‘They just want basic human dignity, no bombs, no fear,’ says Chinese artist as he ends exhibition over law allowing valuables to be taken from refugees
Ai Weiwei stands at a beach where refugees and migrants arrive daily on the Greek island of Lesbos, Photograph: Giorgos Moutafis/Reuters
The Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has closed down his exhibition in Copenhagen in protest at a new law that allows Danish authorities to seize valuables from asylum seekers.
The 58-year-old, who is currently on the Greek island of Lesbos undertaking research on Europe’s refugee crisis, told the Guardian: “My moments with refugees in the past months have been intense. I see thousands come daily, children, babies, pregnant women, old ladies, a young boy with one arm.
“They come with nothing, barefoot, in such cold, they have to walk across the rocky beach. Then you have this news; it made me feel very angry.
“The way I can protest is that I can withdraw my works from that country. It is very simple, very symbolic – I cannot co-exist, I cannot stand in front of these people, and see these policies. It is a personal act, very simple; an artist trying not just to watch events but to act, and I made this decision spontaneously.”
An earlier post on his official Instagram and Facebook accounts read: “Ai Weiwei has decided to close his exhibition, Ruptures, at Faurschou Foundation Copenhagen, Denmark. This decision follows the Danish parliament’s approval of the law proposal that allows seizing valuables and delaying family reunions for asylum seekers.” The exhibition opened in March 2015 and had been due to close in mid-April.
Denmark’s parliament adopted reforms on Tuesday aimed at dissuading migrants from seeking asylum by delaying families being reunited and allowing authorities to confiscate migrants’ valuables.
The law has provoked international outrage, with many human rights activists criticising the delay for family reunifications as a breach of international conventions.
Jens Faurschou, owner of the Faurschou Foundation in Copenhagen, told the Guardian: “When I woke up today I did not expect to get that call, but I was not surprised by his [Ai’s] reaction.
“He had been watching the news during the night and wanted to react. I didn’t try to dissuade him. This is not so much about which country does more or less for refugees, it is the symbolic importance of the new law. This [kind of thing] is spreading over Europe, and we in Denmark are taking the lead in this by making this law.
“From Ai Weiwei’s side, the important thing is to get a debate and to use his voice,” said Faurschou. “He is becoming a European; he is taking part in what goes on here. He did that inChina.
“People would say he has no influence, but when he focused on the scandal of the earthquake in 2008, today China is doing something about corruption. He has a voice and he uses it. I really admire him for that.”
Ai said: “I have had a lot of criticism from Danish people. But I am not pointing the finger at them, other countries have disgusting policies too.
“I made a statement that our very established society cannot make exceptions, but instead lowers our standards of human rights and gives unfortunate people no support, morally or financially. It is a very bad judgment.
“They come to this land with very little help; they just want basic human dignity, no bombs, no fear. They sacrifice everything to come to a land where nobody understands them and they call them potential criminals. It makes me very angry.
“I am pointing at all those governments who are not really facing up to this humanitarian crisis. And are not solving the problem, how to end this tragedy. It has not ended, it still continues. No nation can separate themselves.”
China’s most prominent contemporary artist, Ai helped design the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics and has has had his works exhibited around the globe, but his art has often irked China’s authorities.
He was detained in 2011 for 81 days over his advocacy of democracy and human rights as well as other criticisms of the government in Beijing. Following the detention, he was placed under house arrest and his passport taken away. The document was only returned last July, enabling him to travel overseas.
Ai’s show in Copenhagen includes some of his most important work, including Sunflower Seeds, made from 100m handmade porcelain sunflower seeds. The show also featured several of the artist’s sculptures made of wood from Buddhist temples torn down during China’s cultural revolution.
Earlier this month, he announced plans to create a memorial on Lesbos to highlight the plight of refugees, after meeting some of the many migrants there who risked their lives to reach Europe.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report