Australian Broadcasting Corporation
TranscriptLEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: There are only a handful of people who qualify as arts superstars of the 21st Century. Ai Weiwei is one of them. The Chinese artist and dissident is renowned for both his work for the Chinese state - he designed the famed Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics - as well as his activism against it. Tomorrow, a world-first exhibition opens at the National Gallery of Victoria showing his work alongside that of one of his greatest inspirations, Andy Warhol. Ai Weiwei gave Madeleine Morris guided tour and shared his thoughts on art, activism and selfies.
MADELEINE MORRIS, REPORTER: He's an artist, a dissident, a prolific user of social media. Ai Weiwei is one of the most influential creatives of our times.
AI WEIWEI, ARTIST: I think the art is real powerful medium to carry out your own belief.
MADELEINE MORRIS: Chinese-born Ai Weiwei has become known around the world as much for his activism as his art. The two feed off each other and both have got him into a lot of trouble with the Chinese authorities.
In 2009 he was beaten by police and suffered a severe brain haemorrhage while advocating for victims of the Sichuan earthquake, which killed nearly 90,000 people.
Undeterred, he produced this massive work, constructed from 9,000 children's backpacks, in honour of the children who died.
Four years ago, he was imprisoned for 81 days, accused of tax evasion.
AI WEIWEI: I was locked into a room with two soldiers next to me. Of course they cannot talk to me. I would stay exactly in this position all day and they would watch me 24 hours a day and they just look at me, stare at me like this.
MADELEINE MORRIS: That's torture.
AI WEIWEI: Well, it's mental torture.
MADELEINE MORRIS: His detention inspired this work, depicting his time in jail. A crowdfunding campaign helped raise the $2.4 million fine Ai Weiwei had to pay to settle what many consider a trumped-up case.
AI WEIWEI: Many, many people still in jail, but freedom of speech or human rights is never something you can just granted for free. It takes some people to sacrifice, takes somebody to make a effort.
MADELEINE MORRIS: Ai Weiwei is relishing being able to travel again. For four years after the tax case, he was subject to a travel ban. He only got his passport back in July, in time to make it to Melbourne for the opening of his exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria.
AI WEIWEI: Yeah, it's kinda big, but not that big. Any cloud in the sky is bigger than this.
MADELEINE MORRIS: It's pretty big. It's pretty amazing walking through it. It's certainly ...
AI WEIWEI: Yeah. That only shows how small our vision is.
MADELEINE MORRIS: The exhibition pairs Ai Weiwei's work with that of one of his heroes, Andy Warhol. It's billed as a conversation between the two men.
AI WEIWEI: It's very exciting and I haven't seen many of my exhibitions, since I can't travel for many years. And also to see my work with another artist, which is an artist I admired in my lifetime.
MADELEINE MORRIS: I don't know if you know, but in Australia, you're taught on some of the curriculum, so we asked some students who've actually studied you what they wanted to say to you.
MADDY, STUDENT: Hey, Weiwei. I'm Maddy and I'm 17. I admire your work because you communicate the messages that need to be told, especially for the people in China who need to hear them.
EDMUND, STUDENT: Hey, Weiwei. I'm Edmund and I'm a massive fan of your work. A lot of pop art falls into the trap of being more about the medium than the message, but I think yours really stays true to what it's meant to do with the message.
AI WEIWEI: I'm so thrilled. You see those young people, they know so clearly what, you know, my work is about. My message is to encourage people, especially young people, to recognise their own power, their own voice and to exercise their voice through any means.
MADELEINE MORRIS: A new work commissioned by the NGV recognises Australians who are already lifting their voices.
So what is this?
AI WEIWEI: This is the Lego room or "Let Go" room. It's about activists or people who speak out for human rights in Australia.
MADELEINE MORRIS: How did you choose the activists?
AI WEIWEI: It's chosen by scholars in Australia.
MADELEINE MORRIS: Let Go features plastic brick portraits of 40 activists, including Rosie Batty, Archie Roach and Ai Weiwei's friend, Julian Assange.
AI WEIWEI: I still think he's a strong symbol of our time. There is Edward Snowden.
MADELEINE MORRIS: The power and freedom of the internet is a preoccupation of this fan of social media. Another newly-minted work entitled Bird Balloons is partially inspired by Twitter, which he often uses for hours each day.
AI WEIWEI: You can so freely gathering the information and structure your own knowledge. I think this is miracle, you know. You can never dream a society could have this kind of technology can provide individuals such power.
MADELEINE MORRIS: Ai Weiwei is making the most of being in Australia to encourage it to push human rights in our relationship with our biggest trading partner, China.
AI WEIWEI: If it's good partner, you really should offer the best advice. You should care about the good being of your partner. So I think for Australians of course it's very important to state what you really think would be best for China.
MADELEINE MORRIS: He also has some more mundane aspirations.
AI WEIWEI: Yeah, I will see some museums, I will walk on street and take some selfie and shake hands.
LEIGH SALES: Madeleine Morris reporting.