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Ai Weiwei to receive Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship

This article was originally published July 28, 2017 by The Globe and Mail.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has captured people’s attention internationally for his unrestrained criticism of global and national power structures. His art has delved into everything from state surveillance to the cruelties arising from the existence of borders and nationalism.

His exhibitions have been showcased in dozens of countries, and he will receive this year’s Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship, the Institute for Canadian Citizenship announced on Friday.

“He’s a person of his time, he’s a person who has lived an incredibly interesting life in China, in the United States and in Europe,” Ms. Clarkson, a former governor-general, said in an interview on Friday. “But no matter where he goes, people in all places see his art and understand it. It doesn’t have to be translated in any way, and that’s what is important about him.”

Using a variety of media, including installation, social media and film, Mr. Ai has made his art inseparable from activism. In 2008, he aimed to capture the deep pain and loss that followed a massive earthquake in Sichuan province. Almost 90,000 people died, including thousands of children, many of whom were crushed when poorly built government schools collapsed. The Chinese government allegedly covered up the number of children dead to play down the severity of the incident.

Mr. Ai collected more than 200 tonnes of steel reinforcing bars from the wrecked schools and created a monumental sculpture to the victims. He conducted his own investigation to find the names of more than 5,000 children, which he listed on the walls of his exhibitions.

“His art is engaging, accessible and powerful,” said Charlie Foran, chief executive officer of Institute for Canadian Citizenship. “There’s a witness dimension to his work. He doesn’t take pieces of steel that are like the ones that were used in the schools, but he actually uses the real ones, immersing the viewer in the art.”

The Adrienne Clarkson prize, established in 2016, is given to an individual from anywhere in the world who has worked to remove barriers between people and to strive for human rights. Last year’s laureate was the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims.

“We wanted to establish that this is a global thing, something about the world, this isn’t about one country,” Ms. Clarkson said. “I wanted to emphasize that citizenship isn’t just what belongs to one country or idea, citizenship is about being able to participate and contribute in the culture and the nation of your choice.”

In 2011, Mr. Ai was detained in China for 81 days without charges and his passport was confiscated. Unable to attend his 2013 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, which Ms. Clarkson visited twice, he held a video conference from the Canadian embassy in China to enable visitors to ask him questions. When he got his passport back, Mr. Ai moved to Berlin.

Shaken by the number of refugees being denied entry into Western Europe, Mr. Ai has turned his focus from China to the migrant crisis.

He recently used 14,000 life jackets that migrants had discarded on the beaches of Lesbos to cover the columns of Berlin’s Konzerthaus and piled 3,500 of them against the windows of the Kunsthal Charlottenborg museum in Copenhagen. One of his largest installations is a 70-metre inflatable boat with 258 faceless refugee figures. He has consistently emphasized through his work that the refugee crisis is also a human crisis.

“He is waking people up and alerting them to the idea that they are human and that everything that happens to other human beings is something they are a part of,” said Ms. Clarkson, who came to Canada as a refugee from China at three years old. “Being a refugee means that you are uprooted against your will. It’s not what you wanted to have happen to you.”

Mr. Ai’s largest public installation, opening in October, will place dozens of fences through New York as advocacy for migrants. He is calling the installation “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” after a line from a Robert Frost poem, which questions the rationale and function of walls.

“I think the idea of walls is who puts them up and who keeps them up, and who gets to go through them, and who has to jump over them and how they are perceived and what can they actually achieve in the long run,” the former governor-general said.

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