Ai Weiwei Melds Art and Activism in Shows About Displacement

Robin Pogremin.When migrants were forced to evacuate the Idomeni refugee camp along the Greek-Macedonian border, the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei came to gather what they left behind.


Mr. Ai did not haul back to his Berlin studio only the filthy clothes, shoes and blankets that would otherwise have been bulldozed away. He washed them. He ironed creases into the pants, brushed lint off the sweaters, scraped mud out of the sneaker treads.

Now he is bringing 2,046 of these items to New York, where he lived in the 1980s before he became one of the most influential artists of his day and before he spent four years detained by the Chinese government and denied his passport.

The show, “Laundromat,” opening at Deitch Projects’ Wooster Street space on Nov. 5, will present those cleaned castoff belongings, along with photographs of the refugee camps he visited (including some of Mr. Ai’s Instagram shots). It will also include a short documentary about Idomeni, which ends on the image of a pink heart-shaped light, still blinking on the back of a little girl’s shoe, like a beacon of resilience and hope.

“What comes to you is that children still jump around and old people still wait on line for a piece of bread, and women still have babies,” said Mr. Ai, 59, in an interview at his hotel in New York. (He lives and works in Beijing and Berlin.) “And clothes are still washed and dried on lines. They become like leaves on a tree.”


Mr. Ai’s studio in Berlin. The exhibition “Laundromat,” at Deitch Projects, will display migrants’ castoffs. Credit Courtesy of the artist and Ai Weiwei Studio

Anyone who has been following Mr. Ai on Instagram during the past year knows his primary preoccupation has been the plight of refugees. Ever since his passport was returned to him in July 2015, Mr. Ai has visited more than 20 camps all over Africa, Europe and the Middle East, documenting migrants’ struggles. Last year, Amnesty International awarded him the Ambassador of Conscience Award.

Mr. Ai said that the migrant crisis resonated with his family history; his father, the Chinese poet and activist Ai Qing, spent the first 20 years of his son’s life in labor camps.

Jeffrey Deitch, of Deitch Projects, said that he originally suggested a historical exhibition of Mr. Ai’s work, but the artist wanted to focus on the present, to sound the alarm about what he sees as an international emergency.

“I’m always interested in artists who don’t just make an art object but have a completely new conception of what an artist is,” said Mr. Deitch, sitting with Mr. Ai. “With Ai Weiwei, you don’t just get stimulation; you get wisdom. He’s given himself the discipline to organize his thoughts in a deep way.”

Mr. Deitch’s show is one of four Ai Weiwei exhibitions opening in New York on the same day. The Mary Boone Gallery’s two locations — on Fifth Avenue and in Chelsea — as well as Lisson New York will present “Ai Weiwei 2016: Roots and Branches.” Each of those three will show different examples of Mr. Ai’s recent sculpture, which include symbols of uprootedness and displacement, such as cast-iron tree trunks.

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation with Mr. Ai.

Why were these clothes left behind? The migrants have to go through mountains, they have to jump into boats — there is no time to wash. They have to throw away dirty stuff. There’s nothing artistic about it. It’s daily life. It’s human struggle.


Mr. Ai at the Idomeni refugee camp in Greece. Credit Courtesy of the artist and Ai Weiwei Studio
Why did you decide to wash their belongings? I don’t like to see them dirty. No matter how poor we were, my mom would say, ‘Wash your hands.’ So, for me, it’s human dignity to be clean. So basic.

How can racks of clothes bring more attention to refugees? The migrants are there but they’re not there. These clothes are existing, something you can touch. I grew up in a similar condition. I would wear a shoe worn by my brother. It was often too big, but I would wear it. It’s better than no shoes. My father used his ties as a belt because he didn’t have a belt. When he was doing hard labor in the winter, he would open up the tie to wrap on his feet because he had no socks and they were so cold.

Why have you become so consumed with this issue? It’s really a challenge when you see these people — it’s too big, too many — like an open wound. It’s not a problem that can be easily solved. You have generations of people who have no education and who see how the world has treated them.

How does it feel to have three shows at once in New York? From age 26 to 36, I lived on the Lower East Side — it was the most important time. Like every artist, I struggled. There is too much feeling. To come back is not easy.

Why did you post so many photographs of refugees every day? Maybe the most powerful thing I can do is film them — to show that piece of reality. I know so little about those people, about these conflicts. I have so many questions.

What aspect of visiting the refugee camps was unexpected? I walked into the tents and saw so many blankets. Then the blankets started to move because there were people under them. It reminded me of Joseph Beuys’s 1974 performance piece, “I Like America and America Likes Me.” It surprised me to see so many children not crying. They’re just like adults — it’s wet, it’s cold, it’s an unacceptable situation. Their tears must be all used up.


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