As the Chinese artist prepares to launch his exhibition in London, we unearth an interview with leading curators and artists on the significance of his work, and a Q&A with Ai himself
Taken from the spring/summer 2011 issue of Dazed:
On Sunday April 3, leading Chinese artist, architect and social critic Ai Weiwei was detained by the Chinese authorities as he attempted to board a plane bound for Hong Kong. For the two weeks following his detention, the Chinese government offered no word on his location. After this, the only comment from the state-contolled press was to say he had been arrested for “spreading pornography on the internet” and what they described as “economic crimes”. Ai’s arrest subsequently led to a host of international human rights, art world and media figures rallying for his release. “Ai Weiwei stands for humanity and for free speech. Life is devalued by the imprisonment of artists, writers and free thinkers. We, who are lucky enough to be able to speak out, must now speak out for them,” says British artist Bob and Roberta Smith, integral in the petitioning for Ai.
At the time of writing, we are unaware of Ai’s whereabouts. Known internationally for his involvement in the design of the Beijing Olympic Stadium and his Tate Modern Turbine Hall installation Sunflower Seeds, we contacted him just a few days before his disappearance. Ai had granted Dazed an interview, to be completed the following week. We were to discuss his two forthcoming exhibitions and his ongoing political activism. Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is his first large-scale public sculpture installation recreating 12 bronze traditional zodiac symbols, on show over the summer at London’s Somerset House. The second show, a survey of his work at Lisson Gallery, runs concurrently.
Ai Weiwei was born in 1957 to outspoken poet parents. Prominent within China as a member of the Communist Party, to this day his late father Ai Qing is considered one of the country’s leading modern poets. In 1958 he was denounced as being “right” of the communist government. The entire family was moved from their home in Beijing to a labour camp, where Ai lived until he was 17 years old. He described his childhood during an interview in 2008 saying, “As a youth, I lived as the son of an enemy of the state.”
In 1981, aged 24, Ai left China for America. He stayed for 12 years, spending the majority of his time in New York surrounded by the Warhol-influenced art scene. Citing a major influence in Marcel Duchamp, the early works he made there show the beginnings of his interest in sociopolitical themes. They included photographs of the Tompkins Square riots in 1988, images of the Chinese exile community and portraits of beat-poets. “I think his sensibility was shaped by what he witnessed in New York which was very much under the influence of Andy Warhol in those years,” explains Greg Hilty, Lisson Gallery director. “If you look at his work compared to any of his contemporaries who haven’t had that experience, there is an easier translation. He knows the language of international art. A lot of work that comes from China is literally like another language, it’s hard for a westerner to comprehend, but I think people can understand Ai’s way of thinking because of his time in America.”
Moving back to China in the early 90s when his father fell ill, Ai’s work began to be more political, standing out as a curator and critic unafraid to go against the government’s restrictions. He was heavily involved in setting up a community for avant-garde artists in Beijing and published three books profiling them. “Making those books was very much about adding a level of criticality into the art scene in China,” says Katie Hill, curator and senior lecturer in Chinese contemporary Art.
Cultural activism also became clear in Ai’s curation of his alternative to the state-organised Third Shanghai Biennale, in 2000. The group exhibition, titled Fuck Off, featured a number of avant-garde Chinese artists including Cao Fei, Xu Zhen and Yang Fudong. “The activities he was conducting then were, right from the start, about positioning himself as an intellectual and as an artist,” explains Hill. “He comes from a long line of traditional Chinese intellectualism that is about speaking out on issues of freedom and the ability to express yourself with creativity.”
