
1981-1993 Ai traveled extensively throughout
America, spending time in San Francisco, Philadelphia
and New York City. In 1993, Ai moved back to China
to be near his sick father. There, he helped establish a
community of experimental artists called the Beijing
East Village. It was during the 90’s that his own artistic
expressions flourish, and Ai’s hallmark subversiveness
begins to take shape in his art.
Ai began to flex his political voice in 2005, while
blogging for China’s largest internet platform, Sina
Ai WeiWei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995
Weibo. For four years he produced a steady stream of
scathing commentary of the Chinese government,
which was often censored by the state. It is during this
period that the Chinese government began to take
notice of Ai’s political outspokenness.
Ai WeiWei
After a major earthquake that killed thousands in May of
2008, WeiWei helped launch the Citizen’s Investigation
on Sichuan earthquake to expose the Chinese
government’s role in constructing poorly built schools and
public structures. When Ai was in Sichuan to attend the
trial of a fellow earthquake activist, police broke into his
hotel room and beat him so severely he required
emergency brain surgery. “Illumination” is a selfie Ai took
in an elevator while being detained by police.
In 2011, ArtReview named Ai the most powerful artist in
the world. Many thought he was untouchable, that no
matter how vocal he was against the communist regime,
his fame and family connections would shield him from
repercussions. The government became increasingly
concerned that activists would launch the “jasmine
revolution” against the state, and began cracking down on
enemies of the state.
On April 3, 2011, Ai was arrested at the Beijing airport
and held without charge for 81 days. Two guards were
assigned to Ai at all times and he was interrogated in
more than 50 individual sessions. After being released,
Ai WeiWei, Illumination, 2009 Ai’s passport is revoked and he is placed under house
arrest for the next 4 years.
Fine Art
Ai is given his passport back in 2015 with the conclusion of his house
arrest and subsequently exiled from China. Displaced from his homeland
and unable to return, Ai has become a refugee himself.
Ai reunited with his family in Germany and moved to Berlin to set up a
studio. Since his exile, the staunch activist has placed much of his focus on
a single issue that is very close to his heart: the worldwide refugee crisis.
Over the last three years, the global humanitarian crisis has taken center
stage in Ai’s art and life. Ai has visited 40 refugees camps in 23 counties in
the last two year. His art calls attention to human rights violations on an
epic and grandiose scale. Ai addresses the crisis over three major
platforms; his fine art, his documentary “Human Flow”, and his book
Through these three modes, Ai redefines the parameters of social
responsibility and civic engagement, coercing the viewer to find empathy.
The scope of Ai’s fine art enterprises is multifaceted, including; sculpture,
installation, photography, film and more. As a larger than life public figure
and outspoken rebel, Ai’s art enjoys a large following and great influence.
He expertly wields that influence to reach as many hearts and minds as
possible. However, like many political commentaries, his art is not without
controversy. Much of the art world finds Ai’s provocative and subversive
artistic expressions to be equal parts stimulating and polarizing. Both Ai,
Ai WeiWei, #SafePassage, 2016 and his art, can be quite contentious.
Alan Kurdi
In September of 2015, the body of Alan Kurdi,
a 3 year old Syrian boy, washed ashore in
Turkey. Kurdi was one of 12 Syrian refugees
that drown trying to make their way to Greece.
The image of Kurdi’s tiny body, face down in
the surf, became the defining symbol of the
plight of the fast growing refugee crisis.
In January of 2016, just 4 months later, Ai
chose to recreate the scene for India Today
Magazine and an accompanying exhibition at
the India Art Fair.
The artist was deeply moved by the toddler’s
death and wanted to draw attention to the
innocent life lost with a photographic tribute.
The artist arranged himself, face down, on the
shoreline of a pebbled beach of Lesbos,
Greece where so many asylum seekers land.
This piece is one of Ai’s first works addressing
the refugee crisis and was received by the art
community with very polarized opinions.
Nilufer Demir, Alan Kurdi, 2015
Ai WeiWei, Recreation of Alan Kurdi, 2016
Alan Kurdi
Ai’s recreation was met with swift and rapid
response. Many critics found the image to
be of poor taste. Some argued that the
piece was a blatant and insensitive political
stunt. Others maintained that any real
image of a deceased child is powerful
enough and does not need replicating.
