Ai Weiwei on refugees, empathy and the 'miracle' of the internet

Though his art has been warmly welcomed in Canada before, provocative and influential Ai Weiwei — once named the world's most powerful artist — has travelled to Toronto to accept an honour acknowledging his activism.

Activist artist in Canada to accept global citizenship honour

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, seen in Lausanne, Switzerland earlier this month, has arrived in Toronto to receive the 2017 Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship. (Christian Merz/Keystone/Associated Press)

Though his art has been warmly welcomed in Canada before, provocative and influential Ai Weiwei — once named the world's most powerful artist — has travelled to Toronto to accept an honour acknowledging his activism.

Ai is in Canada this week to receive the 2017 Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship, a prize founded by the former governor general to recognize an individual who "has encouraged thought and dialogue, approaches and strategies that strive to remove barriers, change attitudes, and reinforce the principles of tolerance and respect."

The internationally acclaimed Chinese artist accepts the prize Wednesday night in Toronto at Koerner Hall — an event called his first-ever Canadian speaking appearance.

Soleil Levant, a work by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei made from over 3,500 lifejackets discarded by migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos, is seen in Copenhagen in June. Ai's latest works explore the ongoing migrant crisis. (James Brooks/Associated Press)

An earlier attempt to bring the politically outspoken Ai to Canada for the 2013 opening of his retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario was foiled by the Chinese government, which detained the outspoken artist for 81 days in 2011 and subsequently nixed any travel plans by holding onto his passport for four years afterward.

His evocative, accessible works — which have been shown in museums, galleries and art festivals around the world — tackled issues such as freedom of expression, human rights, political prisoners, questioning power structures and digital communications.

Law of the Journey, an Ai Weiwei installation displayed at the National Gallery in Prague in March, comprised a 70m-long inflatable boat with life-size figures of 258 refugees. (Petr David Josek/Associated Press)

Ai's latest artworks have explored the plight of refugees, including his documentary Human Flow, a sprawling look at the global refugee crisis that was captured over the course of a year and in 23 countries.

After screening at the Venice and Toronto film festivals earlier this month, the Amazon Studios and Participant Media film is slated to open theatrically beginning this fall.

Ai talked to CBC News' Wendy Mesley on Wednesday about his new film, his activism and his hopes for the future. (The interview was edited and condensed) 

Creative drive

"I always have to try to find a language to build up this kind of communication between the people who [are] desperate, have no chance to have their voice to be heard, and the people who [are] privileged and almost think those incidents have nothing to do with our real life and turn their faces away. So as an artist, I always have to make this kind of argument and try to find a language to present my ideas."

On meeting refugees and empathy

"If [the suffering of others] doesn't [mean] anything to us, then we ask the simple question: 'Who are we?'

"We have to ask that question constantly, to make judgement of ourselves, because this judgement can only come from ourselves. That only can tell us what kind of quality and life we believe we're living… This is always the right question to ask. If we never ask that question, our lives are questionable."

Recreating the Alan Kurdi photo

"I [wanted] to be in the same condition – to touch my face on the sand, to hear the ocean – which that little boy has no privilege to do that. And that little boy Alan is not a single person: it's thousands of refugees kids [who] lost their lives…

"Most people, they don't want to face the reality. They want to either romanticize it or to create some kind of notion, you know, this is something untouchable, which is absolutely false and fake. We let it happen. It only happened because we let it happen." 

The 'miracle' of the web

"The internet is the real world. If you see a baby playing games with another baby, kids he's never met; if I write an article [that] can be seen from Africa or South America and someone would come up and say "I read what you have said" – that is a miracle. Individuals have never had a chance to equip themselves, to have their voice be heard. The only voice that could be heard, in the past, was from [those in] power. Now, that's shifting and changed.

The social media-savvy Ai, seen snapping a photo with his mobile phone at a 2015 panel discussion in Berlin, believes the internet is a powerful force giving voice to those who've never had it before. (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

"Of course, it's the real world: there's a lot of junk and fake news. But that puts everybody, individuals, in a real battle with reality, rather than to be totally neglected."

On his hopes for his son

Ai Weiwei is seen with his eight-year-old son Ai Lao and his wife Lu Qing at the Venice Film Festival premiere of Human Flow earlier this month. (Domenico Stinellis/Associated Press)

"My situation's still much better than my father's. Those generations, millions of people went silent, there's no single voice [that] can be heard. Today, I still [have] a very big voice in talking about human rights and, you know, freedom of speech. I hope I can create a better condition for my son's generation and they don't have to put up the same kind of fight as his father and his grandfather did."

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei visits Canada to accept award

6 years ago
Duration 10:08
Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei is in Canada to receive the 2017 Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship. He discusses refugees, empathy and the "miracle" of the internet in a sit-down interview.

With files from Wendy Mesley and Sean Brocklehurst