AI Weiwei may be the best-known 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, he has shifted focus from repression in his homeland to the global refugee crisis. He's out with a new documentary on the subject, Human Flow. and has a major art show in New York called "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors." In October, he sat down with Reason's Meredith Bragg to discuss both projects.
Q: Your film weaves together the personal struggles of the individual with the enormous scale of the refugee situation.
A: You need a visual image which can cope with the totalness of the scale, which of course is almost not possible. Even the drone images we are using only can cope with one camp, and we only visited about 40 camps. In Germany alone there are 100 camps. If you talk about the Myanmar situation, that camp contains 420,000 people.
At the same time, they have all the individual stories--their faces, the little details of women cooking, or children running, or old men lighting up a cigarette. Those appearances really embrace humanity on a personal level. You can immediately sense what kind of people they are. and apprehend in their hearts what they have been through.
Q: I couldn't help but think about your own personal struggles with getting your passport back from the Chinese government. How do you view that document? Is it liberating, or is it state-sponsored restriction on movement?
A: It's crazy. My passport was in the possession of the Chinese government for years. By refusing to let me have the passport, they limited my freedom to travel. As an artist I would have shows in worldwide institutions I could not attend. They were trying to reduce my voice or my possibility for creativity.
A passport should be part of an individual identity. The government only has...