Foam Amsterdam is hosting the #SafePassage exhibition by Ai Weiwei from 16 September to 7 December. Citizen Carl was invited to the press event to check it out.

The famous Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who is constantly monitored by the Chinese government, feels a strong solidarity with the increasing number of refugees now flooding into Europe. Weiwei and his team have visited multiple refugee camps in various countries since their first visit to the Greek island of Lesbos back in 2015. His exhibition #SafePassage is about the struggle of individuals under the power of the almighty authorities which dominate society.

At the #SafePassage press event, Weiwei reflected on the future children are growing up in:

“This war effects everybody’s future; it’s not something you can avoid” – Ai Weiwei, #SafePassage launch

He talked about surveillance affecting every aspect of his life, making him who he is today. His personal experiences with these kinds of systems have caused him to leave his own country. He now finds a similarity with his own experiences and the struggle of the hundreds of thousands who flee their homelands. They risk their lives during journeys towards Europe, only to find themselves stranded in front of closed borders.


Incoming boat with refugees – 17 February 2016, Lesbos, Greece – © Ai Weiwei Studio

Ai Weiwei’s exhibition

#SafePassage features Ai Weiwei’s own experience of being under surveillance, and includes walls filled with thousands of images taken with his cell phone. These images are predominantly taken spontaneously and show what it’s like to live in a refugee camp. Each image gives an expression to the countless encounters Ai Weiwei had with people in refugee camps, emphasising the size of this crisis in a painful way.

“For me to take a photo and post or share with other people is a sign of life. It’s a form of life.” – Ai Weiwei, #SafePassage launch

The collage is accompanied by a selection from his marble statues series, as well as videos such as Chang’an Boulevard (2004) and On the Boat (2016). The first shows a road in Beijing separating east from west, and in the latter, the artist is abandoned on a boat in the middle of the ocean.

“It really makes me suffer to feel I couldn’t help them. That makes me very very sad…” – Ai Weiwei, #SafePassage launch


Band, 2016, marble © Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei Studio

About the artist

For our readers who do not know Ai Weiwei that well: he is considered to be the most important Chinese artist, designer and curator of his time and is globally recognised for his opinion on social and cultural matters. His criticism and research on irregularities seen in Chinese politics have made him globally-recognised. This even led to him being secretly held hostage for 81 days in Beijing airport back in 2011 without officially being charged. During this imprisonment, he was accompanied by two guards 24 hours a day. After he was released and stripped of his passport to prevent him leaving the country, he was still closely monitored by the government. During this period he started blogging and put up a live stream ( so people all over the world could view his daily activities. These have both been taken offline by the Chinese government. Thesedays, Ai Weiwei still sticks to his self-surveillance strategy, posting Instagram photos of his whereabouts around the clock. At the #SafePassage launch event, Weiwei also noted that his memory has never been that good, which is also why he likes recording things!


WeiweiCam 2012 © Ai Weiwei

He is best known for his sculptures and comprehensive structures in which he conceptualises the link between traditional cultural craftsmanship and contemporary political expressions. This relationship is expressed by referencing the historic roots, different materials, paradigms and issues of modern day society. Apart from being an artist, Ai Weiwei is also an architect, author, filmmaker, philosopher and political activist. All of his activities are closely related to contemporary Chinese art and society, whether it’s through his collaboration with the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, through his involvement in building the Olympic stadium in Beijing in 2008, or through his research on Chinese corruption.

Asked whether he will ever return to China from Berlin, where he is currently residing, Weiwei expresses a desire to, but notes that it’s getting difficult the longer he’s away. “The longer you stay, you feel there’s so much you can do here,” he said at the #SafePassage launch. He explains that many of his lawyers and friends are still in jail, and have not been properly sentenced for several years. “I can make a lot of noise, but I cannot really help,” he says. He also has a seven year old son, who he fears not seeing for a number of years if he returns to his home country.

“For me…being an artist or activist is the same thing. It shows me different kinds of circumstances. That helps me to question my status as an artist.” – Ai Weiwei, #SafePassage launch

Website: Ai Weiwei & Foam Amsterdam


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