Arts·How To

Ai Weiwei: How to change the world in 3 easy steps

Art can transform society, but you don't have to be Ai Weiwei to stand up for what matters. The world's most famous activist artist shares his advice with CBC Arts.

Art can transform society, but you don't have to be a world-famous artist to stand up for what matters

Ai Weiwei: How to change the world in 3 easy steps

6 years ago
Duration 1:11
Art can transform society, but you don't have to be a world-famous artist to stand up for what matters

If you believe in fighting for what matters, but have no clue how to make a difference — well, you're like most people reeling over the U.S. election results.

If you help one [person], you help humanity.- Ai Weiwei

Art happens to be our favourite option, and all through history, you'll find painters, poets — you name it — unafraid to challenge authority. Ai Weiwei is the best known activist artist working today — which may be a given, since the Chinese artist is just one of the most famous artists in the world, period.


A vocal critic of the Chinese government, he was arrested in 2011 and detained on no charges. For four years, he was forbidden to leave the country. Now, a year after his passport was returned, he is staging four concurrent exhibitions in New York City.

"Ai Weiwei Laundromat" (Courtesy of Jeffrey Deitch Projects)

Each show is loosely connected through one theme: the refugee crisis — a topic especially close to Ai, who considers himself a child refugee (his family was sent to a labour camp because of his father's political views).

One of the exhibitions, Laundry, involves more than 2,000 items of clothing abandoned by Syrian families fleeing a refugee camp on the border of Greece and Macedonia. Ai visited the people there and documented their difficult living conditions — footage that also appears as part of the installation.

CBC Arts reached the artist in New York. We were given one question, and his answer takes on some timely significance as people look for ways to resist hate, inequality, fear — and all the things that divide us. See what he says in the video above.

For more from Ai Weiwei, listen to CBC Radio's Ideas tonight at 9 p.m. The artist speaks in depth with Eleanor Wachtel.





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