British artist Jake Chapman said of the
-There’s something pathetic about Ai WeiWei
going to lie down on the beach to aestheticise
others people’s misery.-
Others, hailed the image, claiming that it
honored Alan Kurdi, and kept his memory
“Laundromat” (2016) is another one of
Ai’s earliest works addressing the
refugee crisis. In this gradiouse
installation 2,046 items of clothing
formerly belonging to refugees are
displayed. Ai salvaged the items from
an abandoned refugee camp in
Northern Greece, then washed,
pressed and meticulously organised
the garments for the exhibition of
It was important to the artist to clean
the items; to restore honor and dignity
to the belongings with hygiene and
cleanliness. The sheer quantity of
items reminds viewers how many
people are displaced and homeless.
“Laundromat” has traveled
extensively across the globe. It was
exhibited most notably at Jeffrey
Deitch Gallery in New York and the
Ai WeiWei, Laundromat, 2016 Fire Station Garage Gallery in Qatar
with the help of the Qatar Museum.
In January of 2016, Ai and his team
began to install 14,000 orange life vests
on the monumental columns of 19th
century music venue, Konzerthaus,
Berlin in the middle of the night. The
unwanted life vests were from refugees
who came ashore in the Greek isle of
Lesbos, the gateway to Europe.
Authorities from Lesbos gave Ai the
jackets to use in this temporary
installation. Each alarmingly vibrant vest
represents the thousands of people who
have died crossing the unpredictable
and dangerous seas to seek asylum in
Europe each year. Historically, Berlin
has been a city of refuge for immigrants
for centuries. Today, with their “open
door policy” Germany leads the world in
addressing the humanitarian crisis,
accepting more than 1 million refugees
in 2015 alone.
Ai WeiWei, Gendarmenmarket Berlin, 2016
The work was revealed on February
13th, just two days before the Cinema
for Peace Gala, held at Konzerthaus
concert hall for the Berlin Film
Festival. Ai was a guest of honor at
the gala, and he encouraged guests
to don golden thermal blankets, like
the ones refugees are often wrapped
in when they come ashore. Media
savvy Ai timed his installation
perfectly. The annual Berlinal Film
Festival attracts Hollywood stars, and
major film industry figures to the city.
High profile celebrities, such as
Charlize Theron (pictured here) were
photographed and took selfies
throughout the night. The installation,
emanating from the heart of
sympathetic Germany, received
instant international attention
F Lotus
In the summer of 2016, Ai installed
1,005 life vests in a pond outside of
Belvedere Palace in Vienna, Austria.
The site-specific installation is made up
of a total of 201 “lily pads” floating, each
with 5 life jackets, forming a lowercase
F in Old English font and suspended in
the center of the pond. Ai has not
confirmed what the F stands for; one
can make educated guesses. Perhaps
it stand for freedom? The 5 vests on
each buoyant black ring might
represent a family unit. The life vests
displayed were all used by Syrian
refugees, and salvaged from the Greek
island of Lesbos where they came
There are approximately 500,000
discarded life vests on the island,
creating a multi colored artificial
landscape on their own accord.
Ai WeiWei, F Lotus, 2016
Many refugees capsize at sea while
escaping the terrors of their home land in
poorly constructed boats. An estimated
3,100 refugees perished at sea in 2017
alone. For many, an inflatable life ring is
the only hope of surviving the journey at
Carved from solid marble this piece
renders the classic symbol of safety
useless. The sculpture is expertly
rendered with meticulous lifelike detail,
forcing the viewer to consider being
adrift at sea with only a life ring at hand.
The object is heavy and unmoving,
eliciting a feeling of unavoidable death
by drowning.
“Tyre” is a stark reminder of the life
threatening journey at sea, and a
memorial for those who never reached
dry land.

Ai WeiWei, Tyre, 2016

Zodiac Heads
Ai’s “Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads”
are apart of a multi year touring
exhibition that launched from New York
City in May of 2011. The installation
features 12 larger than life bronze animal
heads representing the Chinese Zodiac.
The heads arrived in Prague, Czech
Republic, in early February of 2016 and
were installed lineally in front of the Fair
Trade Palace. The display opened on
February 5th, with a striking new
addition- reflective gold thermal blankets
wrapped the heads. Under an EU
mandated quota, the Czech Republic
must take in 2,600 refugees, which
Czech president Milos Zeman strongly
and vocally opposes. This vivad
installation, installed in the capital, is a
resounding reminder of the humanitarian
crisis and need for aid and participation
from all countries.
Ai WeiWei, Zodiac Heads, 2016
Ai has produced a number of
wallpaper designs to
accompany his installations.
They not only act as a backdrop
for his works, they also interrupt
the gallery space.
This wallpaper series was
created in response to the
violence and hardships at the
border of Greece and
Macedonia, which Ai witnessed
first hand. Here, refugees who
landed in the Greek islands and
traveled north to the border, are
confronted violently by
Macedonian police.