The Fuck Off exhibition also highlighted Ai’s cultural activism informing his own art. He included a series of photographs, giving the middle finger to various internationally recognised monuments including Tiananmen Square. Other important politically charged pieces made throughout Ai’s career include Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn (1995), where Ai shows himself destroying an ancient Chinese ceramic, and Coloured Vases (2007), an installation made up of neolithic pots dipped in bright industrial paint. In 2007, as part of the documenta 12 exhibition, Ai brought 1001 people from all over China to the small German town where the show was being held. The work was made, in part, to raise the profile of Chinese people in a relatively monocultural town. Ai’s forthcoming exhibition at Somerset House, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, is also a continuation of his interest in the relationship between pop art and traditional Chinese heritage. The piece uses the sculptures, originally made in the 18th century as part of Beijing’s famous Summer Palace, and recreates them, almost as “ready-mades”. These works are poignant culturally, but they also display the artist’s understanding of western contemporary and pop art. “From one point of view he is making them sacrilegious and iconoclastic, and from another he is facing pop art with the depth and physical reality of a very ancient culture. Ai loves that kind of tension,” says Greg Hilty.
As Ai Weiwei’s profile and the politicisation in his work has grown, it has become harder for him to live and work in China. In 2009 he underwent major surgery following a serious assault by police (the portrait on the cover of this issue was taken afterwards). Ai claims the attack, which he says was due to his investigations into the government’s cover-up of a large number of deaths associated with the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, prevented him from going to court to act as a witness for Tan Zuoren, who was investigating the earthquake. His blog, where he had published thousands of children’s names missing after the earthquake, was deleted shortly afterwards.
Although it has become increasingly difficult, Ai has maintained his position in the country. “I will never leave China behind, unless I am forced to,” he has been quoted as saying. “When he returned in the 90s after his exile to America, Ai wanted to make a difference and wanted to work within China,” confirms international curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. “
“The powerful want to prevent dissident voices from being heard. They want to silence and destroy them”
It is the context where he works and I think his reason for staying is as a very necessary protest against forgetting. China has been a studio for him, it is where he finds his materials both physically and metaphorically.” Having firmly established the language of his art, architecture and curation in his cultural and political activism, Ai’s career has continued to maintain subversive and poignant comments on the country that he lives in, sometimes fights against, but ultimately loves. In a global society, where those on the outer edges of the mainstream are experiencing increasing levels of oppression, Ai is an important cultural figure, willing to make his voice known.
Here, we present a previously unpublished interview with AiWeiwei:
Five days before he was detained, the dissident artist Ai Weiwei gave this interview to a German newspaper, in which he predicts a new low in terms of freedom of art and speech in China. It has not previously been published outside Germany. At the time, Ai was working on a cardboard model in his Beijing atelier for a future art exhibition. The interview happened by virtue of the German exhibition Kunst der Aufklärung (The Art of Enlightenment), although it transformed into a discussion about the current oppression that artists like Ai Weiwei are facing.
What kind of model is that on your table?
Ai Weiwei: Right now I am putting together an exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan. It is set to open on October 29.
Interesting. That is the first time for you to exhibit in Taiwan, right?
Ai Weiwei: Not only that. If Taiwan really is a part of China, which is what the Chinese government claims, this will be my first ever exhibition in China. (Laughs) So far, I had not been permitted to exhibit here.
You had attempted only recently. Your first exhibition at Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art was set for March.
Ai Weiwei: Yes, but they prevented that from happening. I had been working on that for one and a half years but then the exhibition was simply banned. And they also destroyed my new atelier at Shanghai.
The situation is becoming more and more difficult for critically thinking and acting artists in China, right?
Ai Weiwei: They have been putting more and more people into prison recently, just because they posted something on Twitter or on their blogs. The phone gets cancelled, they are getting observed, their flats get searched. The police breaks into your house in the middle of the night, they search the house – and then they create evidence against you for the courts. They sentence innocent people to ten years in jail. The most recent one was Liu Xianbin.
You have repeatedly raised your voice in favour of Chinese human rights activists, for example, those that attempted to investigate the collapsing of many school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake.
Ai Weiwei: Tan Zuoren for instance. Exactly, these are the people I am talking about. People like him simply get imprisoned for years and years. They just disappear. The relatives don’t get to hear anything from them. Nobody can get into contact with them. Their lawyers don’t get to see them. What kind of society has this become?
