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The artist Ai Weiwei refuses to shy away from tragedy or grief, working with an uncomfortable proximity between art and subject. He speaks on the release of his film on the refugee crisis, Human Flow. ‘It’s not just understanding. It requires you to find a language, so that you can give dignity to the subject matter.’ The line is cotton-thin. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Ai Weiwei’s lens on humanity

Credit: SILVERSALT PHOTOGRAPHY / COURTESY THE ARTIST AND NEUGERRIEMSCHNEIDER, BERLIN

1. I slide into my seat two minutes late, but there’s no dearth of viewing space. The small Gold Class movie theatre in inner-Melbourne’s Jam Factory is almost empty for the media screening of Chinese artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei’s new documentary Human Flow.

By almost empty, I mean there’s me and one other person.

Shot over a year in 23 different countries – including Syria, Jordan, Myanmar, Kenya, Mexico and Greece – Human Flow tracks the movement of hundreds of thousands of refugees across the world. It is an artistic masterpiece: an intricate patchwork of stunning camera work, close-range iPhone portraits, and wide aerial landscape sweeps captured by drone.

The film is bleak, unflinching, apocalyptic, uncomfortable, exquisite and very, very real.

In one scene, an interviewee’s face slowly crumbles with the grief of having lost more young family members on the crossing to safety than can be counted on one hand. In another shot, the flow of refugees disembarking from a barely seaworthy vessel seems endless. They just keep coming. Bodies packed on top of bodies packed on top of bodies, crushing bodies.

The documentary is long. Excruciatingly so. For two-and-a-half hours, we are forced to follow teeming masses of determined, bereft, dirt-splattered, desperate bodies, crossing rivers, seas, borders, countries, fields, deserts and continents. One journey bleeds into another. Faces and backstories begin to blur across the miles and miles of makeshift tent city, across kilometre upon kilometre of bombed-out building-skeleton. We pass an entire neighbourhood on fire.

In Human Flow, everyday people from everyday places are pushed to breaking point, by a thing as intangible and untameable as fate.

 

2. Several days after watching the film, I arrive in the city early for my interview with Ai Weiwei. I decide to kill an hour roaming the National Gallery of Victoria. In the gift shop are two palm-sized hardback books. The light blue cover reads, Humanity. Ai Weiwei. The black cover reads, Weiwei-isms. Ai Weiwei. Inside these two volumes, expensively bound and printed on premium stock, are selected quotes – edited and decontextualised – from the artist’s many interviews and writings.

Being part of humanity is hard for us to understand. If you are a tree, it’s hard to understand the forest.

No autocracy can lead people to believe that they are living in harmony and happiness.

A refugee could be anybody. It could be you or me. The so-called refugee crisis is a human crisis.

I side-eye as a woman wearing large rose quartz earrings, a Del Kathryn Barton scarf, and a thin gold watch deliberates over the two, finally deciding on Humanity.

 

3. A bottle of Mount Franklin water and two tall glasses sit on the table. There is a movement at the door. Ai Weiwei is accompanied into the small room of the inner-city hotel.

Solid frame. Round, moon-like face. That familiar expression that’s somehow both mischievous and wary. Arguably the most well-known Chinese artist in the world, Ai is certainly the most recognisable. His appearance in the flesh feels as if it’s an apparition.

He sets a small voice recorder in the middle of the shiny black table, switches it discreetly on. The woman who earlier met me in the foyer and escorted me up to the room sets down a small pot of tea and two round, white teacups. She exits. The door closes behind her.

Ai slips off his shoes and, with a kind of tired grace, slowly reclines on the padded bench seat next to me. One leg forms a neat triangle: the sole of his pilled white sock pressed flat against the bench, rounded knee pointing to the ceiling. The other is stretched out, bent slightly.

“Would you like some green tea?” The artist momentarily unsettles himself from the bench to pour for us both. We watch in silence, as the yellow-clear liquid falls neatly into each cup, steam swirling.

Everything about Ai is lived-in: the whatever-creases in his comfortable pants and collared blue overshirt, his wispy silver-black beard. The lines on his face look hard-earned, not ordinarily aged. The register of his speech is so soft and low that I have to lean in slightly to hear him properly. And those eyes: those dark, seen-some-god-awful-things-but-still-not-totally-destroyed-by-it-all, still-got-hope eyes that see right through you.

 

4. Ai Weiwei is a man who needs no introduction. He is both pop culture and dissident. Both fringe and centre. Diplomat and activist. Born in 1957 in Beijing, he is the son of Chinese poet Ai Qing, who was imprisoned between 1932 and 1935 for his opposition to the Kuomintang, then exiled in 1958 for more than 15 years.

Ai himself has been openly critical of the Chinese government for its human rights record. Between 2005 and 2009, he utilised Sina Weibo, the biggest internet platform in China, to blog criticisms of the government, among other autobiographical and artistic pennings. When this platform was shut down, he turned to Twitter to voice his thoughts and concerns. Ai, too, has spent time in confinement: in 2011, he was arrested, beaten and held without charge for 81 days by the Chinese government.

Ai has momentarily passed through the University of California (Berkeley), Parsons School of Design, and the Art Students League of New York. He was the artistic consultant on Beijing National Stadium (Bird’s Nest) for the 2008 Olympics, and his conceptual and sculptural works have been shown in the Tate Modern, displayed by the Pulitzer foundation on Fifth Avenue in New York. When we meet, he is in Australia not just to promote the release of Human Flow but to celebrate the inclusion of his sculptural works in the Biennale of Sydney. One, Law of the Journey, is a 60-metre-long black inflatable lifeboat, packed shoulder to shoulder with lifeless figures. The other, Crystal Ball, is a two-tonne crystal ball, nestled in a padded round of orange life jackets.

