Ai Weiwei’s Little Blue Book on the Refugee Crisis

Ai Weiwei on the Greek island Lesbos, 2016, where he filmed Turkish refugees coming ashore for “Human Flow.” “Freedom is not an absolute condition, but a result of resistance,” he says in his new book, “Humanity.”

The prominent Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei has long used his fame and social media as a megaphone for his activism. It was because of his blogging and Twitter activity criticizing the government that he was detained by the Chinese police for nearly three months and had his passport taken away in 2011. And his Instagram posts of the last few years have brought increasing international attention to the refugee crisis, as has his documentary “Human Flow,” released last fall.

But now Mr. Ai has returned to a more traditional form of expression: “Humanity,” a little blue book published this week by Princeton University Press that collects excerpts from Mr. Ai’s thoughts and aphorisms — expressed in previously published interviews and other public appearances.

“The tragedy is not only that people have lost their lives,” Mr. Ai says in the book’s excerpt from a 2016 BBC interview. “The tragedy is the people who, in the very rich nations, have lost their humanity.”

Credit...Patricia Wall/The New York Times

Larry Warsh, a longtime collector and champion of Mr. Ai’s work, who edited the book and wrote its introduction, said he thought it was important to gather the artist’s most powerful statements all in one place.

“It’s a real snapshot of something that most people have a hard time grasping,” Mr. Warsh said. “It’s about putting it together in a way we all can see the significance of these issues.”

Mr. Warsh described “Humanity” as a continuation of the 6-inch-tall 2012 book “Weiwei-isms” — which he also edited — with Mr. Ai’s ruminations on individual rights and freedom of expression.

Mr. Ai will be interviewed onstage at the New York Times Art Leaders Network conference, a gathering in Berlin of established and emerging figures in the art world on Wednesday and Thursday. Mr. Ai sat down to discuss his new book and some of the issues he will address there. Following are edited excerpts.

Why put these thoughts in a book?

You have the internet, you have this information flow, but you can still use the structure of museums or galleries or newspapers or books to generate a public discussion. I cannot create it, I can’t even measure it, I’ll just be part of it.

What initially got you interested in the refugee crisis?

One lady from Iraq came to see me. She said, “I want you to help me to select drawings made in an Iraqi [refugee] camp. With your reputation, the wind is behind you, so we want to draw some attention.” I looked through their drawings — kind of naïve drawings, memories about how their houses had been bombed. They were like children’s drawings. I got very attracted to it. I said, “I can do that only with one condition: if I can send some of my team to that camp. I just want to interview those people.”

You ultimately were able to regain your passport and go to a refugee camp on the Greek island Lesbos yourself, for the documentary “Human Flow.” What was that like?

It’s so different when you see a real snake. I was quite surprised to see this very, very unprepared primitive response in dealing with this human crisis. It’s total neglect or wanting to avoid the issue. If you’re a doctor and you see sickness, you deal with it. This is a very scientific society — we have all kind of resources. Yet we were totally paralyzed. In the beginning, we didn’t know how to respond, just let it be rotten.

With your installation, “Laundromat” — featuring the cleaned castoff clothes of refugees — and your recent public art project, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” a series of fences and barriers, you’ve lately been a larger presence in New York. Why is that?

I have a strange relationship with the city — I really struggled here, but I love it here. Lately, I started thinking about New York’s history with immigration — everybody in New York comes from somewhere. Here are the strongest characters, the imagination, the passion. Something about New York is about losing control and having control at the same time. It generates so much energy. If you’re walking down Broadway, and you just see the people passing, you never know where they come from. They often look tired but they’re quite determined to survive here. I wanted to do something about this.

You have said that your early blogs were often funny. Yet most of your more recent artistic expression seems fairly serious. How do you explain that?

I probably used up all my humor. I have no humor anymore.

Given the immensity of the refugee crisis, why even try to make an impact? Do you ever get frustrated by a sense of futility?

How do you prove you’re living at this time? We are given one time to live. You’re a passenger passing through, you leave some traces. In China we say, ‘When birds pass over the sky…’ I’m just one of the birds who made some sounds. Wind will blow them away.”

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