The artist Ai Weiwei poses with his work Law of the Journey, 2017

Many of Ai Weiwei’s most impactful works demand – or answer to the demands of – scale.

Perhaps the most famous of his works is Sunflower Seeds (2010), which provided me with the first of my real world encounters with the prolific and provocative Chinese artist turned dissident when it engulfed the cavernous Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London on the day before 2010 folded in on itself and a new year began. By then the work – an ocean of approximately 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds, each one unique in its markings – had been modified to appear in a form that (to me, at least) was imperceptibly different from its original intent. The artist had initially invited audiences to walk upon, swim amongst and generally immerse themselves in the sea of seeds; rising clouds of ceramic dust caused by their disturbance, however, soon raised health-related alarm bells and a partition was swiftly erected. A bollard did little to diminish the effect of the lasting effect of the work on me; I mention it now only because it feels apt to point out that barriers seldom apply to the deeply moving work of Ai Weiwei, even amidst the most extreme of circumstances; even when those barriers meant he was held prisoner by his own state.

The year before the show at the Tate, Ai had collaborated with the chief curator of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Mami Kataoka, on his first museum show in Asia, According to What? That the exhibition would travel to a further five museums over the span of the next four years felt doubly significant for the artist owing to the fact that, for 81 days in 2011, Ai was detained in a tiny room under 24-hour surveillance and supervised at all times by two uniformed military police sergeants who never left more than 30 inches from his side. According to What? served what the artist has called “an important symbolic gesture” in light of his absence from the world: his work was able to speak for him even when he was not able to.

Many of Ai’s works produced in the years both before and since perform that dual function, speaking for others without the means to vouch for themselves. In Fairytale (2008), Ai flew 1001 of his countrymen to the German town of Kassel on occasion of the Documenta art fair, selecting those who answered an open call published on his website and who “are not able to travel overseas under normal conditions, or those to whom traveling overseas has a very important meaning.” Participants in the piece came from diverse backgrounds and wore a uniform that had been designed by the artist, and their movement in Kassel (once home to the Brothers Grimm) was restricted only to the borders of the city. The resulting work, captured as part of the titular three-hour film, upends the relationship between the local and tourist; the gaze between the exotic object and beholder is suddenly inverted and thrown into disarray.

In another more recent work, Laundromat (2016), Ai restored to cleanliness some 2,046 remnants of clothing and shoes left behind at the Idomeni refugee camp along the Greek-Macedonia border before having them transplanted to a gallery in New York, where he lived for ten years in the 1980s while still in his mid-twenties. This more recent work speaks to Ai’s primary occupation since having his passport returned to him by the Chinese government in 2015: the global refugee crisis, and the preservation of human dignity amidst unimaginable upheaval.

“There is no refugee crisis”, Ai would contest, however, in written in a statement accompanying another recent work, Law of the Journey. There is “only a human crisis.” This staggering work, a 60-meter-long jet black inflatable raft containing more than 300 larger-than-life refugee figures of all ages made from the same rubberised material, has been a conduit for the reunion of Ai and Kataoka who this year is acting as Artistic Director of the 21st Biennale of Sydney. For her first curatorial offering, Kataoka is exploring the theme SUPERPOSITION: Equilibrium & Engagement – superposition, in particular, is a term borrowed from the field of quantum physics to refer to an overlapping situation. Here, it more specifically articulates a climate of uncertainty felt throughout the world, and a duality that exists across all conceptual levels. It’s Kataoka’s intent to survey the manifold ‘superpositions’ at play across fields as diverse as climate and culture, the natural and cosmic orders, modern and contemporary art – to name but a few. The work of 70 artists will exhibit across seven locations around the city from March 16 until June 11, creating a panoramic view of how each of those facets can exist in both a state of autonomy and in ‘equilibrium’, regardless of any oppositional forces – a state of being that is then mediated through the lens of our ‘engagement’ with them.

