I had no idea who Ai Weiwei was when I first saw a flier at MIT’s School of Architecture announcing his upcoming special lecture. It was early 2007. I was late to Ai’s talk, where he presented a slideshow of his work, but it was still enough time to sense his subtle charm, his staunch anti-establishment views, his intelligence. After, I called the school to find out if he was still in town and available to meet. He was not, but I eventually tracked him down back in China and we began a series of interviews over email and the phone. It was hard to believe his candor, particularly with his critiques of the Chinese government. How was this man not already in jail? Years went by, and I kept tabs as his artistic success grew, as well as his political activism. And then finally, in April of 2011, I read news reports of his arrest for “tax evasion,” and watched as his worldwide popularity surged during his mysterious three-month detention. Fliers—not to mention T-shirts and tote bags—could now be found in cities everywhere, calling to FREE AI WEIWEI. A documentary film was being made. He was released on June 22, and when reporters came to his studio, he kept his comments brief, saying, “…I cannot give any interviews. But I’m fine.” The latest news, as recent as Feb. 24, reports that even though he has the status of a “free man,” he is still heavily monitored by police and his passport has not been returned, disallowing any travel abroad. You can, however, follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
— Claudine Ko (@lucidean)
“TO GIVE A PRICE TO AN ARTWORK, NO MATTER HOW HIGH OR LOW, IS ALWAYS ABSURD.”
A typical day:
Appreciate that you can still wake up
Eat some noodles, if possible
Start playing the game
Last fall, MIT’s School of Architecture posted fliers publicizing a lecture to be given by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was in town as part of a multicity U.S. tour. On them, the chubby, bearded fifty-year-old smiled in a rumpled T-shirt with two tangled sprigs of hair jutting out over his ears like a cross between Satan and Krusty the Clown. Not quite what one would expect of a figure whom critics have been referring to as “China’s Picasso,” and who ranked higher than Matthew Barney, Rem Koolhaas, and Takashi Murakami in Art Review magazine’s latest Power 100 list. Then again, none of those guys spent their entire childhood exiled to hard labor near the Gobi Desert like Ai did after his father, the poet Ai Qing, was condemned by Mao’s anti-intellectual campaigns.
When the government pardoned the famous writer in 1978, Ai was already of college age. So he enrolled at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy only to drop out after two years and join the Stars avant-garde art collective. Eventually, he left China and moved to New York to study and work as a conceptual artist. During this time, he lived in the East Village as a painter, sculptor, babysitter, construction worker, and loiterer. While the artist insists he did very little during this period in the U.S., it was still enough to be cited in two New York Times pieces about the struggles of the earliest Chinese artists to come to America.
Indeed, these days Ai is the poster child for the exploding art scene in China, where his fellow contemporary artists are breaking records with sales for individual works reaching into the millions—in dollars, of course. A significant part of this culture has spawned around the defunct Bauhaus-style communist factories of Dashanzi, where Ai built his Fake Design studio in 1999, near a segment of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The area has now evolved into a trendy arts district hosting galleries, lofts, clubs, and other fashionable entities.
We finished our conversation on the phone as he walked along the train tracks, which eventually run through the desert of his youth and then, ultimately, out West.
— Claudine Ko
I. MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
THE BELIEVER: I recently heard a joke that there are more galleries in Beijing than there are artists.
AI WEIWEI: For years, I refused to go to any openings, not even my own. I suddenly realized I was getting ten opening notes a day on my mobile phone, more than when I was in New York. But this is China, where nothing is surprising.
BLVR: Why do you think this is happening?
AW: All the rich people collect traditional Chinese art. So it’s very natural for Chinese families to still see art as the highest human performance and send their children to this field. Also, because Chinese art is booming, it legitimizes this profession.
BLVR: Right—a lot of Chinese artists are breaking records and selling works for tons of money. Is this a good thing for China and its artists, or do you see something else going on?
AW: To give a price to an artwork, no matter how high or low, is always absurd. It’s not something that can be measured by money or by certain numbers. Selling high or low doesn’t mean anything. It has to do purely with the market. I don’t think it reflects if the work is good or bad. A good artist shouldn’t be nervous about that.
BLVR: Art critics have said that Westerners have a puritan ethic with art where money is seen as corrupting, and that the Chinese don’t have this guilt. You hold this “Western” ethic, but for the rest of your peers, is this true?
