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Interview with Ai Weiwei

A large white ancient construction.

Elizabeth Pearce

Posted on Friday 20 April 2018

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Ai Weiwei's White House (pictured above) will be installed at Mona mid next year. I spoke to him during the recent Sydney Biennale, in the days leading up to the release of his film Human Flow, which is about the worldwide refugee crisis.

A black and white image of a vast black inflatable boat filled with figures of soldiers

Elizabeth Pearce:

Thank you for meeting me. You must be exhausted.

Ai Weiwei:

Yes. But actually, I like to get exhausted. It’s like a boxer in the ring. You want to have this daily punch. When I was very young, my father told me he was dying [of exhaustion]. We were very remoted, living in the desert [in exile during the Anti-Rightist purge of the 1950s]. He was punished to clean the public toilet, which was used by thirteen villages. It was very heavy work, and he was exhausted, but he also loved to do it because he loved to make something beautiful. [All people] have that passion to treat their surroundings [that way]. He was a poet, he learned in Paris, he was an artist of a very high aesthetic standard. I still try to imagine how he dealt with this kind of total insult and punishment.

EP: You learned a lesson from him, about the need for humans to take pride in their surroundings, however challenging the circumstances?

AW: Yes. It comes back to me. All these things come back to me.

EP: What lesson would you like to teach your own son?

AW: Even though I spent so much time with my father, I never asked him a question. It’s just the nature of that time. Nobody was supposed to ask questions and nobody dared to gave any kind of answer because everything was leading to possibly the threaten of life. The relationships between people were so fragile, even in the family. I had this feeling of regret while I was in detention. I started trying to memorise what I can remember relating to my life, every person, location, events, anybody, because you have nothing to do in this kind of solitude. You try to keep your mind busy because you have no sense of time and you are a little bit afraid. The last thing you have is your memory, you try to grab it. I tried, then I realised it will only take about less than ten days to think over everything I can remember. The computer felt empty, my mind didn’t have anything left to memorise. One regret is that I couldn’t remember any real conversation with my father. I never asked him how thinks about certain things. It was not something I would be conscious to ask. Even it could be a wrong answer, but still, the answer would be solid. The moment came when they told me I could be put away for thirteen, fifteen years, because the crime I committed —subversion of state power—is the highest, most serious crime an individual can be accused of. I thought, if I can be released, I will spend much more time talking to my son, to encourage him to question me or confront me.

EP: And does he?

AW: Yes, he practises very well.

EP: It’s uncomfortable, though, isn’t it, when your children turn the spotlight back on you.

AW: It’s true. But you don’t get to choose, because you’re in his life, or her life, and they are aware that you will fade away, so you want to leave as much impression as you can.

EP: When you look at your whole story, the theme that stands out is the theme of honour, starting with your father. He had a sense of honour in expressing himself as a poet in a way that he was punished for. Your family had to live with the consequences of that. And then you yourself have had a sense of honour in defending freedom of expression. Not everyone has honour, but it can be a straightforward thing—standing by your word. It gets more complicated when you have children, doesn’t it, because they are implicated by your acts of honour or self-sacrifice. Does that present a dilemma for you?

AW: I think honour is deeply in everybody’s heart, towards certain principles, or dignity, with the result that humans would not be human [without these things]. At the same times, that’s not something you can really take advantage of. I still remember the first English sentence my son—his name’s Ai Lao—he spoke out: ‘No more Ai Weiwei!’ He yelled it out. I’m very happy about what he said because it is in balance for him, when he hears so much about me.

EP: But have you felt that your sense of duty or honour has been complicated in the way I outlined—because if you take a stand, it implicates him too, without his choice? And not just your son but the other people close to you.

AW: It will always be [this way]. You have to respect an individual has their own way, their own choice of behaving and their own judgment. But you have to act [strongly] in terms of your interpretation or your principles. This is something that definitely puts everybody in awkward situations, and I think I cannot avoid it. I have to speak out and speak loud, and try to help the people next to me to be clear about [their position too]. I want to give them the chance to make a definition, because very often people are living in this very blurred or vague state of mind. Even after years [we might not know each other], between husbands and wives or parents and children, you will be surprised to think, ‘Oh, here it is in Ai Lao.’ As individuals we are very different and we have to talk about it. Not necessarily who is right and wrong, but just to understand each other.

EP: What do you wish you asked your father before he died?

