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Ai Weiwei slams federal government for "shameful" attitude to refugees

"I want to be remembered as a failure," said Ai WeiWei, the artist and Chinese dissident whose work is headlining the Sydney Biennale. "That means, that guy made an endless effort but failed."

An activist who has persisted despite the lingering effects of a Chinese police beating before he went into exile an international celebrity, Ai has a clear sense of his place in the art world.

"My role is very simple," he said. "I defend human rights, human dignity. I defend people who are voiceless or silent or will never even have a chance to speak from a platform.

"I'm lucky enough that I have both a Chinese and a western education and practise contemporary art, which led me to the edge of modern philosophy about how an individual can survive or how a modern state should function ... It's individual struggle."

Ai is famed for designing Beijing's "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium, for investigating the substandard construction that saw thousands of schoolchildren killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, smashing a Han dynasty urn, filling a British gallery with 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds and filming a parody of the pop hit Gangnam Style.

Ai's monumental artwork Law of the Journey - a vast installation of an inflatable boat packed with refugees - is now in place on Cockatoo Island.


While praising Australia for being "much more open, much more vibrant" each time of the five times he has visited to exhibit his work, the Chinese dissident decried Australia's offshore detention policies.

"It's shameful," Ai said. "The policymakers or decisionmakers have this very harsh position on refugees which, in practice, is ridiculous ... This is a total insult to the 1950s [United Nations] treaty on refugees."

He has a strong presence at the Biennale that also includes what he called the world's biggest crystal ball and the premiere of his documentary on the refugee crisis, Human Flow, ahead of its cinema release.

But Ai did not want to say how Australia should handle the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

"I cannot give any advice to any nation," he said. "They all have reasons and very practical difficulties. But the fundamental problem is our understanding of our humanity, our human condition, today ...

"We are such a profit-seeking, post-capitalism society with globalisation. We explore every aspect of human nature. But at the same time, we don't bear responsibility. It's a moral issue, a deep moral issue."

A quietly intense figure at 60, Ai said he was responding in his work at the Biennale to more than 65 million refugees seeking sanctuary around the world.

Both Law of the Journey his documentary were inspired by watching small boats dangerously crammed with refugees arriving on the Mediterranean island of Lesbos.

"Thousands of people and children have lost their lives on the journey searching for freedom, for safety, for some kind of shelter and compassion," Ai said. "Europe basically has failed in dealing with this crisis. It's been more divided, more walls have been built."

Ai described Law of the Journey, which is made from the same rubber as the boats that carry refugees across the sea to Europe, as a brutal and harsh work of art.

"It's not a general art piece for museums or white walls," he said. "But it's part of reality ... My art is so much related to my struggle and my father's generation's struggle.

"And I can easily picture my son facing great struggle in terms of protecting freedom of speech and human rights. Without struggle, there is no liberty. There is no way we can see freedom."

While long critical of China's attitude to human rights, Ai was not troubled by the removal of term limits for the Chinese president on the weekend, a move that potentially allows Xi Jinping to remain in power for life.

"It doesn't change much," he said. "Even if you change leader every year, the system is the same ... We shouldn't forget: it's not a democratic society."


  • Seventy artists and collectives will be exhibiting for three months - with entry free - at seven locations around Sydney from Friday.
  • Ai Weiwei's Law of the Journey and Yukinori Yanagi's maze-like Icarus Container are among the artworks addressing movement and migration on Cockatoo Island.
  • Australians Sydney Ball, Roy de Maistre, Marlene Gibson and 14 other artists have work at the Art Gallery of NSW.
  • Ai Weiwei's Crystal Ball and Geng Xue's video Poetry of Michelangelo are features at Artspace in Woolloomooloo.
  • Works exploring the Biennale's theme Superposition: Equilibrium and Engagement are also on show at the Sydney Opera House, Museum of Contemporary Art, Carriageworks and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Haymarket.