At the same time there is a huge German exhibition at the largest museum in the world at Tiananmen Square. It is entitled The Art Of Enlightenment. What do you think about that?
Ai Weiwei: Tiananmen Square is the most ironic place for an exhibition about enlightenment, because we, the Chinese people, are currently experiencing the age of darkness. There is economic upswing and the people’s living standard is slowly increasing. But at the same time China has reached a new low point in terms of freedom of speech, freedom of artistic expression and the freedom of education. It is a new low point for our civil society.
You have been attacked severely by the police before. In fact, it was so severe that you had to have surgery in Munich in September 2009 because of cerebral hemorrhage. Have you ever considered emigrating considering all the repression in China?
Ai Weiwei: No. Never. But I do have these dreams very often. Just two days ago. It was a nightmare. I was involved in some sort of secret society and I saw horrible things. People crying. I wrote it all down. But then I wasn’t allowed to take anything of it with me. I was followed. The dream seemed to last all night. And the most shocking thing about it was that there were so many tourists in that society. They saw all those things but they didn’t care. They just pretended everything was fine.
Exile must be a vital thought in your mind.
Ai Weiwei: No, that is absolutely not an option. However, the officials of the national security organisation did suggest that during the interrogation. Maybe it was a better choice for me to go abroad was what they suggested. They said that I was an influential artist but also that things were becoming dangerous for me around here. But that would be the last thinkable choice for me.
Although you were threatened directly?
Ai Weiwei: I do realise the risk in staying here. Looking at the history of my country, I can see that the stories of people questioning authorities have never ended favorably.
Do you believe that there is a possibility for artists in China to play a public role in changing the society, in the same way the Enlightenment demanded that in Europe?
Ai Weiwei: Not really. I no longer exist in the eyes of official China. If you enter my name in an online search machine there appears a notice of failure. I was being “harmonised away.” But at least I still have 70,000 followers on Twitter, which is accessible inside China by means of some technical tricks. I comment on problems of the society, so people can see that the flame is still burning, even if not as bright as it used to. I want to demonstrate that there is still a spark alive. Should that one die too, that would simply be all too sad.
“Were there at least two persons like me, the burden I am carrying would only be half as enormous”
You are one of the very few Chinese who still dares to talk to foreign journalists. Isn’t that also becoming too dangerous?
Ai Weiwei: Yes, I often ask journalists as to why they don’t ask somebody else. That would probably be better for me. Were there at least two persons like me, the burden I am carrying would only be half as enormous. Were there ten…you see my point. But it is still my job, exclusively. That’s funny. But at the same time I am very scared.
Your father, the famous poet Ai Qing, was once imprisoned and tortured by Chinese nationalists, then banished to the countryside for another two decades under Mao Zedong. Looking at today’s intellectual climate in China, can one assume that there has not been a lot of progress in terms of intellectual freedom?
Ai Weiwei: That is true. We haven’t made progress. Definitely not. And the basic principle remains the same. The powerful want to prevent dissident voices from being heard. They want to silence and destroy them. They never allow real and open discussions on the topics to happen. Why is exchanging ideas, sitting down and talking so very difficult?
The exhibition at Tiananmen Square might have been a possibility. Forums for dialogue with artists are planned. Have you been invited? No, I was not officially invited.
Ai Weiwei: I suppose that the Chinese involved with the organisation do not want to see my face there. It would probably be embarrassing for the Ministry of Culture. But it would be a good thing. They should invite me.
If there is no real critical dialogue along with this German exhibition, what relevance does it have then anyway?
Ai Weiwei: I guess it’s better than nothing. At least Germany has beautiful objects to offer. But the question is: how can we connect that to today’s reality? Otherwise it is just a gesture between governments. Are we Chinese willing to accept the values of the Enlightenment? No, even centuries after the age of Enlightenment we are not willing to accept that. In that sense it is interesting that the exhibition takes place here – of all places! Because: the current situation in China is crazy. Had I to create a name for these times, I’d say it is the age of craziness.