Ai WeiWei, Instagram and a Piano for a Refugee

(Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Last year, Chinese dissident and humanitarian artist Ai Weiwei created a site-specific installation at Alcatraz Island, a notorious prison closed some forty years, now part of the California Parks Service. Using kites, legos and other seemingly playful objects, he delved into the issues of free speech and incarceration. (Read more here:Free Speech @LARGE: AI WEIWEI ON ALCATRAZ )

Ai WeiWei, the Chinese-born impresario of diversity in architectural design, installation, photography, sculpture and multimedia, is known for his outspoken views of protest against China’s repression of free speech. While other lesser-known dissident voices in China, (even 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo) languish in prison for their views without the same level of notoriety to protect them, Ai has become an international hero championing freedom of expression for all.

Alison Klayman’s compelling 2012 documentary “Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry” documents the artist’s brilliance and bravery in the face of governmental brutality and censorship. The film follows Ai as he fearlessly expresses himself through social media and artmaking, with cameras rolling as Chinese authorities shut down his outspoken (and often hilarious blog), send police thugs to beat him up, and hold him in hidden detention.

This year, as witnessed by his prodigious Instagram and Twitter feeds, he has taken on the Refugee Crisis.

A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

On Saturday, at a refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, brought a piano through the rain and invited 24-year-old Nour Al Khzam to play. A concert pianist in her homeland of Syria, she is trying to reach her husband in Germany. Ai Weiwei says of the performance, “it is not a concert, it is life itself,” and an attempt to change attitudes towards refugees.

It tells the world that art will overcome the war.–Ai Weiwei

According to Artnet,
“Ai has been an outspoken critic of the European authorities’ handling of the refugee crisis, and has realized several projects to raise awareness of the plight of migrants and refugees who are risking their lives to come to Europe. Some have gone over better than others.”

As part of his art activism, in December 2015 Ai Weiwei served as a volunteer at the Lesbos refugee camp where he used his social media channels to document the crisis of those displaced by war and poverty. In February he created an installation 14,000 life jackets at a gala venue in Berlin during the city’s Berlinale film festival in honor of refugees lost in the Aegean Sea attempted boat crossings from Turkey to Greece. That same month, the artist was criticized for recreating the image of a Syrian toddler whose body washed ashore in Turkey.

Do you think, as Ai Weiwei affirms, that art interventions can help overcome the war in Syria?
If you had no limitations, self-imposed or otherwise, what form would your own creative activism take?

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  1. Chloe Wang

    Art interventions can help bring positive change to the war in Syria, but I do not believe that it can overcome it. It can only help it to some extent. This is because, I think that this is a big issue that is hard to tackle. Art works as a way in bringing awareness and attention to the war, making the public more involved and hopefully understand more about the situation. Ai Weiwei is very well-known for his controversial art that almost always stir up a lot of media attention. I have always been interested in his works of art because of how open he is with his ideas, and how he is not afraid of crossing over boundaries to truly express himself. Not everyone is comfortable in doing this.

    I have always thought that dance could be used as a creative form for activism. By using one’s body, a complete story or message could be told. I think that it could be very powerful and catch the attention of the public.

    • John Wilson

      “I have always thought that dance could be used as a creative form for activism. By using one’s body, a complete story or message could be told. I think that it could be very powerful and catch the attention of the public.”

      I have always admired dancers in the fact they can use their bodies with such force and grace to move someone to tears. I have a few friends who are dancers and they have told me that when they dance, there is a story that is unfolding right before our very eyes. The message is in the feet, the sudden stillness, and even in the simplest of movements which seem to suspend time in its place.

      Art, in it’s timelessness, has a way to not only capture the beauty but all the despair in the message it is trying to convey.

  2. Madison Porter

    It is fascinating to see that someone believes that art can overcome war and change the world. I absolutely agree that performance art or installations can make a different like what Ai WeiWei has done. I believe that it will talk a lot more people to overcome the war in Syria, but WeiWei has started the process. He is very similar to Andy Warhol as an artist, but truly wants to make a difference in his country and around the world.