AW: Those very simple questions. How he thinks about his nation, how are his relations with his party, the communist struggle, and how he feels about his family, are we important for him or—you know, all the very simple questions. I just simply don’t know. It’s hard to imagine even.

EP: You mentioned before that you were afraid when you were in detention. Which is pretty obvious really. That particular situation has passed now but I imagine you must live with fear on a daily basis. How do you live with that?

AW: It started from the very second when they put the black hood on me. I even laughed about it. I said, ‘This is ridiculous. Why do you have to cover my face with that black fabric?’ And the car started. In the car nobody spoke. Seven people in the car and not a sound. You can hear other vehicles passing by you. You are trying to hear, trying to capture all the traces, because that’s the only… You grab those facts like some climber up a cliff. That root or that rock is so important because there is the life. So then all you can feel is so hot, and you start soaring [with heat], and all the sweat comes down your face, drops down on your lap. Then you feel you are falling into gaps, like little beads, falling into some dark corner to be totally be forgotten by anybody. This kind of… solidation?

EP: Solitude.

AW: Yes, solitude. It scares you because you start questioning the whole value of your life. Is that important to others or do any others care or… All your struggles become questionable, and you’re so vulnerable, and they can do anything to you. I don’t know if you call that ‘scary,’ but it occupies your mind.

EP: And having experienced that depth and complexity of fear, do you feel that nothing really compares? That you’re almost fearless?

AW: Yes, because it’s not real. The powerful part is it gives you another reality, which is completely cut off from what you understand, your logical function, your argument. [In normal circumstances] these things are so safe—you feel you can make a rational argument and turn it towards anybody. But now they don’t work any more.

EP: You couldn’t hear the sound of your own voice. And if you can’t hear your voice, you have the illusion that you have no voice.

AW: Yes.

EP: I heard you say that in another interview. It made me think about the ongoing work you’ve done in relation to the school children who were killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. [The Chinese government attempted to conceal the identities of the children, who died as a result of shoddily constructed schools.] It seems that of all the work you’ve produced across so many different media and creative modes, your attempt to identify and commemorate those children has been the most important to you.

AW: It’s a matter of trying to survive, morally and intellectually, in the face of a state which completely refuses to have any kind of dialogue or discussion. You still have to try to make a clear argument through action, and show people this is possible. It is possible to use action to clear out the mess. But of course, someone like me underestimates the power [you are opposing].

EP: It seems to me like you’ve maintained a kind of sanity in the face of insanity. You’ve been committed to being an engaged citizen, and going though the process of holding the state to account, even though it’s hopeless and absurd.

AW: The whole thing is absurd. It would take Kafka to write it down, to make it as a testimony or proof. I always think you cannot accuse anybody of being evil, but you need to have the evidence and the proof and that means you have to go through [the process of attempting to exercise your rights as a citizen], and it doesn’t matter how much effort it takes.

EP: In terms of those children who died—do you feel like you did what you set out to do?

AW: Yes. We did. Still I’m very proud of what we did. We were chosen by the historical moment to show that [resistance] is possible through the internet, because at that time China still hadn’t developed this high fire wall, so we still had [cyber] space to organise activities, and we had riots every day on the internet. This was a crazy time.

EP: Yes. For several hours a day you were writing on the internet. But you stopped doing it in around 2013. Why is that?

AW: At first you don’t know [from] where, and how, [the writing comes]. But then, when you do know, that become not honest any more, because you’re manipulating.

EP: So you were writing about things that you don’t understand, but when you did understand them, you stopped?

AW: Yeah. I still admire what I had been writing because that takes a crazy mind and it’s hard to do that. But today if you… I mean, you cannot practice love twice. It’s not possible. You’re either in love, which is leading you to uncertainty and excitement or danger, or you’re not in love.

EP: You mentioned Kafka. This might be an example of the way art can help you understand the world. For someone who has read Kafka, and then been through an experience of tyranny and absurdity like you went through—it gives you something to draw on, to help you make sense of it. Is that the service you would like to offer with your own art?

AW: I never consciously think about it [that way]. But I think it’s like… It’s like our eating habits. How it helps our body we don’t really exactly know, other than it’s nutritious, it gives balance. But in certain instance, if you miss [food important for health], you miss it a lot. It’s the same for literature and poetry. I’m not very well educated, but I’m like a religious person towards the human mind and their thinking and their intelligence, language and so forth.

