Art, Ai Wei Wei, and the refugee crisis

Ai Wei Wei’s latest installation art has yet again presented a striking and meaningful message, as the grandiose pillars of the Konzerthaus Berlin concert hall were bound and covered with the abandoned, bright orange lifejackets of 14,000 displaced refugees on the shore of Greece’s Lesbos Island. Well-known, especially in the PRC, Taiwan and Hong Kong, for his controversial expression against China’s governmental endeavors, Ai is primarily an artist who, using what he does best, advocates for issues he holds close to heart.

Ai’s ongoing stay at the Idomeni refugee camp in northern Greece has been captured closely on his social media account, as he detailed photographs of his surroundings and the people he had encountered. His uploads are unconventional, and provide fresh, ground-level perceptions of the hardships and daily lives of the displaced in Greece. Approximately 14,000 refugees had been barricaded after Macedonia closed off its borders, stranded within a rapidly overflowing camp. “You can’t believe this is happening in Europe in the 21st century,” Ai had stated.

The hunger strike of the Iranian refugees situated in Calais camp due to unsuccessful entry into England had also made an appearance on Ai’s social media account, as he records portraits of the tight-sewn lips and blindfolded eyes as demands for non-violation of human rights. The hunger strike and protest was a response to the multiple cases of police violence against refugees and displaced civilians – some of them young children. It was also directed towards the clearance of the migrant encampment, also known as the “Calais Jungle”, threatening to further displace the refugees.

(Photo courtesy of

(Photo courtesy of

Who is Ai Wei Wei?

Ai is most famously known for his outspoken and disputed endeavors against the PRC government post-Sichuan earthquake in 2008. He had shown efforts in drawing international attention through the controversial recreation of Alan Kurdi’s photograph, an infant refugee who had perished on the Turkish shore of Bodrum.

Ai’s most recent project sends him to the Greek Island of Lesbos, where he engages his art with the refugee crisis, drawing attention to the heated topic. He describes his spontaneous trip to Lesbos Island in order to interact directly with the refugees as a “personal act”, on the behalf of an artist who is “trying not just to watch these events, but to also act” (The Guardian).

The 2005 Sina Weibo blog that had brought Ai to the public eye and kick-started his activism journey, was a mixture of political criticism, social commentaries and contemporary art. His blunt and daring commentaries on the events during and post-2008 Sichuan earthquake led to the PRC’s pursuit (they placed him in secret detention), and led to the beginning of his rigorous quest for creative freedom and universal human rights.

2008, the year of the deadly Sichuan earthquake that had seized over 69,000 lives, marked Ai’s most distinguished activism effort. His compilation of over 5,000 names of children who had died during the earthquake due to deficient architectural construction was a direct jab at the central government’s regime. The questions and challenges presented in his works and activism stir controversy in the uptight Chinese social environment that is heavily monitored by the PRC, raising local and international voices that call for a check on freedom of speech and governmental transparency.

(Photo courtesy of & AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

(Photo courtesy of & AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

What is the situation, and how is Ai involved?

Pope Francis’ visit to the Greek Island of Lesbos in late April 2016 led to the desperate calling of action for universal aid, as demands for a revision of the Turkey-European Union accord had been undergoing increasing rigor. There are currently 55,000 refugees spread across 40 camps in Greece, living under the daily fear of deportation.

Amongst others, Ai and Pope Francis’ visit to Lesbos Island shed light upon the dire living conditions of the refugees that had been stranded in the camps. Riots have broken out in protest against the human rights violations that refugees have suffered. Chants of “freedom, freedom” filled the streets, and violence rose amongst the numerous refugee camps, including ones located in Lesbos, Chios and Idomeni.

Ai is an artist who aims to involve as many people as possible into the making of his works – a lifelong collection of socially opinionated and convention-challenging pieces. He stated in an interview with The Guardian, that he would “never separate these situations from my art”, and that “as an artist, [he] has to relate to humanity’s struggles”. By sharing photographs of the daily lives and living conditions of the refugees in Greece, Ai is involving his audience and social media followers in a larger realm that extends contemporary art. Instead, this realm encompasses society and international issues, challenging the world’s presumptions on the meanings behind ‘art’, and why it is created.


Ai Wei Wei’s Instagram account:

Editorial – ‘Ten Years’: Hong Kong’s Political Awareness

When the movie Ten Years was released, Hong Kong was in a commotion. The low-budget film with its virtually volunteering actors had surpassed the newest Star Wars movie at the Yau Ma Tei box office last December, marking the Hong Kong people’s political awareness, expression and to some extent, unrest.