Ai is exhibiting two works as part of the Biennale (another is a film slated for wider release). One, Crystal Ball is installed at Artspace, in Woolloomooloo; the second, Law of the Journey, spans the entirety of the cavernous Turbine Shop on Cockatoo Island. The occasion marks the fifth time Ai has visited Australia since 2006. “It is not just a coincidence,” the artist declared earlier today on site. “This land has very open and very progressive views on art, especially [concerning] what is happening in Asia, and a focus on [the] meaning of art in globalisation, which is quite advanced.”

Of Crystal Ball, a work that Ai contends is the largest of its kind and “[functions] as a classic crystal ball to [ask questions] of the future,” Kataoka observes that the piece also serves a double function as a centrepiece for the entire Biennale. Though she desired to show it in a smaller space, the work itself is not small: it measures a meter in diameter and weighs just under two tonnes, nestled as it is amongst a pile of life jackets. The work premiered alongside Law of the Journey at Prague’s National Gallery last year and reflects, Ai says, “our general conditions not only in politics, in social life and culture, [but] in every respect of our time – there’s so much uncertainty… The metaphor was to look through the reflections [at] ourselves and surroundings and try to figure out what is happening around us.”

Law of the Journey is one of Ai’s largest works to date. The inflatable life raft is made of the same material that is used to make the overcrowded dinghies in which refugees fleeing from Turkey to Greece travel across the perilous Aegean Sea. Around the monumental raft and stationed at regular intervals are quotes from literary icons, poets and cultural theorists like Zadie Smith, Hannah Arendt and James Baldwin imploring their readers not only to empathetically “imagine what others are going through, but [have] the will to muster enough courage to do something about it” (to paraphrase one featured quote by the philosopher Cornel West). Though it looks as though it was commissioned to fit the space on Cockatoo Island, the work, like Crystal Ball, was originally made for exhibition in the Czech Republic. Though the piece in its original iteration in Prague was made to fit a palatial exhibition space in a country that refuses to accept refugees under the European Union’s relocation programme, Ai says that he feels the “piece was really made for [exhibition] here”: in an industrial settling infused with the history of migrants and amidst “current struggles with Australia’s poor record with refugees.

“It really affects us globally, the refugee conditions [is the] human condition,” says Ai. “Six and a half million people are forced out of their home; daily, thousands are still forced out. Even [though it is] almost like a fairy-tale in Australia, we cannot disassociate our connections to other human beings that are suffering and the tragic life of our global community. Only by [acknowledging] the struggle [can we] share the understanding of our humanity today. It’s about human dignity; it’s about why we have to be artists [and] why we have to speak out [about] important issues [using an] aesthetic practice.”

Ai says that all of his works relate to a curiosity and eagerness to understand both what has happened to him not only as an individual – Ai’s father, the Chinese poet and activist Ai Qing, also spent the first 20 years of his son’s life detained in labour camps – but also “how an individual can relate to the human community.”

In the years since having his right to travel reinstated, Ai has visited over 40 of the world’s largest refugee camps in 23 countries, including Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Gaza, Jordan, Kenya, Bangladesh and at the Mexican-American border – a site he said felt important to visit owing to the particularly divisive rhetoric espoused by the incumbent administration in the United States. Though he has documented much of what he has seen on his prolific Instagram, a life-changing visit to the Greek island of Lesbos inspired him to seek out more substantial ways of preserving those experiences and “to understand what happened globally in terms of humanity”. The result is Human Flow, a feature-length documentary that Ai produced over the course of almost two years which will screen at the Sydney Opera House on March 15, supported by a keynote address delivered by the artist himself.

The demand for the artist’s work that increased once his passport was returned to him in 2015 meant that Ai’s real-life experiences were invariably integrated into his museum shows. The freedom to now travel freely does not appear to be lost on the artist, who says that though he is “still in an exile state from my nation,” he remains committed to producing works that speak truth to the experiences of those who “are disappearing in the journey searching for freedom, safety, for some kind of shelter and compassion.

“We often say there’s a reality, there’s a truth, but I think there’s no truth if there’s no documentation,” says Ai. “The truth, the facts, truly come out from what we perceive as the truth, so documentation is my [way] of understanding reality. It’s so important.”

The 21st Biennale of Sydney will exhibit at various venues throughout the city from March 16 until June 11, 2018. More information is available here.

Tile and cover image: Nicholas Carolan