Ai Weiwei and the importance of fighting for freedom

Ai Weiwei and the importance of fighting for freedom

Ai Weiwei appeared on the screen, looking down, frowning. The most famous Chinese dissident, expatriate since 2015, had in mind a subject, the migration crisis. The seriousness of his gaze contrasted with the birdsong that echoed in the distance.

“If we do nothing to protect basic human rights, if we don’t share our compassion, if we don’t help those who need help, if we don’t stop this crisis, wars or environmental issues, bigger disasters will follow,” he says, from Cambridge, in the east of England.

Ai Weiwei agreed to talk to us because of the presence, in Old Quebec, of his work Life Jackets. The 9e public art exhibition edition Unusual passagesa summer tradition, kicked off the day after National Day with the unveiling of 16 works. Life Jacketswhich aims to raise awareness of the migration crisis, will be visible in a few days near the Quebec River Station, on the ramparts of the Royal Battery.

The 65-year-old artist will not move. Only his work and the thousands of life jackets that compose it make the trip. Quebec is hosting a somewhat reduced version of the so-called temporary installation created in Berlin in 2016, but reproduced since “four or five times”. Its author has himself lost count.

” The first time [sur les colonnes du Konzerthaus de Berlin], it was during the peak of the arrival of refugees in Europe. Since then, it hasn’t stopped. The UN has just announced that there are more than 100 million displaced people in the world [près de 90 millions, plutôt, un triste record]. Their living conditions have not improved, quite the contrary”, observes the man who does not smile for the twenty minutes of the interview.

This is a human crisis, and all societies need to be aware of it

Ai Weiwei and his team have collected 14,000 life jackets on the Greek island of Lesvos, considered a hotspot: that of hope that pushes migrants to continue, or that of failure, that forces them to s ‘Stop.

It is Vincent Roy, director of Exmuro arts publics, the entity behind Unusual passages, which invited the Beijing-born artist. He wrote to her on the principle of “he who tries nothing obtains nothing”. And obtained 2000 of the 14,000 vests of the original project. They will be assembled and arranged, according to the artist’s instructions, on the heritage wall in Petit-Champlain.

Vincent Roy recognizes that including an artist of this nature is an important investment. “But his stamp is very honest, he says, during an exchange by email. We see that it is not only the money that interests him. The biggest cost is boat transportation, nearly $30,000 one way. It must be said that we filled a 40-foot container! »

Not a regional problem

“All the vests were worn by refugees,” says Ai Weiwei, for those who doubt it. The way he arranges them varies by location. In Berlin, they surrounded the columns. In Copenhagen, they covered the windows of a cultural building. In Vienna, they floated on the pond at the entrance of a palace. No matter where these vestiges emerge, the objective is the same: to confront those who see them with the reality of those fleeing war.

“The refugee situation is not a regional problem,” says the artist. It is a human crisis, and all societies must be aware of it. »

Ai Weiwei strongly believes in his role. He fought a thousand battles, as much against the symbols of power (the photos Study of Perspective in the foreground of which appears a middle finger) than for the compensation of the victims of an earthquake in Sichuan. His first reaction to the migration crisis will have been to reconstruct the famous image of Aylan Kurdi who died on a beach in 2015, Ai himself taking the position of the toddler. He admittedly sparked controversy and was accused of falling into recovery. His intentions, he assures, are always noble, never commercial, and target the injustices of the world.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to think that my work will change things,” he admits. But it’s realistic not to be part of a conspiracy. I must protect my integrity, express myself freely. I act according to my own conscience. »

“Art is an important part of humanity,” he continues. It can be very powerful, the best tool to confront the inhumanity of the laws. »

This is what has always driven him, as he said in his memoirs published in 2021 — 1000 years of joys and sorrowsunder its French title published in 2022. He has a protesting soul, always ready to denounce totalitarianism and its abuses. In China, it ended up costing him 80 days in prison and four years under house arrest.

At 65, the man not only published his memoirs. From March to September, he is the subject of the most important retrospective of his career: 144 works exhibited at the Albertina Modern museum in Vienna. But Ai Weiwei is not ready to be silent, as he has so much to denounce.

“I’m just getting started,” he said. I had to write [mes mémoires] to make sure people understand where I’m coming from, that I’m not just someone with good ideas. I never give up, and a long journey awaits me. »

Forced migration, through war, poverty or climatic disasters, risks keeping it alert. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine confirms to him that he still has to denounce the passivity of Western countries.

“Europe, but also the United States and Canada lack the vision to confront and decisively challenge China, Russia and other countries”, says the one who likes to remind that freedom is only obtained by struggle. “The West often forgets this and believes that freedom is an innate thing. Everywhere, you have to fight for it. »

Unusual passages

Until October 10, a 2.5 km route through the historic areas of Place Royale, Petit-Champlain and the Old Port.

To see in video

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