As his latest show turns a lens back on China, Ai reflects on the uncertain state of his homeland
In 2012, Ai Weiwei argued that China’s art world does not exist. Speaking with The Guardian, the artist explained that in his home country, art is a consumerist offering that provides little in the way of a genuine experience of China. His comment fuels the idea that true Chinese art only comes from the country’s radical physical and social exiles (like when he smashed a 2000-year-old Han Dynasty urn in 1995). When we see that this year alone damaging rulings such as China’s ban of hip hop and queer themes from television didn’t appear once in contemporary Chinese art, but only from those living on the margins, Ai’s theory stands in full validation.
With the recent demolition of his Beijing studio, the artist turns his lens back on China for his first major institutional show in Los Angeles, Ai Weiwei: Life Cycle, running until March 3, 2019, at Marciano Art Foundation. In a meditation on contemporary Chinese life, in Life Cycle, Ai takes his journey on documenting the global refugee crisis closer to home by using traditional Chinese materials and mythology to explore contemporary Chinese society and demonstrate how exiled art will be the only way to push China forward. Through his use of ancient fantasy, his utopian vision of a China sans communism beams through the works.
While the Chinese government continues to repress art, Life Cycle is a liberation of Chinese spirituality as Ai reverts to ancient mythology. For example, Ai’s 2015 installation “Windows” is a set of vignettes that mix biographical, mythological, and art historical references to imagine a contemporary story. The various scenes include creatures of the Shanhaijing (ancient Chinese mythology), as well as references to the history of 20th-century art, alongside bamboo versions of Ai’s earlier works. The work also stands in defence of freedom of speech as motifs recurring in the artist’s practice – like the bicycle and symbols of state surveillance and control – repeat and multiply.
In celebration of the show's launch, we speak to the artist, as he reflects on the past, present, and future of China through the lens of Life Cycle.
“Authoritarians only have one thing in their minds: control. They are interested in seeing individuals as numbers, rather than as human beings” – Ai Weiwei
ON HOW CHINA EXILES ITS PEOPLE
“China has a poor human rights record. The people have no political right to vote, cannot freely express their opinions, and an independent media does not exist. Minority groups, including Tibetans and Uighurs, face particularly critical repression, with millions of them continuing to live under poor human rights conditions. This is not an issue only facing dissidents, of which there are not so many in China. Of those who are dissidents, they are either imprisoned or forced out. Using Chinese materials in Life Cycle is a way to extend our concern and to make a clear expression that bridges human consciousness with mankind’s current condition. We can only find ourselves by examining how we treat others.”
ON THE DEMOLITION OF HIS STUDIO
“What is taking place in China is very different from what is happening in the west. In totalitarian societies such as China, gentrification is not really happening because there is no private land ownership as all the land and property belongs to the state. All of the benefits belong to those in power and the common person has no rights or recourse when confronting this issue of land redevelopment. I don’t have much feeling towards losing my studio because this is not the first time. My studio is insignificant compared to the millions of other homes that have been destroyed. For some people, that is all they have and the government can take it away at any moment. When you have no laws limiting the power of those in authority or laws which protect an individual’s rights from being violated then there is simply no argument.”
ON CHINA’S SOCIAL CREDIT SYSTEM
“Authoritarians only have one thing in their minds: control. They are interested in seeing individuals as numbers, rather than as human beings, so as to take away the power of the individual. All those systems, including surveillance and censorship, are about killing creativity and differences. The entire purpose is to make it easier to enact control.”
ON THE POWER OF CHINESE MYTHOLOGY
“When we talk about the human condition, it never begins with us, but from ancient times. It has always existed in our dreams and fantasies, and in the form of poetry and mythology. For ‘Windows’, we tried to view the human condition in a more historical perspective, relating it to different traditions, technologies, and craftsmanship. Those things carry a different kind of communication. It was also important to emphasise the beauty which exists in every condition.”
ON WHY FREEDOM OF SPEECH MATTERS
“Humanity is not an empty word. It relates to personal history, the individual’s happiness and sadness, all those things which when added together can be called humanity. It is not an abstract concept. It relates to each individual and each individual’s story gives humanity its meaning. Those stories are the most important way in which we can communicate and begin to understand one another. Every individual needs to speak out and express what has happened in their lives.”
ON CLIMATE CHANGE REFUGEES
“Climate change is a man-made tragedy. Like all other tragedies, it will affect humans; both the individual and society. The future becomes clear if we don’t stop this ruthless exploitation of nature. If we don’t, we will end up a suicidal species, collapsing this beautiful miracle called Earth.
The refugee issue is both a global and historical issue. As long as humans have existed, and as long as humans continue to exist, this issue will persist and we have to be aware and conscious of this simple fact. Today, there are 68.5 million people that have been forced from their homes – the human condition is in a critical state. Using different materials in my latest show is a way to extend our concern and to make a clear expression that bridges human consciousness with mankind’s current condition. We can only find ourselves by examining how we treat others.”
Ai Weiwei: Life Cycle is on until March 3 2019 at Marciano Art Foundation. You can find out more here