    If I didn’t have any limitations I would probably choose art as a form of activism as well. I love what street artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey do. Even if it is vandalism, they still make a difference and start conversations with their murals and sculptures they create. I hope art can continue to make a difference in the world. Social media can make a huge difference nowadays as well. It can start conversations and produce campaigns. It has a lot of control over what people believe and think.

    • John Wilson

      “He is very similar to Andy Warhol as an artist, but truly wants to make a difference in his country and around the world.”

      I would also say that he reminds me of Michael Moore too being that he rattles the cages and gets people to listen, take action, and break the confines they find themselves in. I haven’t seen the documentary but based on the trailer, it appears he crosses a few lines that could lead him to being incarcerated.

      Wouldn’t it be interesting to put Michael and Ai Weiwei together 🙂

  3. Valeria Maxera

    Art intervention can do much in the world. Thus, I believe, we live in such a social media, less-impact, world, that it is hard for it to bring positive change to the war in Syria, and to bring faith to the refugees. Art has always been used to present problems that are happening around the world, in order to bring awareness and create an impact. Thus, the difference with Weiwei is that he believes his own artistic movement can demolish the war. Which in reality, he is far away from doing that.

    I, in my own point of view, have never heard of him at first. Therefore I believe, a majority of people in Syria, haven’t either. Though, his own art does represent a strength in taking awareness of the whole problem. I believe it is impactful what he is doing, using art as activism, but never or less, it won’t change anything of the situation going on, it just brings awareness to the society that has access to social media.

    • John Wilson

      “I, in my own point of view, have never heard of him at first.”

      I must agree that I too have never heard of Ai Weiwei and how social media is breaking down the activism presence which is convoluted with messages of slapstick humor which is most often related to serious, frighting concerns. Take the elections this year. I am so over seeing all of the banter but I am really tired of seeing people make jokes out of what could be a horrific change of events. It is time that we all stop laughing and start acting up.

  4. Alexander Silva

    I think it’s definitely not possible to overcome the war with artistic expression. However, I do think it’s necessary to find time in the midst of crisis to bring happiness to people. Ai Weiwei’s idea of putting a piano in the center of a refugee camp on a rainy day was beautiful not because it solved any particular issues, but simply because it evoked some sort of dream in the minds of those in the camp. Personally, (and I’m by no means comparing my struggles to those of the Syrian people who struggle to immigrate), I could only imagine that hearing the beautiful sound of the piano would bring some sort of relaxation in the midst of such a low point in their lives. This alone is enough of a reason to bring the piano to the people.

    I would use social media as my form of creative activism. Specifically, I would use Instagram to try and highlight the beauty of the people- not the negatives. It’s a stunning thing when someone manages to capture a heartfelt moment of a difficult time in one’s life. HONY (Humans of New York) manages to do this, bringing awareness from a whole different perspective/lens.

  5. John Wilson

    Ai Weiwei seems like a very interesting character. By in by, art can be used as a tool to showcase radical situations that exist in the world but one must be cautious in not abstracting the view of the lens too much to deviate from the reality of the moment. Documentaries can often be explorative while taking a deeper look in to a particular facet of humanities.

    I like that this artist has such a strong opinion on freedom and it’s representation in his own culture but the message of that often gets diluted or confusing when artist go too abstract. As lovely as it is to see Nour Al Khzam play the piano, showing that art supersedes war, I ask myself “But can art save us from the war or only give us a temporary reprieve from its destructive view?”

    I watched the below video last year and it really hit me in the gut. It’s powerful, moving and shows a side of refugees struggling to get to freedom. People just don’t crawl in to a raft that might or might not make it across a vastness of sea. They are running from danger and need help. The images are artfully captured but hold the tone which is needed to bring people (on both sides of the situation) a deeper look in to reality

  6. Yiwen Li

    I think Ai Weiwei pursuit of free, fair and true. After reading the piece of information , I deeply feel Ai Weiwei is not just an artist, he works with a lot of irony to the Chinese society. He blindly listen to the Communist Party, can not resist pattern nose. His Chinese society today special “rights” is even more opposed. While Ai Weiwei’s artwork shows the basic free, fair and true , but also you can see very clear “provocation .” So I think if Ai Weiwei ‘s identity is defined as an artist, then he has done and to show the public has exceeded the scope of the artist.