The design of the wallpaper is
heavily inspired by Ancient
Greek black figure pottery, with
registers that details the
struggles refugees face on
Ai WeiWei, Trees and Branches exhibit wallpaper, 2016 modern Geek land.
Good Fences
“Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” is a tribute to
Robert Frost’s famous poem, “Mending Wall.” and
perhaps Ai’s most ambitious installation to date. The
installation will consist of 100 pieces anchored
throughout New York City’s most ethnically diverse
neighborhoods. Each installation is a unique piece
of art and architecture. “Gilded Cage,” in Central
Park, has a series of turnstyles that mirror the
process refugees go through at checkpoints and
detention centers. “Harlem Shelter 1” encases a bus
stop with a tall chain link fence.
They highlight ever growing presence of fences
physically separating people across borders, and
slowly separating society from humanity.
A majority of the pieces can be found in
neighborhoods that are historically home to
immigrants; such as the Lower East Side of
Manhattan and Corona Park, Queens. They serve
as a blunt reminder to New Yorkers that we are all
immigrants and we are all humans, deserving of
respect and dignity.
Ai WeiWei, Gilded Cage & Harlem Shelter 1, 2017
Vases as Pilar
“Stacked Porcelain Vases as Pilar” is
an homage to Ai’s Chinese roots. Ai
mixes old and new using a traditional
Chinese technique, white porcelain
decorated with cobalt blue designs
under a high gloss glaze, to illustrate a
contemporary theme.
The vases are stacked, seemingly
endlessly, creating a colossal
architectural pillar that stands
precariously tall. The vessels depict a
bands of violence, confrontation and
migration, wrapping 360 degrees
around the form. Each vase features a
harrowing scene of the struggles
refugees endure.
These politically charged vases have
traveled across the globe. Most
recently they were exhibited in
“Cao/Humanity” at the UTA Artist
Space in Los Angeles which Ai helped
Ai WeiWei, Stacked Porcelain Vases as Pilar, 2017 design.
Law of the Journey
Ai featured one of his largest installations to
date at the 2018 Biennale of Sydney. “Law of
the Journey” is a colossal, inky black,
inflatable raft. The raft is 230 feet long, and
featured 258 featureless passengers
enveloped tightly in life vests. The work
addresses the often overcrowded inflatable
boats that transport refugee on their perilous
journeys across open waters. The rubber
used to make the monumental raft was
manufactured in a Chinese facility that also
makes the hazardous vessels frequently used
by refugees. When discussing the installation,
Ai heavily criticised the Australian
government's treatment of asylum seekers, in
particular the offshore detention centers.
Recent reports accuse the offshore Nauru
Detention center of widespread abuse and
trauma of inmates

Ai WeiWei, Law of the Journey, 2018

Life Cycle
“Life Cycle” made its debut at the
Marciano Art Foundation (MAF) in
October of 2018. The giant raft was
designed specially for the MAF (right),
and was the last work Ai crafted in his
Beijing studio (left) before Chinese
authorities destroyed the building.
The design drew heavily from its
predecessor, “Law of the Journey,” but
with a few major changes. Ai
exchanges the black PVC rubber for
bamboo, fashioning the raft by using
traditional Chinese kite making
methods. The passengers of this vessel
are not all faceless humans. Intermixed
in the boat are famous figures from
history such as Nefertiti, and the 12
animals of the Chinese Zodiac. Here, Ai
reinforces the notion that we are all
refugees. The platform is outlined with
Ai WeiWei, Life Cycle, 2018 quotes about the care of your neighbor,
from philosophers and writers.
Human Flow
Ai WeiWei’s 2017 documentary Human Flow provides a raw
glimpse of refugee life. Ai travels to 23 countries; Greece, Turkey,
Syria, Gaza Strip, and Italy to name a few, to document the
epicenters of the crisis. The footage is reserved, simple and
unprocessed. Often, shots are taken straight from Ai’s own cell
phone, placing the viewer (quite literally) in his shoes.
