Artist Ai Weiwei, in Toronto, where he received the Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship. Photo by 6 Degrees / Facebook

Ai Weiwei’s new film Human Flow documents one year in which the renowned Chinese artist and dissident follows refugees and migrants on their journeys and in detention camps in 23 different countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, France, Greece, Germany, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Mexico and Turkey, to show the immense scale of human suffering around the globe. He accompanies the migrants, talks to them and even grills kebab for them.

But the artist, speaking to the audience gathered in Toronto’s Koerner Hall Wednesday night to celebrate his distinction as the Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship laureate, resisted all attempts by The Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson to get him to talk about his personal interactions with the refugees or the details of the production.

The evening was the culmination of 6 Degrees Toronto Citizen Space 2017, a three-day event of discussion about global citizenship and inclusion led by artists, writers and thinkers.

The issue speaks for itself, according to Ai Weiwei: “65 million people lost their homes,” he said of the staggering number of people displaced by wars and persecution, the highest number on record by the UNHCR. “People really should go to see it,” he pleaded.

All proceeds from the distribution of the documentary will go to refugees and NGOs helping them, the artist declared.

The film-making has clearly taken a toll on the artist: “A film like this I can never repeat,” he said. “It damages how we think about ourselves … The people filmed are still in extremely precarious conditions.”

Human Flow had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival this year and was also screened at the Toronto Film Festival. Participants of 6 Degrees Toronto had an opportunity to see it one day before the Wednesday celebration.

“It’s my first trip to Canada – I would never imagine I would have such an occasion,” Ai Weiwei said upon receiving the prize from Adrienne Clarkson.

“You’re dealing with an artist”

When Toronto last hosted Ai Weiwei’s multi-media exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2013, the artist himself was not able to attend. His passport had been taken away from him and he was held under house arrest following an 81-day confinement by the secret police in 2011, an experience he later turned into art too.

He memorized every detail of his cell and recreated it in his studio, along with effigies of himself and the two guards who had daily watched his every move. “That was the best revenge,” he told the audience at Koerner Hall. For the secret police, such disclosure was “unthinkable.” He carried on with this work while still under surveillance, perplexing the agents. One reportedly asked him in earnest awe: “How could you remember everything in that room?”

“You’re dealing with an artist,” Ai Weiwei replied.

“It’s so easy. Just write an article and you can cause a riot on the internet. That moment when I touched the computer, I became an artist”

The detention had come in the wake of Ai Weiwei’s growing advocacy and influence. He particularly angered the authorities with his initiative to identify the schoolchildren who perished in a devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008 and to investigate the apparent poor construction of school buildings. Through his blog, Ai Weiwei gave platform to tens of activists collecting data on the issue. The blog was censored and eventually shut down.

Being able to reach people directly through the internet became a defining moment for Ai Weiwei.

“I realized they [blog posts] were read by 200 or 300 thousand people,” he said. “It’s so easy. Just write an article and you can cause a riot on the internet. That moment when I touched the computer, I became an artist.”

The relationship with his homeland is a complicated one.

“A state of 60-70 years is still not trusting its own people,” denying the nation a free press or an independent judicial system, the artist complained. “If you start to care or try to understand, you become a criminal.”

But for any artist, “freedom of speech is the foundation of creativity.”

Ai Weiwei currently lives in Berlin, but is still holding his Chinese passport and remains deeply connected to China. “My mom is 85. Recently on the phone she said: ‘Don’t come back.’ But I’m not scared.”

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

After Toronto, the artist’s next stop will be New York, where his new exhibition Good Fences Make Good Neighbors opens on October 12. Commissioned by the Public Art Fund, the installation will comprise over 300 pieces inspired by metal-wire security fence and located in public space across the city.

“Nobody can really avoid to see it,” Ai Weiwei said. “One piece is two blocks away from the Trump Tower. It’s a golden cage.”

Returning to New York, a city where he spent a decade as a young, aspiring artist, was emotionally hard, but “the idea to work with issues of fences, order, neighborhood” drew him to the project. “It’s interesting to talk about this issue at this time.”

As the Public Art Fund put it on its website, “Ai will create striking installations that draw attention to the role of the fence as both a physical manifestation and metaphorical expression of division. In this way, he will explore one of society’s most urgent issues, namely the psychic and physical barriers that divide us, which is at the heart of debates about immigration and refugees today.”

The title of the installation is taken from a 1914 poem Mending Wall by Robert Frost.


6 Degress Toronto is an event organized annually by the non-profit Institute for Canadian Citizenship, a national charity promoting the inclusion of new citizens, co-founded by The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul. On this year’s edition, which has just run its course, read Lattin Magazine’s interview with its director, Mexican Alain Pescador.