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From the Archive: Conversation With Chinese Artist/Activist/Filmmaker Ai Wei Wei

After inviting Ai Wei Wei to be a major figure in “The Great Big Art Exhibition”, UK organizers refused to include his contribution, which focused on Julian Assange and political prisoners.Many longtime listeners know of my deep respect and admiration for Ai Wei Wei and his work. And one, Faith Peeples in Pittsburg, shared this new commentary by the Chinese dissident and world-renowned artist with me on June 2.  In it, he details an invitation to contribute to a post-Covid lockdown nationwide art project in Britain, where he now resides.  The organizers ultimately declined to include his contribution, which extended the theme of his Alcatraz exhibit about political prisoners to focus on Julian Assange, who continues to rot in London’s Belmarsh prison.  As you will read, he uses his low-key and emphatic style to expose what he clearly sees as censorship wrapped up in lame excuses.

After experiencing the Alcatraz exhibits, and sending postcards to political prisoners including John Kiriakou, I was pleased to meet and interview Ai in 2017 to discuss his Alcatraz show as well as the documentary he had just released about refugees around the world, Human Flow.  I found him warm and soft-spoken, with a strong command of US and world politics. Here is the text from that episode, and please note at the very end the link to my original report from Alcatraz in 2015:

Ai Weiwei, the respected Chinese artist and activist, talks about his impressive 2015 exhibition at the Alcatraz prison, and his powerful new documentary about the worldwide refugee crisis, Human Flow. Ai Wei Wei is an impressive man whose mild demeanor belies his fierce determination to bring attention to political prisoners and refugees.

In this interview, we open by showing him iPhone pictures of his huge Lego tapestry depicting more than 180 political prisoners, which was exhibited at the former prison on Alcatraz island in San Francisco Bay in 2015, and more recently at the Hirshorn Gallery of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.  He was under house arrest in China at the time, and could not travel to install or view it.

At Alcatraz, visitors were invited to send an individualized postcard to a political prisoner, and we discuss the reaction of John Kiriakou–the former CIA officer who was in prison then for confirming CIA torture–when he received more than 1,500 postcards.  We talk about the remarkable, accidental meeting of Kiriakou and Ai in Berlin earlier this year.

Then we discuss his moving new film, Human Flow, which brings us up close to the experience of refugees, starting with people displaced from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Ai enables the viewer to see the hardships endured by families escaping war and death, in desperate crossings of the Mediterranean and arduous marches through Greece, Albania and other countries en route to Europe.

His scope expands to include 23 different sites of this human flow, without blame or political posturing; it’s a humanitarian approach to a massive crisis that is mostly ignored in the US.

In addition to this moving documentary, Ai has just launched 300 installations in New York City, drawing attention of average people to the impact of walls, fences and borders.

You can see the trailer, a video interview with Ai and much more, here.  You can find my special 2015 podcast report on the Alcatraz installation here.