Ai Wei Wei: Insincerity or Inconsistency?

The day I landed in Budapest marked two months’ since the Hungarian government completed the construction of a fence that now extends along the Croatian border. By the time the time the fence was completed, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees had already crossed the border, in transit to Germany and Scandinavia.

In the Magyar capital, apart from a smattering of heavily armed military men, there was very little to suggest that anything out of the ordinary was happening. It lead to me to thinking that maybe this is the new normal.

Despite the hostile political situation, the time I spent in Hungary and surrounding countries was everything that I hoped it would be. However, I was itching to get back home so I could see something that I had been waiting a long time to see: the dual Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria.


When I got back to Australia, I went to the museum on the second day of my return. Although I was no longer at the epicentre of the Syrian refugee crisis, the sheer scale of the crisis struck me suddenly.

The day before, Ai Weiwei announced that he was removing his artwork from Denmark in response to a passed bill that now allows Danish authorities to seize assets from asylum seekers. I’ll admit that I’m not that well-read on Danish policy, but I could see the problem. Seizing property is something you do to criminals, and refugees aren’t criminals. Weiwei’s message was pretty clear: the Danish made the wrong decision. This is a message from a man who has undergone his fair share of political repression, so the world took notice when he put his foot down.

The political shit storm that is Australia’s refugee ‘policy’ that includes offshore processing in Nauru and PNG is hitting all time highs at the moment. From sexual abuse allegations against outsourced guards to the removal of 267 refugees, including 37 Australian-born babies to the detention centre on Nauru, the head honchos of Terra Numbskullius have really got themselves into a pickle they can’t resolve. If it weren’t human lives we were talking about, the to-ing and fro-ing of both parties would be laughable.

So, Weiwei’s actions in Denmark got me to thinking; If Ai Weiwei removed his art from Denmark due to less than savoury refugee policies, why the fuck isn’t he pulling his art from Australia? As the Guardian pointed out, this is inconsistency at its best.

I could be cynical and say something stinks of money here, but I’m not convinced. Over the years, Weiwei has consistently put himself at financial and physical risk in the name of justice. Why would he stop now in the name of cash?

As recently as this month, Ai Weiwei recreated the image of Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian child who washed up on the beach in 2015.


Another part of my inner cynic wonders if Australia simply too much of a cultural backwater for Weiwei to really care about. As I said before, we’re not at the heart of the refugee crisis, as much as our government tries to make out otherwise.

As David Pledger mentioned in his article on The Conversation a few days ago, Ai Weiwei hasn’t really given us Australians much insight into his stance or reasoning. Maybe there hasn’t been any reasoning at all. On Twitter, Pledger’s company  NYID asked Ai Weiwei exactly what I am wondering:

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Weiwei’s response was to simply retweet the question. How curious, I know.

Although I loved the exhibition (it really was outstanding), I couldn’t stop thinking about the reason behind Weiwei not pulling the exhibition from Melbourne. It made his art feel insincere. It particularly gave the ‘Letgo Room’, a room composed of Lego portraits of Australian activists, a distinctly glib vibe – a characteristic that I had never previously associated with Ai Weiwei.

Do you think Ai Weiwei should pull his art from the NGV in response to Australia’s draconian refugee policies? Or perhaps you have a theory as to why he hasn’t? Leave a comment below to start an interesting discussion.