EP: Is that state of being not overly burdened with formal education and book learning a creative state for you?

AW: The whole education idea is to build a safe highway for people and prepare them for the journey. I chose my own path, going through bushes, rocks, seeking for a little treasure. That gave my day and time so much joy, rather than to think, ‘What is the next exit?’ or ‘Where is the gasoline station?’

EP: Would you say that the primary objective for your own artwork is to provide joy?

AW: First there’s curiosity. In this mass universe, even with all the rationality, still you think of human curiosity. Rationality only reaches so far. The rest is still completely unknown. Also, to create means to test yourself in different circumstances, and then you become a real touchable form. Without those events or challenges… Who are you? Do you know? Do we know ourselves? Are you really just like the person next to you? That kind of—not even thinking, but that kind of frame [of mind], would encourage me to take different paths.

EP: So art making for you is more of a turning inward, to ask those questions of yourself?

AW: Yes, to realise yourself, to understand who you are.

EP: And do you feel like you’ve made some progress in that?

AW: I’m sixty years old. It all happened very late. For the first fifty years I was wandering. I made a lot of temptations and was not focussed. The last ten years have been… Like a sportsman who has practised his whole life but finally jumped into the ring to start giving and taking punches.

EP: You mentioned before that you have a sense of being chosen by your historical moment. In other circumstances, things might be very different. But as things stand your life and work have been profoundly political. Do you feel that you’re not a political person, it’s just that circumstances have made you that way?

AW: It’s true. In life we have a lot of crossroads. If you walk into this room, there’s another hundred rooms. You don’t know what’s going on there. We all make choices, but what makes us decide [either way]? Chance or character, I don’t know. Jasper Johns said, ‘My chance is not your chance.’ Even my mistake is not your mistake. We are being pushed by the ocean waves to one sea shore to enjoy the sunshine maybe, but also you could be in the deep bottom of the ocean, totally dark, and never have chance to see a rim of light.


EP: I wanted to take that idea of historical circumstances in relation to your film Human Flow. Australia isn’t a part of the material that you work with in that film, but of course you’re aware that we have very harsh policies in regards to refugees.

AW: I’m fully aware. This past two years for me has been an extreme course or training in reading all the news and the policies in relation to refugees.

EP: Like so many people, I’m horrified by the suffering, but I’m also not a hundred per cent clear about what the solution is. When I was watching your film, I wasn’t sure if your intention was to agitate for a solution or simply to humanise the individuals and tell their stories.

AW: Yes, that’s right. We don’t want to point fingers, because I’m the one that needed to be educated. But often, people ask what the individual can do to help. Philosophically you are the world. Everything you love or accept or hate or are against... Without that the world doesn’t exist. So whatever tragedy humans create can be easily solved by humans, which include states, politicians, decision makers…

EP: So you think the solution is just…

AW: …based on individuals. It’s really based on individuals, because the people suffering… This is not collective suffering. Every sufferer feels like an individual. If your socks are wet, if you need another jacket, I don’t know it, but you feel it. If you’re hungry, if you see somebody is refusing you and the door is completely locked—I mean, who else knows it? [In the film] we tried to set up a possible condition for people to imagine those situations, because that would affect anybody. If I say, ‘Oh, my God, the door is locked,’ and maybe for hours we can’t get out, you start to panic, you start to think, how can this be? But those refugees spend over twenty years on average in their life as refugees and they’re being totally neglected as human waste, trash. Everybody knows it. And then the next thing is, do we care? They could be our sisters or brothers or parents or children. So my answer is we have to care. So we have to have collective consciousness, and to come up with a solution.

EP: So you think that one-to-one caring for each individual is a kind of roadmap for how you can structure the world?

AW: Yes. This is the essential particle. We are the ones responsible. We cannot give this power to someone else. We have to spend it ourselves, like currency. Freedom is very much like currency.

EP: People might say about your work, ‘Oh, it’s about the relation between the individual and the collective,’ and that’s true, but the collective is kind of an illusion, because it’s just built up of individuals.

AW: We are created equal. That is still the most important idea. It’s like how gravity operates in the physical world. It’s the foundation.

EP: Are you holding up the west as the model for how China should be? There’s a quote from one of the refugees in the film. He says, ‘When we were in our home countries we heard that in Europe there is democracy, freedom, dignity and respect.’ It’s left ambiguous as to whether you think that is true or not.

