Ai Weiwei, an acclaimed Chinese contemporary artist and human rights activist, shared his beliefs on the values of real life experience over education at an event Thursday discussing his most recent project
Ai’s work, focusing heavily on human rights, has angered the Chinese government on many occasions, leading to his 2011 arrest by the Chinese government, which sparked worldwide protests. His provocative art includes many documentaries on human rights violations and a photo series of him smashing a centuries-old Chinese urn.
Hosted by Columbia University School of the Arts and Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, the event featured Ai in conversation with Amale Andraos, dean of GSAPP, and School of the Arts Dean Carol Becker about his project titled “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.”
Commissioned by the Public Art Fund, the project includes a series of installations throughout the five boroughs, including structural installations, posters, poetry, statistics, and more—each speaking to the increasing migration crisis around the globe.
During the discussion, Ai spoke about his brief education in New York, where he attended Parsons for six months before dropping out.
Ai said he believed that institutional education could not teach the kinds of lessons one can learn through real-world experiences.
He added, in a rather playful but nonetheless earnest tone, that three months of higher education seemed enough.
The speakers also discussed Ai’s views on the global displacement crisis, on which much of his work focuses. Andraos and Becker pointed out that Ai gained global attention for starting an online movement to find the names of the child victims of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake—something that the Chinese government refused to do.
Ai said that he ultimately gathered 100 volunteers to investigate the Sichuan Earthquake, knocking on the doors of missing children’s families and being arrested many times in the process.
Ai described this movement as an example of how he uses the internet and other technological platforms to spread his human rights activism and to help gather others who hold similar views in order to raise awareness. He commented that the internet offers him a significant amount of power.
Ai’s emotional investment in the earthquake pervades his other installations, “Straight” and “Remembering,” which commemorate the victims of the Sichuan Earthquake.
Attendees of the event spoke highly of Ai’s discussion.
“I really enjoyed hearing him talk about education,” said Troy Segala, a freelance playwright and actor who attended the conversation. “It seems like with everything that he’s done, he’s taken a very practical aspect and formed his own uniqueness. That’s why I enjoy him as an artist, the way he uses politics through his own cultural lens … I don’t think that’s taught [in schools].”
Ai’s project, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” can be seen in over 300 locations, and will open officially to the public on Oct. 12. Two of these 300 installations are in Central Park, where a large, bird-shaped fence is on display in the Doris C. Freedman Plaza, and Washington Square Park, where a fence molded in the shape of two people fills the space beneath the arch.
“If anything goes wrong with the arch, I’ll tell them I’m an artist,” joked Ai.
The conversation wrapped up with the discussion of his most recent film, “Human Flow,” which will premiere on Oct. 13. The film follows people in 23 different countries, where Ai scrutinizes migration crises due to climate change, natural disaster, war, and other social factors.
A viewing of the trailer for “Human Flow” followed the end of the discussion. Silence came over the room immediately afterward. While Ai’s humorous, yet honest manner of speaking elicited laughter and lightheartedness from the audience despite the gravity of his subject matter throughout the talk, the film’s explicit visualization of such refugee crises hit home—exactly the artist’s intent.