    Ai Weiwei is an artist who is saying anything. He said that the masses can not be discussed in public , saying the social problems of government corruption , the puppet police as such. He spent a lot of time in this network platform to express their views , on the one hand is the whole world can see, there is an important reason is that Chinese government does not allow any media, or even anyone to interview him . He was almost no chance in a real public place to say something. So Ai Weiwei for “fair” and “free ” is defined and I think that is not afraid to tell the truth.

    I personally to Ai Weiwei have approval and disapproval. I agree with what he pointed out the social problems that China is indeed more or less lacks a vulnerability. For example there are different social status unequal treatment and unfair social phenomena. I do think that China could adjust the strict laws that can make people more equal life. This large groups lack the courage to stand up and point out shortcomings, so Ai Weiwei appears to prove this society still has a brave man. I do not agree in his ” provocation” and a slight extreme style .

    • John Wilson

      I find it intriguing the in today’s world how some countries have such a tight grip on what their communities are allowed to see and hear. Social media is hard to contain but if media outlets all work together for the government to conceal a truth, it dampens the view on a particular issue because social news is not a ‘trusted’ source. Bravo for people like Ai Weiwei for exposing this type of corruption and for using art to awaken minds.

  7. Kristi Tartaglione

    “It is life itself” is a touching portrayal of art and the way it communicates across lands and brings people together. I appreciate so much of Ai Weiwei and what he is doing despite the difficulties and the comedic commentary he finds in even the most sensitive and difficult approaches he takes on such as the refugees. It reminds me a lot of the community of social activist we have here at The New School and the positions we can take along with the impact and it makes me hopeful for future generations and how we may be reading about them, or us ourselves may be in the eyes of a course like this. Where thousands among thousands are seeing Weiwei’s work and without social media it would not be possible. Sometimes I see social media getting a bad wrap, but here it is clearly exposed for ground breaking work it could create. I want to hear more about the impact Weiwei is making through others such as when he invited Nour Al Khzam, as that part of the article clearly touched me in a way that I cannot describe.
    I would also like to comment on Yiwen Li’s response on her personal approval and disapproval of Weiwei. There’s a daring defiant nature when it comes to Weiwei’s “provocation”/”extreme style”, as Li said. But is that part of art, is there a risk and a dangerous approach that has to be made when making a statement as with Weiwie that I am not sure I agree or disagree with, even in art in general. It’s such a larger scope than just Weiwei’s work as it takes on art as a disruptive nature and how that is perceived. Ground breaking performance art is often disruptive especially that of which is channeling social issues.
    I also don’t believe it’s a simple as over coming war or bringing happiness. I believe it’s deeper and more engaging than that. He is bringing forth a lot of truth he finds and making is accessible to the public where many may not have seen it otherwise. It brings in a new audience that is made aware of all that he finds in the issues with China and any social justice issue in general. This brings me back to the idea of #blacklivesmatter which is just as much a phenomenon as is his comical blog that keeps being shut down because it’s “forcing” it’s way into people’s lives and minds by making such a big deal out of something weather or not that is good or bad is still debatable.

    • John Wilson

      “He is bringing forth a lot of truth he finds and making it accessible to the public where many may not have seen it otherwise.”

      It is interesting how the world of communications has evolved because under ground publishers did the same thing with leaflets they would print in order to devalue newspapers which printed half truths. This under ground system has evolved in to a worldwide web string where, in the past it was easy for the law to track someone down and put a stop to it. But when you have a community on the web who is sharing, re-sharing and keeping the message going it really doesn’t matter where it starts.

  8. Szu-Chen Doleon

    I do agree about “Ai Weiwei says of the performance, “it is not a concert, it is life itself.” However, when you’re facing a war in your country, it’s very hard to have other thoughts of art, rather than survival. Based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the very bottom of the pyramid is “Physiological”, which is breathing, water, food and sleep, and “Safety”, you’ll need to satisfy these two basic levels to reach the highest level of the pyramid, which is “Self-Actualization”, such as a person’s desire(i.e., desire of pursuing art.)

