Ai Weiwei to sign blank sheets of paper with UV ink for Refugees International in London this weekend

To mark Human Rights Day (10 December 2022), Ai Weiwei will take to Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park to sign sheets of A4 paper in UV ink, distributed free. We interview the artist to find out more

Portrait of Ai weiwei holding sheet of blank A4 paper
Ai Weiwei holds a blank sheet of A4 paper ahead of his art performance at London’s Hyde Park this Saturday for Human Rights Day
(Image credit: Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio)

Ai Weiwei is staging an art performance at London’s Hyde Park this Saturday (10 December 2022), signing blank sheets of A4 paper with invisible UV ink and distributing them free from 2-4 pm at Speakers’ Corner. 

The event is the renowned Chinese artist and dissident’s way of recognising Human Rights Day, which marks the anniversary of the drafting of the University Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It’s an occasion ‘to review and re-understand the meaning and value of human rights’, he explains in an interview with Wallpaper*.

The issue of human rights is personal to Ai. ‘My father [the eminent poet and activist Ai Qing] was exiled as a dissident since my birth. When I was born, I was already a political refugee in my home country. It was only when I was forced to leave China in 2015 and move to Europe that I fully understood this,’ he explains.

His arrival in Europe coincided with a new global refugee crisis, largely prompted by the Syrian civil war. The events inspired him to make the 2017 documentary film Human Flow, shot in over 20 countries to convey the staggering scale of forced migration. ‘In this time of uncertainty, we need more tolerance, compassion and trust for each other since we are all one,’ he wrote in his director’s statement.

While Ai has been steadfast in his championing of refugee rights, producing two further documentaries (2018’s The Rest, about the disintegrating humanitarian aid system in Europe, and 2021’s Rohingya, focusing on the eponymous ethnic group forced out of Myanmar), and speaking about the issue worldwide, he observes that the plight of refugees has only exacerbated.

‘In 2017, there were around 65 million refugees worldwide. Today there are more than 100 million refugees.

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‘The refugee issue, once in the media spotlight, has become marginal nowadays. Very few people are concerned about the political situation in Afghanistan [following the Taliban takeover]. Meanwhile, the continuing Russian invasion of Ukraine has made Europe the place of origin for refugees for the first time [in many years].’

Asked if there are reasons for optimism, Ai appears despondent. ‘With ongoing wars, poverty aggravated by the Covid pandemic, food crisis, and all kinds of political instability, the refugee crisis will only get worse.’

Still, he is insistent on doing his part to alleviate the situation. That Refugee International – a Washington DC-based non-profit that advocates for lifesaving assistance, human rights, and protection for displaced people around the world – appointed Ai to its board this November is a reflection of the artist’s stature as a humanitarian. ‘For me, this is an honour and a spur, prompting me to do more things for the same ideals,’ he explains.

The event this Saturday will take place at Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner, the oldest living free speech platform in the world, where the likes of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and George Orwell have publicly expressed their political opinions. It’s ‘a place that is related to history,’ says Ai.

The blank sheets of paper that Ai is distributing are an homage to recent protests in China, prompted by the persistence of stringent Covid restrictions at a time when most of the world has reopened, but also expressing frustration at a general lack of freedom under the rule of President Xi Jinping, who secured an unprecedented third term as the country’s leader this October. The absence of text on these sheets offers a silent but powerful critique of a harsh censorship regime. 

‘A blank piece of paper as a symbol of resistance is ironic,’ describes Ai. ‘It appeared in protests in Russia, in Hong Kong, and now in China. It is almost not saying anything, but there is a strong moral power; under the condition of not saying anything, everything has been said.

‘Expression has become an extremely difficult thing in authoritarian societies. In China, those students and young people who stood up and resisted were arrested and disappeared. In a society without judicial independence, they are in a dangerous situation.’

The UV ink is likewise a comment on the difficulty of political expression. ‘Even if you do express, it is like you have not expressed. The state of free expression is extremely fragile at the moment; if written under unusual circumstances such as UV ink, it is almost not existing,’ adds the artist. 

He is pragmatic in his assessment of the impact that this event can have: ‘I don’t think my act can change the world in any real sense, but it is an attitude and a direction. I am very concerned with the resistance and turmoil in China and share the same feelings of anxiety and confusion with any kind of resistance. It is only through a symbolic act that I can be part of it.’

Following Saturday’s event, Ai will sell further editions of his UV ink signature on blank A4 paper on, the independent display and retail space run by his partner, Wang Fen. These are available for £100 until 20 December 2022, with full proceeds going to Refugee International.

In Ai’s view, that many parts of the world are going through difficult times, thanks to rapidly rising costs of living and an impending recession, is reason to double down on activism. ‘Today in the UK, in Europe and in the US, we are at a moment that might be a turning point,’ he concludes. ‘If we are not concerned about people’s basic rights and insist on free speech at this moment, we are all in the process of becoming refugees and losing our basic rights.’

Ai Weiwei is at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London on 10 December 2022, from 2-4pm. Following the event, the signed edition (£100) will be available for sale on until 20 December 2022, with all proceeds donated to Refugee International. (opens in new tab); (opens in new tab)

TF has been editor of Wallpaper* since December 2020. He is responsible for our monthly print magazine, planning, commissioning, editing and writing long-lead content across all our content pillars. He also plays a leading role in multi-channel editorial franchises, such as our annual Design Awards, Guest Editor takeovers and Next Generation series. He aims to create world-class, visually-driven content while championing diversity, international representation and social impact. TF joined Wallpaper* as an intern in January 2013, and served as its commissioning editor from 2017-20, winning a 30 under 30 New Talent Award from the Professional Publishers’ Association. Born and raised in Hong Kong, he holds an undergraduate degree in history from Princeton University.