 

5. “Are you African?” Ai Weiwei unexpectedly kicks off our interview with a question of his own. Both the question and his manner momentarily throw me enough to explain the entire four continents of my family’s intergenerational migration journey in half a minute flat. I have now seen The Great Inquisitor at work.

“Migrants,” Ai mumbles, in reply to my genealogical tale, grunting in affirmation.

Despite his warmth and crumpledness, there is precision to Ai’s every sentence. He is spare and direct, both in query and answer: a man of stunningly few words. Questions I’d anticipated being answered in minutes, he finishes in a single sentence, leaving no potential for follow-up or elaboration.

This verbal brevity is born not of obstruction or obstinance, but economy and accuracy. Absent is the awkward, forced loquaciousness that ordinarily accompanies contemporary art-makers, pried from their art practice to spruik the beauty it has produced.

When you’ve seen as much as Ai has, the pretence and puff of the media trail must be achingly banal. He tells me that sometimes – hotel to hotel, interview to interview – he’s not even sure what city he’s in.

 

6. There is a moment, in Human Flow, in which Ai Weiwei exchanges passports with one of his subjects. In the centre-damp of a refugee point of passage, among thousands fleeing their homes, the two joke about swapping lives; about the other man turning up as Ai, in his studio in Berlin. It is an uncomfortable exchange, one that highlights the privilege and disparity between subject and filmmaker. The moment they swap the passports back is almost unbearable.

Ai, though, shrugs off my query about the difficulties of swinging between life in Berlin and life on the documentary trail. “If the refugees can be there, I can be there. Those obstacles become nothing.”

 Ai’s conceptual work has always been politically engaged. Perhaps his most well-known work, the installation Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds), involved the manufacture of 100 million handcrafted porcelain sunflower seeds by 1600 artisans over a period of two-and-a-half years. It is a comment on globalisation and mass production in China.

 The political purpose of a project such as Human Flow is categorically undeniable. “It’s not just understanding,” Ai tells me early on in our conversation, talking about conceiving of and researching for the film. “It requires you to find a language, so that you can give dignity to the subject matter.”

The line is cotton-thin.

 

7. There is an uncomfortable proximity between Ai Weiwei’s art and his subjects. Criticism of this latest documentary work includes opposition to the filming of a deceased refugee. In the shot in question, streams of other safety-seekers trudge stoically past the twisted body. We, the viewers, are forced to do the same.

There are moments, in Human Flow, when interviewees cover their faces with their hands as grief engulfs them. When they attempt to shy away from the lens. No atrocity, no amount of tears, turns the camera away. Two men are captured sobbing: their foreheads almost touching, their arms around each other, squatting in the rubble and the darkness. They are deciding whether to turn around, or continue on their journey to find refuge. “You are my brother. You tell me what you want to do, and I will do it. You are my brother.” They rock, catatonically.

Another woman is told on camera that the border of the country she has journeyed to with three generations of her family has just closed. “How do you feel about that ? How do you feel about the border being closed?” “I don’t know,” she says. “You just told me that now. We just found out when you said it then.” Her heart breaks again, right there on camera, tension rising as she repeatedly snaps at the small child playing next to her.

Ai runs a hand over his face when I press him on the emotional and ethical limits of documentary. “There are only three things,” he says steadily, drawing himself up to a sitting position from where he’s been half-reclining on the bench. “Turn the camera on. Never turn it off. Make sure you have extra batteries.” He holds up a finger to illustrate each point. “Those are the three things. There are children dying … I want to challenge things. Not to please audiences, or avoid argument … If you cut it off, it becomes fake. ”

Ai speaks slowly, as if we have all the time in the world. His movements are subtle. The ever-so-slight nod of his head. An amused twitch at the corner of his mouth. His gestures are fluid, minimal. Almost as if the potency of his thought is draining energy from the rest of his person.

 

8. One of the most sobering images in Human Flow is a shot of a phone recharging point in a refugee camp. The conspicuous white plastic of it glares boldly against the dusty landscape, overloaded with phones and chargers.

Ai Weiwei shows us the power of the phone as a communicative and documentary device, to attest we walked here; we lived; this happened. Digital memories of home are proudly displayed to fellow travellers and cameramen. Refugees document their journey on their mobiles. When they reach a destination safely, this is how they contact family members back home, to let them know. “If they can find a phone,” Ai explains, “if they can get just somewhere, unwrap their phone from the plastic, and connect with someone they know … humanity in refugees is just like us.”

 

9. The movie theatre is almost empty. In the gift shop, a woman wearing large rose quartz earrings, a Del Kathryn Barton scarf, and a thin gold watch finally decides on Humanity.

Ai Weiwei’s appearance in the flesh feels as if it’s an apparition.

Yellow-clear liquid falls neatly into each cup, steam swirling.

Turn the camera on. Never turn it off. Make sure you have extra batteries.

The line is cotton-thin.

Ai runs a hand over his face. It is an artistic masterpiece: an intricate patchwork of stunning camera work, close-range iPhone portraits, and wide aerial landscape sweeps captured by drone – unflinching, apocalyptic, uncomfortable, exquisite, and very, very real.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 26, 2018 as "Deciding on humanity". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.