    As a musician, I think music is a very great way as creative activism. Music is doesn’t have limitations. You can play where ever you want by using your body or other instruments. And also, music is easy to be understand because it doesn’t limited y language, even uneducated people can enjoy music.

    • John Wilson

      Music also actually moves people through time and space in some ways through our emotions. Haven’t you ever heard a moving piece of music that you heard when you were a child. It is as if you are sitting in the room, replaying the memory and remembering the feelings you had that brought you there.

  9. shikun liu

    A good documentary should raise questions to the audience, rather than provide the answers, and “Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry” is the movie which let the audience to ponder. It asked us, if in the same situation, what will we do? Aiweiwei is indeed a fearless and brave man. He does not afraid of the Chinese Government, to use art as a form of expression, and aims to reveal the truth to the public, to fight for freedom of speech and justice.However, what is the bottom line of freedom of expression in art? In moral conservative Chinese society, will one’s work of bare and excessive direct criticism of the authorities offend the fundamental values of the society? I think the most basic human rights is the freedom of expression, we should let people to debate, to decide what is acceptable for them, and what is not acceptable, but not arbitrarily to suppress the ideas. Aiweiwei is like a hero to stand out and to bring up the prolems in China, otherwise, everyone will just keep silent and to pretend nothing happened.

    • John Wilson

      “I think the most basic human rights is the freedom of expression, we should let people to debate, to decide what is acceptable for them, and what is not acceptable, but not arbitrarily to suppress the ideas.”

      I just finished reading Mindy Kaling’s book and there are so many great passages in there about confidence, entitlement and expressing who you are. This one hit the nail on the head why some people have issues with how people express themselves. “But when you’re winning, it makes them feel like the are losing or, worse yet, that maybe they should’ve tried to do something too, but now it’s too late. And since they didn’t, they want to stop you. You can’t let them.” (PG 222 of Mindy Kaling “Why Not Me?”

      Debates are something I wish our system of government used more of because people could weed out emotions, segmentations, and personal options and focus on facts.

  10. Morgan Gildersleeve

    Do i believe that art interventions can help overcome the war in Syria? No—but i do strongly believe that it has the power to make a stance, and bring awareness. I think art is an interesting thing when it comes to making a political or social stance… as a creator i am easily moved, touched, and liberated by art. However, I know many people who are simply not affected by the same things that make me want to get up and do something! For insistence, when i saw
    Ai Weiwei’s 14,000 life jackets instillation in Berlin online, it really compelled me to do something, even if its juts making others aware of the reality of all of the innocent individuals that have been displaced by war and poverty. The sheer number of life vests was overwhelming to me, as I’m sure it was to many people. I know for me, it compelled me to learn more and get out and simply make others aware of this instillation and the horrendous realities of the War that is going on. With all of that being said, art can absolutely be extremely impactful when it comes to creating awareness and fighting for peace. If i had no limitations, i would travel and visit Syrian Refugee Camps and photograph what it is like to live in such conditions. Nothing to me is more powerful than an image that captures reality. Nothing staged—simply a visual documentation of the reality of what is going on. It is easy to sit back and enjoy the safety, freedom and security that we are lucky enough to have here in the US. However, it is important to make people much more aware of the atrocious reality that these refuges have been forced to endure.

  11. Christina Murray

    Education and awareness will always be the first steps in creating change. Art is a way to bring attention to a cause or concern that would have otherwise been overlooked. While Banksy is one artist that hit mainstream, he was successful in creating awareness about many controversial issues. I have never heard of Ai Weiwei, however I believe what he is doing is creating a space for people to see the realities of war. Will this overcome the war on Syria? Probably not. Will it change people’s attitudes towards refugees? Maybe. And change starts with one.