Ten Years was a project directed and cultivated by five local undergraduate students from institutions scattered around Hong Kong. The entire production consists of five short films compiled together, connecting to one another under the larger discourse: a fictional foresight of what Hong Kong will become in ten years’ time. The five short films, ‘Extras’, ‘Season of the End’, ‘Dialect’, ‘Self-immolator’ and ‘Local Egg’, address socio-political issues that are currently in the local heat of debate.


Where did it all start?

In December 2014, the ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’ campaign, a disobedience project aiming to inflict pressure on the PRC into implementing an electoral system of universal suffrage, and the spontaneous ‘Umbrella Movement’ that followed, brought people of different ages and occupations onto the streets. The movement was quite divided, as 12 different organizations and political parties were present, each advocating for their own version of ‘universal suffrage’ and ‘democracy’.

Following the 2014 ‘Umbrella Movement’ and ‘Occupy Central’ protests that had placed Hong Kong under international spotlight, Ten Years symbolizes an artistic rise in political awareness and expression. Civil disobedience, language restriction and self-identity are themes within the piece that protest against China in response to the student strikes and subsequent violent outbursts. As SCMP writes, it conveys “Hongkongers’ worst post-Occupy fears”.

The 2014 civil disobedience triggered the immense sense of segregation and disunion between the people, as more campaigns and alliances of different views emerged, such as the ‘Blue Ribbon Movement’ and the ‘Silent Majority for Hong Kong’. The disparity in opinions was the fitting climate for brewing violence and dissent, allowing any change to become impossible as 2015 rolled around. The prospect of previous efforts inflicting any effect at all on Hong Kong’s future was shattered when the Pan-Establishment, or Pro-Beijing camp, suddenly left the Parliamentary hall as they were asked to vote on the bill to pass a reformed (but apparently unsatisfactory) version of Hong Kong’s 2017 Chief Executive Election last summer. This tremendous act was broadcasted live. That summer, the disorganized state of the authorities left Hong Kong in awe, or rather, in distress, having witnessed the (live) process of returning back to square one.

Student activists giving a speech at the 2014 Umbrella Movement. (Courtesy of

Student activists giving a speech at the 2014 Umbrella Movement. (Courtesy of


Post-Occupy: where does Ten Years come into play?

Hong Kong has entered a period aptly deemed the “post-occupy” time, where collective contemplation and criticism of past events start to sprout. Today, Hong Kong is divided as ever. The peaceful protestors of Central and Admiralty have long gone, as news channels are teeming with students and protestors with rebellious thoughts and schemes to break into government quarters. The Mong Kok civil unrest riot, better known as the ‘Fishball Revolution’ (there was a crackdown on illegal fishball-selling hawkers) that broke out on Chinese New Year in February 2016 at one of Hong Kong’s most populous districts, is a case on point of the pent-up dissatisfaction and opposition between civilians and authority. The violence that night left the Hong Kong Police Force, once known as “Asia’s finest”, with a tarnished image as severe distrust aroused amongst the Hong Kong people.

‘Extras’ launches a subtle but penetrative blow at Hong Kong’s pro-establishment and PRC-supporting groups. Kwok Zune, director of the short narrative in Ten Years, describes the local armed forces as “not much different from triads”, highlighting the police’s rising rate of power abuse and infliction of violence on those with opposing views. As a light movie review, netizens have linked the recent Mong Kok riot with the plot of ‘Extras’, exclaiming that the scenes in the movie are gradually materializing.

Another heatedly debated topic is the extermination of Cantonese, Hong Kong’s official language. ‘Dialect’ depicts the marginalization of a Cantonese-speaking taxi driver who had failed to pass a Mandarin proficiency examination. The underlying pro-Cantonese sentiments expose not only the protection of the Hong Kong identity, but also an exaggerated defense against those who threaten its place.

Hong Kong’s political unrest over the past year and a half has been a striking one. Though fragmented, the once largely politically silent and indifferent majority, especially students, are starting to speak up. However, Hong Kong itself is still unsure if it is prepared to hear the voices of its people. For a choir to produce a harmonious sound, the soprano, alto, tenor and bass singers must cooperate with one another, and listen to the sounds that each person is producing. Good progress cannot be achieved without open-minded discussions that give way to creative thought and new perspectives.