Ai Weiwei on Art, Refugees, and the Razing of his Studio

October 31, 2018

The prominent artist and activist spoke to a capacity crowd at The Graduate Center.

Ai Weiwei, the prominent, provocative artist, activist, and Chinese dissident spoke about his life and work with Tim Marlow of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, at The Graduate Center on October 25. Prompted by Marlow, Ai reflected with whimsy and candor on his art, his imprisonment in China, the destruction of his Beijing studio, and the refugee crisis that has spurred much of his recent work.


The sold-out event, co-sponsored with The Graduate Center’s Center for the Humanities and the Royal Academy, drew artists such as Chuck Close, as well as GC students, faculty, staff, and alumni and members of the general public.

Asked if the recent destruction of his Beijing studio generated anger, Ai said, “It should, but it doesn’t because in my life, I see generations as being destroyed. My father’s whole generation — 300,000 intellectuals just being banished within one year. Then the Cultural Revolution … In recent days in China I think of houses being burned down. … It’s very common. It happens every second.”

Commenting on the point of his provocative performances and other art in which he reenacts or depicts aspects of the refugee crisis, Ai said, “If you’re not there, you’re not facing those people … to see how they pass the night, how they stand in the rain, how they would make some food … all those very, very simple events, you will never understand the situation. When you’re facing them, you realize they’re just like you or your sister or your baby.”

“I don’t give a damn,” Ai told Marlow when asked whether he worried about the political reverberations of his work.

Asked, “Do you still believe that humanity can solve this problem?” Ai said we can “solve it by ourselves, but the question rather is do we really want to solve it?” He pointed to the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia by Germany, Britain, and the U.S. as evidence of the West’s role in the tragedy.

Toward the end of the conversation, Ai spoke about what motivated him to create “S.A.C.R.E.D.,” a sculpture depicting the prison he was detained in for 81 days. “I can remember every inch of that room,” he said. After he got out, people wanted to know what it was like inside. “I have such a responsibility to tell people, but it’s very hard to tell people. … Language doesn’t serve in many, many circumstances. That’s why art jumps out.”