  12. Rhea Goyal

    Well known as Ai God, Ai WeiWei has set out to change and bring about the shortcomings of his hometown. It takes a man to know a man, I feel for his cause deeply as someone who can stand up and against their own hometown is commendable. Growing up in a place we know all the gory details that goes into its upbringing while, most times we are not allowed to stand against the place that has nurtured us. In Ai WeiWei’s case we know that something has strongly pushed him to voice out loud. He says that he does not want the younger generations to go through what he has or has seen happening to others in his home place.
    He is an artist with a strong motive hence each of his piece should leave a long lasting impact. Like his refugee camp and the music played by Nour Al Khzam in a way of communicating to her husband in Germany from Syria. “It is life itself” Ai WeiWei says that indicating that he brought someones talents to serve a purpose of bringing together two people, way of communicating through something more powerful that words itself. “It tells the world that art will overcome the war” says Ai WeiWei indicating that art has a great power to spread and leave a long lasting impact.
    Ai God has taken this approach to the masses through twitter feeds that are widely liked and retweeted. This is another great example of spreading something of consequence as opposed to the Kardashian Trending news usually. Ai WeiWei’s selfless measures may have to be very extreme and indeed has a creative side in most cases to being his point, think about it, when do we read something that has previously caught attention of millions and then ours being the million and first.

  13. Tara Shanahan

    I’m not a huge fan of Ai Wei Wei, but I think what he’s doing currently to promote awareness for the Syrian refugees is admirable. Activism as art is so important. A lot of art comes from the same place activism comes from. There are lots of great examples of contemporary artists who participate in activism art. Some of my favorites are Pussy Riot, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Santiago Sierra.
    Sierra’s work is particularly relevant here. One piece called, Laborers who cannot be payed, remunerated to remain in the interior of carton boxes. The people in the boxes were political exiles, who were paid minimum wage to sit under boxes. The effect of this piece was that when people walked in they didn’t know that there were people under the boxes the room just had a presence and it looked minimal. Another piece he did at the Venice Biennial. It was called Wall enclosing space. The artists at the Biennial each got their own box to transform. Sierra didn’t like the feel of borders so he just let the box collect garbage and didn’t do anything with it.
    Hirschhorn transforms communities by creating public spaces. His community centers are always in areas on the margins and makes locals active participants. The people of the neighborhood run it and build it. There’s always a learning piece and a commerce piece like a library and a coffee shop. Once all the rich art people come to see the piece it introduces neighborhood to a different world and two groups that wouldn’t be together.

  14. Anna Mackie

    Ai WeiWei’s work is extremely inspiring and does help to bring positive change, however I agree with some of the above comments that it his work will not entirely overcome the issues.
    Social media and (the) media in general has taken over society and has become a very prominent part of every day culture. WeiWei’s multi-media activism through blogging and other forms of media will help call attention to and promote awareness for Syrian refugees. In this day and age it is common for a huge issue to be brought up and fought for or against on the internet which has ultimately changed the outcome of certain situations as well as shed light on many issues. WeiWei’s approach on activism through the media and art can help spread awareness, however, there is so much more that needs to be done to completely eliminate the reality and outcome that Syrian refugees encounter.

  15. Leah Cohen

    Ai WeiWei is just the coolest person. He takes risks and uses objects for a purpose to tell a story. I thought bringing a piano to a refugee camp was just a beautiful, artistic idea. Despite the fact that they live in tents and are fleeing from persecution, they now have music and a reminder that there is still hope. It saddens me how much flak he received from his home country for all his political activism too. He’s helping change our world, one statement at a time. My favorite quote was his statement that theatre is our most important medium of our time–YES!!

  16. Anika

    I had never heard of Ai WeiWei before this post but I find that any artist that sacrifices their own personal security and wellbeing in the pursuit of revealing the truth and moving towards social change is admirable to say the least. The question posed at the end of the article is an important one: Is art actually enough to make a significant change in an issue as drastic as that of the refugee crisis? In my opinion, art is detrimental to influencing social change, however it can rarely achieve actual societal improvements without outside help of politicians, businesses, non-profits, etc. Ai WeiWei’s piano installation was deeply inspiring. If someone who had little to no prior knowledge on the refugee crisis saw the video online, they could potentially be influenced to research more and even engage in social action. It could also shift the mindset of someone who had a more war-centered viewpoint of the crisis. The three steps to enacting positive social change are awareness, engagement, and action. WeiWei’s work will easily create awareness of issues, and likely engagement as well, but like any other artist, he will struggle to find actual methods of implementing action towards such issues.

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