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Appreciation of Ai Weiwei

Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship, with Ai Weiwei
6 Degrees Citizen Space 2017

September 27, 2017 – 8:00pm
TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning, Koerner Hall

Prince Amyn Aga Khan,
Your Honour Elizabeth Dowdeswell,
Your Honour Lois Mitchell, Lieutenant Governor of Alberta
High Commissioner,
Your Worship John Tory,
Distinguished Guests,
Friends of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, and
Participants in 6 Degrees Citizen Space,

Last year when this Prize was inaugurated at our first 6 Degrees Citizen Space, it celebrated and recognized His Highness the Aga Khan, whose entire life has demonstrated steadfast, unchanging commitment to the ideals of belonging and inclusion. It is these ideals which the Institute for Canadian Citizenship and 6 Degrees wishes to honour always. Tonight, we are pleased to welcome his only brother Prince Amyn Aga Khan to be here as we present the second prize. It gives a wonderful continuity and I am delighted that he has accepted our invitation to be here.

This second Global Citizenship Prize is being awarded to Ai Weiwei, who is the best-known artist on the planet today. His work has reverberated across the world and has made truly a sphere that knows no barriers between East and West. We are a round, spinning earth because of Ai Weiwei and his actions. The pervasiveness of his courage could be seen in the dust that rose from the 100 million sunflower seeds in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Gallery as people walked over them. The atmosphere of that courage emanates across continents, across divides, and across our consciousness now in the digital world.

Being surrounded metaphorically by the dust of those wonderful sunflower seeds is the way in which we can feel enclosed in the acts of civic courage for which he is known. It seems the Western world has lost this. Or, at the very best, there has been a decline in courage, which is so noticeable among our political class, our intellectual elite, and our young. We are failing and we have failed. We are making ourselves known by the feeling of the loss of courage, which is extending all across the West.

Therefore, from the East comes a new expression of what courage is, what commitment is. And it is in the person and the work and the words of Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei is Chinese. Ai Weiwei has come out of a culture and a world which is rich, resonant, complex, and in many ways baffling. He has created works of beauty, audacity, and hope. And he has done this under conditions that many of us would find untenable. How many of us could endure 81 days of incarceration, in which we were watched day and night? How many of us could be beaten and sustained bleeding on the brain and yet make a work of art out of that blood? How many of us could go to 22 different countries over a year and a half and make a film about other peoples’ suffering and needs? How many of us could even begin to understand how to motivate your fellow Chinese artisans to help you hand-paint 100 million sunflower seeds?

I never get tired of saying what I heard long ago, which was that “courage is the first of the human qualities, because it is the quality which guarantees all others.” Without courage you have not got a life. Without courage, you cannot continue life. Without courage, you cannot give the hope for living to others. Ai Weiwei has courage, and he has done all those things. He has done those things for the people who are oppressed, the people who are not free, the people who have no voice. But more interestingly, he has done it for us. He has forced us to turn our eyes to a vision of what life, objects, surroundings can mean for us.

In Chinese, the word of crisis is wei ji. Wei means danger, and ji opportunity. Ai Weiwei has seized the opportunities that came out of the personal peril under which he has been placed because he has been courageous enough to speak out, to shout out, to let the world know that freedom of expression, the freedom of the artist, the freedom of all humanity, is what matters. That nothing must suppress this. That a human being is not a human being without the ability to speak.

In the West, we come from a tradition of democracy which began in Athens. In Athenian democracy, the act of shouting out was an important one. Citizens could shout out in the agora, in their meeting place, what their feelings were. And they could drown out other speakers because freedom of speech has no limits. When you go on Youtube and you see the Ai Weiwei Gangnam-style video and it looks fun and it looks jolly and he’s dancing around in a red t-shirt and swinging something… then you look closely, and you realize that what he is swinging is hand-cuffs. This is his way of saying, “you think you can stop me? You can’t stop me.”

He has always done what he has to do. Never thinking about the personal consequences; never thinking about the obstacles, the laws, the dangers of his society. And by that act, he has behaved in a profoundly moral way. No matter what has been done to him: being hand-cuffed, being beaten, being watched, having his passport taken away, he has never lost his connection with humanity, with his own idea of himself, and his own possibilities of an artist.

In all the works of art which we admire, there is beauty. He is a consummate artist: He knows how to work materials. He knows how to surprise. He knows how to disgust. He knows how to shock. But all the while, his attachment to our common humanity is there. He is a loyal dissident and a voice of conscience, he’s the most influential and multi-faceted artist on the planet.

One of the most defining things about a great artist was stated by Akiro Kurosawa, the great Japanese filmmaker. When I first read this I was terrified, because I thought; I will never be able to be a great artist. Kurosara says, “To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” Ai Weiwei never averts his eyes. He looks at everything. He functions as our eyes. And out of those visions that he sees for us — that he can be tormented, pleased, or intrigued — he binds us to our common humanity.

He speaks out when he feels he must do so. With the detention of Liu Xiaobo he spoke out and said what he thought: “This does not mean a meteor has fallen. This is the discovery of a star.”

Ai Weiwei speaks against oppression, he never compromises, and he is never silent in the face of power. He confronts oppression with corrosive humour.

He makes us feel that we all belong to the same world. He makes us feel that he understands that we can all contribute, even if it’s only by looking and by understanding.

He transcends all boundaries in the different media in which he works. He has taken the crisis which has made an arc over his whole life and seized the opportunity to exercise his own talent as an artist.

Ai Weiwei has suffered and he understands what human suffering is. In the most profound way, he gets to the roots of our common humanity which we all share. We know that everybody in this world suffers. And he is aware of that and he wants to give voice to it. Therefore, his idea of what the world is and how we belong to each other is the most profound expression of citizenship.

Ai Weiwei’s country has not been very nice to him. It hasn’t been good to him. It hasn’t rewarded him with honours and accolades. It has put him in prison. It has beaten him. It has tried to make him feel that he is unwanted. But he loves his country and he is willing to fight for its betterment. Willing to suffer for it and — I believe — willing to die for it. He knows his country can be so much greater than it is, and he has the courage to demand more of its government and its citizens. He was bringing truth to life in China. He loves his country’s history, which he knows is one of the greatest in the world. I share that history, as I am also Chinese. I have not been brought up in the midst of Chinese thought and action and politics. But I identify with his struggle, and with his acknowledgement of the greatness of the past. I realize how much he has to help raise people’s consciousness today in dealing with their past, and in helping his own country come to terms with its present and try to make peace with its future.

Ai Weiwei touches all of us, because he creates art that all of us can see, and which we do not need translation to understand. We have the emotions transmuted for us by one of the greatest artists working in the world today. When we look at the work of Ai Weiwei there are no barriers. There is no translation. There is simply the confrontation with reality, with commitment, with courage, and with action.

To commemorate this Prize I had a medal created by the sculptor Anna Williams, who lives in Ottawa. It shows the Inuit Goddess of the Sea, Sedna, emerging from the Arctic ways to pass a vulnerable world to the outstretched arms of a winged triumphal guardian.

Ai Weiwei is the definition of action. That is his life. That is his art. That is his gift.

Because of his courage and his life and art, his commitment to freedom of speech and action for everyone in the world, his steadfast bravery in the fact of arbitrary power, I am asking him to accept this Prize for Global Citizenship.