AW: Yes, I’m still using this ready made cultural frame of the western model. In the Renaissance, in the age of Enlightenment, the human’s position was clearly declared as the highest value to be protected. Western democracy is a model of liberty, but the refugee crisis is just one test. We can easily see the fragile-ness or the thickness of those ideas.

EP: Are you homesick for China?

AW: I never had the sense of home in any moment in my life. The year I was born my father was exiled. We travelled with no belongings, just like soldiers or criminals being sent away to the re-education unit. I’m very much used to your fate being designed by somewhere else and you don’t know exactly what the location means to you or how long you are going to be there. So I never had a moment or any sense about one tree, one street corner, one familiar shop or a little grocery… It was a very remote area. All I remember is the sun, which was brutal, and the winter, which was extremely cold, and the vast desert, and the struggle of your family trying to obtain some coal for fire in the winter time or to pass that long night.

EP: So your sense of duty is to those fundamental elements of human experience rather than a particular place or time?

AW: Sure. Every step, even every meal, is so much more necessary and important than so-called home.

EP: Are you optimistic about China and its relationship to the rest of the world?

AW: No, I’m not optimistic. After almost seventy years in power they will not trust their people. The powers still don’t have the legitimacy to control. If they didn’t have military and the police, they would have been finished in 1989. If those tanks did not occupy the square… There’s no legitimacy of control. To maintain that, they have to not have any vote or party system, not have any voice that can speak out. Freedom of speech, independence of press, an independent judicial system—none of these things can exist.

EP: It’s a very fragile state to be in?

AW: Yes but it can also work and be very efficient. It makes great deals with other nations and people can take advantage of this kind of power structure.

EP: I guess the thing that’s not clear always from the outside is to what extent the people who live there—and I’m aware that I’m speaking about a billion people—believe in and are committed to that structure.

AW: I think they never ask and they never can answer this one simple question. But still, you have, you know, nice restaurants, everything the same or even better than in the West because you have a law, you have a rule, that everybody has to follow. So not everybody asks those harsh questions.

EP: So people don’t talk about rights and so forth?

AW: No. You cannot talk about it.

EP: From fear?

AW: There’s no platform to talk about it. And for too long there is no platform to talk about it. If you put a bird in a cage for thirteen years, it doesn’t know that the wind on his body can still make him fly.

EP: Even between individuals?

AW: For certain moments. Like, in 1985, that lead to 1989, that democratic moment. After that the party realised it cannot allow any kind of western interference. They are very, very nervous about it. If someone lights a fire, it will cause an Arab Spring or a Berlin wall collapse. It might only take a day.

EP: When something is so incredibly complexly structured and everything depends on a fragile premise, and it’s not an organic structure, one little fire can spread…

AW: Exactly, it’s not organic. They have destroyed all the organic parts. Religion, university, neighbourhood, NGO… None of these things exist. The party’s leadership goes to the bottom, to every lowest element in the village even. So it’s very efficient, but it’s modern slavery on a human brain.

EP: You don’t think China can become a super power?

AW: No. It’s a huge creature that doesn’t have the backbone to stand up. It’s lacking a certain structure. They only can maintain this kind of governing by taking out those bones. That’s why I cannot exist. I mean, I’m just one individual artist, a funny guy. I may be a mad person, but they cannot let you exist.

EP: A few years ago the artist Wim Delvoye told me that art was an inefficient vehicle for social change. He says if you want to change society, you don’t use art for that. Write a letter, or join a protest instead.

AW: I disagree with him because art has always been integrated with social change from the beginning. It has never been separate until the bourgeois of the 18th-19th century separated art as some kind of decorative act that showed their class or some kind of superior aesthetic judgment. Its function in church was clearly conceptual in medieval times or even in the Renaissance times. Art was about what humans are about, who we are, always trying to define our time and how we look at the world. So I think it's naïve to think art is just a magician or a game which can be detached from reality.

EP: I think that he uses his art to break the world down to get to its core components and that’s quite an ugly picture when you really break things down like that.

AW: You see, yes, there are cooks who want to make cooking a fancy practice. But ninety per cent of the time, cooking relates to our health. It’s about our body’s response, its nutrition and its function. I think art relates to how we look at ourselves and how we, through the practice, find out who we are.