The global refugee crisis has affected more than 65 million people
worldwide. At such a large scale, it is difficult to individualize and
humanize these victims. In an effort to combat this callous
indifference, the camera often lingers on the subject, often in
silence, creating an unease. It is in these quiet moments of
uncomfortable stillness that empathy for the refugees is
undeniable. You can not help but recognize that these displaced
persons are deserving of dignity and to be free of the pain and
suffering that has been inflicted upon them. These people are not
faceless invaders; rather they are fathers, mothers, sons, and
daughters who deserve a home, happiness, an identity and a
chance to dream. Most touching are the moments with children
who, (even while displaced) misbehave, act up and annoy their
parents, proving that regardless of circumstances, children will be
Ai WeiWei, Human Flow, 2017 The following slide is a trailer for “Human Flow”
Humanity, published in 2018, is a companion piece to Human Flow and a
compelling commentary on the refugee crisis. The miniature hardcover blue book is
composed of “weiwei-isms,” original thoughts and reflections by Ai addressing the
worldwide humanitarian crisis. The book is separated into seven distinct chapters;
Humanity, Crisis, Borders, Power, Displacement, Freedom, and Action. Each
chapter has an unmistakable tone, oscillating between horror, sadness and anger.
The final chapter, Action, is a coercive call to arms. Ai implores the reader to let go
of the comforts of ignorance, to rise above dumbed-down politics and acknowledge
what it means to be human; to have humanity.
Perhaps the most successful facet of this book is the public engagement Ai has
fostered around it. He has used his social media presence to draw attention to the
passages of the book by asking pedestrians to read segments from the chapters.
Recently, Ai’s Instagram page (@aiww) has been flooded with short clips of gallery
goers reading from Humanity. Quite often these readings will amass upwards of
3,000 views, reaching hundreds of thousands of people each day.
In the interest of maximum public participation, media savvy Ai has created an
interactive online platform for the Humanity campaign. Here, the public has an
opportunity to respond to a simple question on the home page; “Humanity is….?”
Responses, in all languages and from all corners of the globe, are compiled and
scroll across the webpage.
Visit to contribute your own words to this collaborative effort.
Ai WeiWei, Humanity, 2018
The following two slides are excerpts from Ai’s Instagram page, please press play
Ai WeiWei is a multifaceted public figure, and a refugee himself,
displaced from his homeland. He is China’s infamous dissident,
one of the world's most provocative artists, and possibly
humanity’s loudest voice. He takes his responsibility seriously,
leveraging his art, his voice, and his fame to bring attention to the
crisis at hand.
One of the passages in Humanity states; “I don’t care what
people think. My work belongs to the people who have no voice”
(Ai, 2018, p. 88), and all of Ai’s actions back this sentiment. He
amplifies his own condition as a outcast with no nationality to
address the dire circumstances of millions.
With no end in sight to the wars and violence raging in the middle
east, pockets of Africa and central America, the crisis is
accelerating at a rapid pace.
With the humanitarian crisis growing exponentially, compounded
by climate change which will continue to uproot more people, Ai
continues to condemn those who turn a blind eye to the struggle
and horrors of these innocent refugees and he reminds us that
we are all immigrants. We all came from somewhere. He pleads
Rohit Chawla, Ai WeiWei, 2016 to the public, through three main platforms; his art, his
documentary and his book, to find their own humanity because
everyone deserves dignity and no one is illegal.
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Crisis. Retrieved from the PBS website:
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Discover LA. Ai WeiWei in L.A. Retrieved from:
Feinstein, Laura. (2017, October). Ai WeiWei’s Art Reaches New York Streets. Retrieved from the
City Lab website:
Kinsella, Eileen. (2016, November). Free to Travel Once More, Ai WeiWei is Having a Huge New
York Moment. Retrieved from the ArtNet website:
Madu, Zito. (2018, March). The Unflinching Humanity of Ai WeiWei’s “Human Flow.” Retrieved
from the GQ website:
Marciano Art Foundation. Ai WeiWei: Life Cycle. Retrieved from:
Nayeri, Farah. (2018, April). Ai WeiWei’s Refugee Project Moves to Qatar. Retrieved from the
New York Times website:
Neuendorf, Henri. (2017, March). As Europe’s Refugee Crisis Mounts, Ai WeiWei Brings
Massive Lifeboat Installation to Prague. Retrieved from ArtNet website:
Pogrebin, Robin. (2018, April) Ai WeiWei’s Little Blue Book on the Refugee Crisis. Retrieved
from the New York Times website:
Pollack, Barbara. (2018, October). Ai WeiWei Takes Over Los Angeles. Retrieved from the
ArtNews website:
Said-Moorehouse, Lauren. (2016, February). Ai WeiWei Covers Berlin Landmark in 14,000
Refugee Life Jackets. Retrieved from the CNN website:
Slenske, Michael. (2017). Ai WeiWei Lets It Flow With His Largest Public Work Yet. Retrieved
from the Cultured website:
WeiWei, A. (2018). Humanity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
WeiWei, A. (Director). (2017). Human Flow [Video file]. Retrieved from
Ai WeiWei, White House, 1999