Less than 48-hours into his fifth visit to Australia, internationally sought-after multimedia artist Ai Weiwei’s name began appearing in front-page stories, TV news headlines and countless social media posts.

Given his forthright opinions and provocative creative output criticising refugee policies – including Australia's – and condemnation of human rights abuses, especially in his former home China, it’s little wonder the artist caused a stir.

“Australia is the nation I’ve visited the most for arts events, which is strange because I’m quite active in Europe and the United States,” he says. “The first time I got almost no attention or interviews … but this time it’s packed.”

Weiwei arrived in Sydney to launch the 21st Biennale of Sydney, appearing in conversation with Biennale director Mami Kataoka at the sold-out opening event at the Sydney Opera House. He has three works in this year’s Biennale, including his documentary film Human Flow; his huge, arresting installation Law of the Journey at Cockatoo Island, and the sculpture Crystal Ball, 2017 at ArtSpace in Woolloomooloo.

He may be a giant of the international art scene, regularly compared with Turner Prize-winning artist Damien Hirst and American artist Jeff Koons, but in person Weiwei is quietly spoken, considered and modest.

He’s a true polymath or, in the words of prominent gallerist and philanthropist Gene Sherman who brought him to Australia in 2006 for the Sherman visual arts residency program, “a renaissance man”. Filmmaker, sculptor, architect, blogger, activist and academic, the 60-year-old’s output is prolific.

He designed the Bird’s Nest Beijing Olympic stadium, only to later say he regretted helping the Communist Party; painted millions of ceramic sunflower seeds for an exhibition at London’s Tate Modern; controversially smashed a 2000-year-old Han Dynasty urn; and covered the pillars of Berlin’s Konzerthaus (concert hall) with 14,000 refugee life jackets. There’s clearly a sense of humour in there, too – his entertaining Youtube parody of Psy’s Gangnam Style is well worth watching.

It’s easy to see where his endless desire to highlight human injustice stems from. “My father spent 20 years in exile, he was a very well-known poet, forbidden from writing a word,” says Weiwei of his upbringing during the Cultural Revolution. “I grew up in a very remote area thousands of miles from our home, probably the furthest point you can go from Beijing. That’s when the story started. Mentally I got involved when I was born.”

Like his father, Weiwei was targeted by the authorities, jailed for 81 days without charge and viciously beaten after he exposed the names of thousands of children killed in the 2009 Sichuan earthquake, a result of alleged substandard building construction. Despite having his confiscated passport returned, he now lives in Berlin, and says it’s still too dangerous to return to living in China.

The idea for Human Flow came during a visit to Lesbos in Greece with his young son and partner when a refugee-filled boat washed up before them. Weiwei spent the next 18 months visiting 40 refugee camps in 23 often dangerous, war-torn countries, conducting more than 600 interviews and shooting 900 hours of footage.

The result is a compelling but deeply distressing film he hopes will bring international awareness, compassion and action for the 65 million people currently considered refugees.

“At its core it’s about human dignity, human rights,” he says. “How do we define ourselves? How do we treat others? Million and millions of children will never have education and the average refugee will stay a refugee for 25 years – that means their lifetime. I don’t think any kind of tragic situation can be bigger than this. And if we don’t ask or face that question in the media or universities or social discussion, then we miss a big point.”

A much simpler, but just as impactful statement on refugees is Law of the Journey, Ai’s imposing 60-metre boat containing 300 or so faceless figures the artist describes as “very cold, very brutal, almost intimidating”. The installation is constructed from the same material used to make refugee boats.

This is only the second country to display the work, which was first shown in Prague last year. And while Australia may be Weiwei’s most-visited country, he pulls no punches when it comes to commenting on our government’s refugee policy.

“Prague has a really hardline stance on refugees and Australia also has a very critical position. In both cases it’s very hard to understand.”

The 21st Biennale of Sydney runs from March 16 to June 11 at various locations. Ai Weiwei’s installation Law of the Journey is at Cockatoo Island, his sculpture Crystal Ball is at ArtSpace in Woolloomooloo, and Human Flow opened on March 15. See here for details.


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This article was updated on May 25, 2018.