The Sydney Biennale kicked off on Thursday with a special event featuring Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, in conversation with the Biennale’s Artistic Director, Mami Kataoka. A Japanese artist, Kataoka is the is the first Asian region director of the program which has run for 44 years. Weiwei proved to be a fascinating, but challenging guest.
He was incredibly thoughtful in discussing the plight of refugees, which feature in his works for the BIennale, including a giant raft filled with cowering figures on show at Cockatoo Island, made from giant black rubber. Kataoka was wonderful and incredibly gracious in managing her self-effacing interviewee, who began to make jokes about how the conversation was boring and he started noting the countdown of time.
There was a lot of goodwill from the audience who laughed along with the jokes and cheered Kataoka who valiantly continued to ask about Weiwei’s film, Human Flow, also on refugees, and his other works for the Biennale. Weiwei could have come off as difficult, but instead was endearing and at times sobering.
He talked about being exhausted of talking about his art, which to him is a clumsy expression of his emotions, and specifically in this case, his inability to grasp the lack of compassion we collectively show refugees. He also noted he’s done 350 interviews and did not want to keep talking about works that are meant to be experienced in other ways. He also expressed a sense of futiilty. He noted it probably was uncooth to mention – but did regardless – that art festivals are expensive to produce but are poorly funded. He praised Kataoka for having curated a beautiful program that masks her (relatively) low budget. He also said that despite the turnout that night, the Biennale and his artshows in general, which are exhibited around the world, lack a large audience. He said that art was important, but it is rapidly losing attention.
He noted that the people who will go and see his documentary, filmed in multiple refugee sites around the world, and featuring the voices of hundreds of asylum seekers, will not reach the audience it needs to. It will be seen by people who recognise the crisis, not those who ignore it.
A contemplation of our humanity, through a reflection of our treatment of refugees. Ai Weiwei, “Law of the Journey, 2017,” part of the Biennale pf Sydney.