It speaks volumes about the plight of rabble-rousers in China today that Ai Weiwei, the country’s most famous dissident artist, has decided that working there is too dangerous — so he wants to go to Syria.
Ai, who received his passport back from Chinese authorities last year, is turning his attention to Syrian refugees. For the artist, who spent 81 days in Chinese detention in 2011 and then was blocked from traveling for four years, it is a way of remaining relevant without landing in jail.
Ai reflected on his situation during a trip to New York last month. He said he does not want his 7-year-old son to experience the same difficulties as he did as a child when his father, the acclaimed Chinese poet Ai Qing, was purged after he fell out with former leader Mao Tse-tung and was exiled.
“It’s not fair for a child, his father taken away for [a] stupid reason,’’ Ai Weiwei said after a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I don’t want to put too much trauma on him like my father did. My father had no choice. I do have choice.’’
Ai still spends time in Beijing, his birthplace and home of his octogenarian mother, but increasingly he is out of China. He has a home and studio in Berlin, where his son attends an international school, and another studio on the Greek island of Lesbos, the center of his work with refugees.
As though making up for lost time, the 59-year-old artist has lived and worked in a remarkable number of places around the world since regaining his passport. He has so many exhibits going this year it is hard to keep track — four locations in New York City, others in Princeton, N.J., and Pittsburgh, another in Florence and one that recently concluded in Vienna.
His documentary about refugees is being filmed in Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Israel, the Gaza Strip, Mexico — and he hopes, Syria.
“This is somebody who didn’t have a passport for years and so he has a lot of pent-up energy with much he wants to say and share,’’ said Jeffrey Deitch, the former director of the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art whose New York gallery, Deitch Project, is currently exhibiting Ai’s work on refugees. “He is also someone who has a lot of courage.”
Ai’s trip last month to New York was the first in five years to the city where he lived in the 1980s. During his talk at the council, he had little to say that was encouraging about the political climate in China. Many of his friends, lawyers and activists have been detained, often without formal charges, beaten, fined or placed under house arrest, he said.
“I don’t even think they can exist in China, even just for lawyers who fight for, you know, just basic rights of their clients,’’ Ai said. ”If you touch any political issues, there’s no such thing as rule of law. It’s getting really very bad, the situation. … There is no space to negotiate.’’
Ai has done so many things to offend the Chinese Communist Party it is hard to pinpoint what exactly got him in trouble. But likely more than anything else — even more than the self-portraits in which he gives the middle finger to the portrait of Mao at Tiananmen Square — it was his tributes to young victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that angered authorities.
Ai compiled the names of more than 5,000 students killed when their shoddily constructed schools collapsed, and proceeded to keep the tragedy in the news with various projects devoted to their memories.
One of the more memorable was a 55-foot-long snake made of children’s backpacks that were salvaged from the earthquake zone.
The artist’s recent work echoes that approach. For an exhibit open until Dec. 23 in New York entitled “Laundromat,” Ai collected 2,046 articles of clothing and shoes that were left behind when authorities demolished a refugee camp at the border of Greece and Macedonia. The clothes were meticulously laundered, ironed, categorized and photographed, the care devoted to each item illustrating the preciousness of the humans who once wore them.
“It is a way of giving refugees back their dignity,’’ said Deitch, the gallery owner. “We see people leave this exhibit in tears.’’
Ai became interested in refugees when he was asked to select drawings by people living in the Shariya refugee camp in Iraq to be displayed at last year’s Venice Biennale. Although he couldn’t travel to Iraq himself without his passport and sent assistants instead, he found himself strongly identifying with the refugees. It reminded him of his childhood living in exile with his father in China’s remote Xinjiang region.
“I know what it is like to be viewed as a pariah, as sub-human, as a threat and danger to society,’’ he wrote in an essay for the “Laundromat” exhibit.
In a photo that received some criticism as a publicity stunt, Ai had himself photographed lying face down on a beach in the same position as Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian toddler whose body washed up on a Turkish beach and whose image was shown around the world last year.
Ai is simultaneously a master of publicity and quite secretive about his upcoming work. He has disclosed little about the documentary, except in an interview published through the Deitch gallery in which he said his crews were covering several different stories — a young pianist who fled from Syria, a family of 30 people from Afghanistan, a female refugee carrying her cat. (Ai is famous for his love of cats.)
Ai told the Council of Foreign Relations that he hoped to go to Syria for the project.
“I really want to face the danger and to be in the situation. I think that’s more real. That’s why I want to get into Syria as documentary maker,’’ he said.
During the same appearance, Ai bristled slightly at a question from a reporter about whether he had given up on artwork criticizing the Chinese government.
“That’s a very, very simple conclusion or some kind of suggestion. When I fight [for] human rights in China, I never think that’s human rights in China. I think that’s human rights everywhere,’’ he said. “Human rights is the value which I believe is universal.”