Artist Ai Weiwei has been giving the finger to authority for most of his career in a figurative sense, butting heads with Chinese censors, and refusing to tame his message even after several arrests, bans, and beatings. Fighting has been with him his entire life: his father, Ai Qing, a renowned poet, was declared a “class enemy” in 1967 and sent to a forced labor camp, along with his family, when Ai Weiwei was only 10 years old.
His photography series, Study of Perspective (1995 to 2003)–which you can see in the video above–is a literal flipping of the bird to symbols of power across the globe, from the White House to a nest of CCTV cameras, and makes explicit the artist’s non-violent form of dissent.
The video above is a mini-doc made for the first major Ai Weiwei retrospective in Greece, at The Museum of Cycladic Art, running through October 30, 2016. (It’s also his first exhibition in an archeological museum.) Along with showing the artist giving the finger to authority, it highlights Ai Weiwei’s recent works on the refugee crisis.
“The whole situation is so desperate,” he says, “because you don’t see human connections in those events. It’s completely cut off.”
In the past, Ai Weiwei has wrapped the pillars of a German concert hall in life vests, covered previous sculptures with golden thermal blankets, recreated the famous photo of the drowned Syrian child on the shore, and has shut down his own shows over anti-refugee laws in Europe.
At a 2015 march in London, Ai Weiwei and fellow artist Anish Kapoor flipped the bird over on Kapoor’s Instagram account as an invitation to the awareness-raising protest. (They also told fellow walkers to bring a single blanket as a symbol of the refugees’ situation.)
The sparse narration by the artist may sound fatalistic in the video, but he’s a man who knows the power of protest. But he also knows the consequences.
“What I have always been involved in is human rights,” he says. “The human struggle and the freedom of speech. Those values are not given by anybody. It always comes through fighting and struggle. Because somebody has to defend it. And also, if just one person defends it, it benefits everybody.”
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.