b. 1957, Beijing, China
Throughout his career, the work of artist and activist Ai Weiwei has centred around issues of human rights, in his native China and beyond.
Since the summer of 2015, Ai and his team have travelled to over forty refugee camps across the continents, conducting interviews with local people, politicians and NGOS (on-governmental organization) to produce a documentary, Human Flow. The film sheds light on the global refugee crisis by addressing a broad context of different histories, regional and religious conflicts, economic pressures and environmental crises. Human Flow gives a face to the faceless, to the vulnerable and the displaced.
Ai frequently uses wallpaper in his work, playing on its decorative qualities as contrasted with serious, political subject matter. Odyssey is a lyrical depiction of six themes that emerged from his experiences in the camps: war; the ruins of war; the journey undertaken by refugees; the crossing of the sea; the refugee camps; demonstrations and protests. The wallpaper derives its visual language from early Greek, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian carving, pottery, and wall painting. Ai juxtaposes this with iconography from modern-day conflicts, images found on social media and the internet, as well as depictions of his own personal engagement with the crisis.
Ai made the work Tyres in response to the time he spent in Lesbos, the small Greek island that, in 2015, became the main point of entry into Europe for thousands of migrants making the crossing from Turkey. Ai first visited Lesbos in the winter of 2015, and subsequently spent months there, documenting life in the camps through photographs and videos uploaded to his social media feeds. His intention was to raise awareness of the harsh conditions for those fleeing their war-torn homes. This work is composed of twelve replicas of a simple rubber lifebuoy ring, similar to the many that litter the shores and wash up on the beaches of Lesbos. Delicately handcrafted in fine marble, the life rings are elevated from trash to treasure. Tyres becomes symbolic of life and death; sometimes life-saving, yet also a testament to the poor conditions and risk which the refugees face.
Photo credit: Ai Weiwei Studio, 2012