Migration in Gold: Ai Weiwei’s Exploration of Migration and Human Dignity

Elisabetta Cipriani Gallery sat down with Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous artist, to discuss the launch of his highly anticipated second wearable art project collaboration, Ring W and Ring M.

A cultural figure, political activist, and artist, Ai Weiwei moves between modes of production to explore contemporary issues, including migration, shared history, systems of cultural value, political surveillance, and cross-cultural exchange. Comprising of two unique 24kt gold rings, his new and exclusive wearable art project reveals the artist’s continued interest in exploring themes of human migration and dignity. The statement pieces investigate what it means to be trapped, bound, and deprived of the freedom to travel and determine one’s own existence.

By combining the artist’s signature iconography with iconic symbols of contemporary society, the powerful gold rings depict stories of migrants, which unfold underneath a mysterious half-moon: by foot or by sea, some are portrayed travelling together and others alone. The artist’s use of 24kt gold as well as his reference to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics further reinforce the power of the wearable artworks as representative of the artist’s acute social awareness and exquisite artistic craftsmanship. At its core, the wearable art project is a manifestation of Ai Weiwei’s sensitivity to the duality of human nature; our capacity for both empathy and destruction.

Ai Weiwei, Ring W and Ring M (2018), 24kt yellow gold rings, 2.48 x 2.88 x 1.65 cm; 2.72 x 3.04 x 1.86 cm, edition of six each. Photography: Deniz Guzel

EC: You once said that “art is an attitude or lifestyle, a type of activity, but that to think of it as a profession is kind of questionable.” The definition of art itself has been re-evaluated over and over again throughout the past one hundred years. In your opinion, what is the role of an artist in the 21st century?

AW: My philosophy is do as you like. This applies to any time period; I don’t think that there is a difference.

EC: Speaking of the modern age, you have mentioned that you view modern day social media platforms, such as Twitter, as contemporary form of poetry because of the restricted format and word limit, which requires users to communicate their ideas in a short and efficient manner. In a similar vein, jewellery is another form of expression, which, due to its function and size, also has clear restrictions. How have the constraints of jewellery as a medium influenced your artistic expression in your latest wearable art project Ring W and Ring M?

AW: Jewellery is a statement of beauty, character, and ideology. Good jewellery always reflects certain ideas.

EC: Ring W and Ring M contain symbols that tap into universal themes of migration. The hand-carved hieroglyphics reflect both your personal experience as a migrant as well as your extensive research on the topic, which you explore in your 2017 film Human Flow. Your pieces powerfully synthesize the various aspects of the migratory human experience, which have shaped mankind since the beginning of time. Can you tell us more about the dialogue between the ancient and modern iconography embedded within your wearable art project?

AW: The ring has always been a powerful symbol of trust and belief. It is the physical manifestation of a vow or an oath. Ring W and Ring M have this same function. The project is about my involvement and understanding of the tragedy facing humanity today; it is a testimony and evidence of our shared history.

Ai Weiwei, Ring W and Ring M (2018), 24kt yellow gold rings, 2.48 x 2.88 x 1.65 cm; 2.72 x 3.04 x 1.86 cm, edition of six each. Photography: Deniz Guzel

The symbols embedded in the rings draw from Egyptian hieroglyphs. Back then, Egyptians used images to transform the ideas of the mind. Images are powerful tools used to convey both messages and one’s will. This function of images has never changed. Expressions have changed, but the content remains the same.

Left: Ai Weiwei, Ring W and Ring M (2018), preparatory hieroglyph designs
Right: Ai Weiwei, Odyssey (2016), detail

EC: How has your approach to wearable art changed since the creation of your first piece of wearable art, Rebar in Gold, in 2013?

AW: The two works deal with very different subject matter. They were conceived during different periods in time, in separate locations, and in different scales.That said, both projects address our collective memory; both cast our socio-political conditions into a form directly relating to the human body. The power of jewellery is in how an individual can wear it.

Ai Weiwei, Rebar in Gold (2013), 24kt yellow gold rebar, 60 cm long, unique

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008–2012), steel reinforcement bars

EC: The thought processes and inspirations behind aesthetic judgements is an important concept which underpins your artistic practice. For example, in your famously controversial photography series Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), you are depicted destroying a 2,000 year old ancient artifact. You later described that this was, in fact, an act of discovery as opposed to destruction; an invitation to rethink cultural values and hierarchies embedded within aesthetic judgement. How has creating jewellery reshaped the way you look at art?

AW: Jewellery is an intimate object. You make it because you think you would like to own one like it. Jewellery can be a very personal thing to be associated with. It does not function like art in a museum or in a public space.

EC: Your choice of materials is a defining characteristic in your art. To create your 2015 installation piece, Straight, for the Royal Academy of Arts, London you used 90 tonnes of steel reinforcement rods taken from the site of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. These rods were specially straightened by hand for the exhibition. Similarly, your powerful wearable art project, Rebar in Gold (2013) also responds to this tragic event. Significantly, the bracelet is 24kt gold – the purest form of gold. What influenced your decision to use gold?

AW: I like the idea of gold. It has a unique quality. Pure 24kt gold carries the qualities of what gold is and represents. It is soft, easily marked, and can be twisted and shaped. Gold will not rust or tarnish. It will remain the same even after a thousand years. I like the colour of it as well.

Ai Weiwei, Rebar in Gold (2013), 24kt yellow gold rebar, 60 cm long, unique

EC: Another precious material that you are repeatedly drawn to is jade. Today, you are one of the biggest collectors of antique jade. Is there a personal meaning that you associate with this stone?

AW: Jade is smooth and pure. It can be carved and it can hold an image. It is not glossy or reflective. It is not totally transparent like other precious stones. I like how jade relates to the body when held. There is a quiet, natural feeling. It can be easily defined when looked at.

EC: You have worked with many different artistic mediums, including architecture, film, sculpture, installation, and performance, to name a few. What did you enjoy most about creating through the powerful medium of jewellery?

AW: Jewellery is personal, private, and secretive. It requires almost no explanation.


Ai Weiwei’s artistic creations undoubtedly continue to inspire and push the boundaries of fine art, activism, and materiality. By making strong aesthetic statements of contemporary relevance, Ai Weiwei’s jewellery pieces, Ring W and Ring M, encapsulate the artist’s everlasting ability to harness the art world’s attention.

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