AW: This is a very general understanding of art in China, that being an artist can make you money and turn you into a star. We are living in a popular culture where everything is overexposed. Just look at the statistics: Each university has tens of thousands of applications for students who want to be in art school, but they can only accept a few hundred. Each year, more people want to become artists.
II. FUCK IS THE REALITY.
BLVR: I read somewhere that museums in China will rent space to any artist who’ll pay for a show.
AW: I don’t think China has professional museums—not in the past, present, or near future. The museums used to be exhibition halls for government propaganda, and now every city wants to build a museum. A few thousand are to be built in the next few years, all using taxpayer money. But there is no system, no research, no content, no good programs, no good managers. It all belongs to the cultural department, which is the biggest cultural department in the world. They understand nothing but bureaucratic daily affairs. They don’t care about culture. Maybe they’re the furthest from the people who understand culture. Everything is selected by the central government without good judgment or an understanding of culture to make it really safe. They will become nobody to maintain their power and be raised to the next higher level.
BLVR: Which explains the circumstances of the infamous Fuck Off exhibit. You cocurated and held the show in opposition to the Shanghai Biennale in 2000 only to be shut down by officials four days after the simultaneous openings. Did it make you shy away from curating more controversial shows?
AW: When I curated this show, I was by no means trying to shock people or be controversial. Fuck is the reality; to say “fuck off” is an essential attitude for an intellectual artist stating his own individual mind toward any kind of authority, which can be cultural and political. It has been my attitude for as long as I’ve been practicing art and other cultural-related activities. But, of course, you don’t have to state that in every moment. If there’s the right condition, I always want to express the concept or ideas in a very independent way.
BLVR: A couple of the installations at Fuck Off involved dead human babies. In particular, there was a photo series documenting an artist as he sits down to eat an aborted fetus. How could you think that you weren’t going shock people?
AW: The work used in the show was produced by an artist who had his own reasons, and I allowed him to do so. I’m not going to judge him morally. I think it’s important for any show to be truthful to the current condition. There is always death and bloodshed, also violence. It can be in Iraq, in China, or in the United States. I don’t think people today can really be disturbed or shocked by these things anymore. If you just turn to your paper or television each day, there are thousands of stories that are much more shocking than the gallery artworks. So I think we cannot have a double standard. We cannot see our art as different from the reality. We cannot use two different sets of judgment. I’m not going to say you cannot show this here because of that.
BLVR: How has your father’s work influenced you—beyond creating a distrust of authority from his experience during the Cultural Revolution?
AW: I don’t think my father had a direct influence on me, but I do think, more or less, I was influenced by his independent individualism. And the kind of condition he had when he was in this society—the kind of mistreatment society gave him.
BLVR: After your father was pardoned in 1978, your family returned to Beijing and you studied at the Beijing Film Academy alongside the famous “Fifth Generation” filmmakers Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, etc., for a couple of years. But then you dropped out. Why?
AW: Well, when I first got into the first-year study after the Cultural Revolution, got into the same school with this group, I wasn’t conscious of the so-called “Fifth Generation” I didn’t like that kind of study condition because there’s no real, true education there. It’s really rubbish that some kind of “technical” learning means you will be a better person because you know this skill better. And there was no discussion on how this society became like this, what happened in the past. People have a tendency to become elite rather than to care about the general conditions of the society, which makes me sick. It’s an unbearable condition.
BLVR:Are you talking about society during the Cultural Revolution? Or postrevolution?
AW: Today, the general masses in this society are in this political-social condition that really encourages people to become rich and become a star and be unique. It gives so much privilege to people who can make it, rather than having some moral and aesthetic discussions. So society becomes very destructive. For those actors and directors who produce films which are always about the old kingdom or about heroes, you know about the fantasies related to the classics, but there is no real discussion about today’s life and no discussion of the real conditions—which is really sickening. They’ve become part of a conspiracy, collaborators of the crime, which is lying to the general public and trying to hide the kind of criminal acts happening in many cases.
BLVR: Have you ever regretted your decision to drop out of film school?
AW: I never regret anything. Because I never think any place is better than others. I think you can give meaning to any condition; you can be poor or unsuccessful or be so-called successful. But I don’t think that it would give an individual human being a better condition. This so-called fame or being better off doesn’t really attract me at all. I often feel more disgust than pride about this kind of success. So there’s no regret whatsoever.
III. NEW YORK
BLVR: From 1981 to 1993, you lived in the U.S., mostly in New York City. How did you spend your time?
AW: I spent a lot of time standing on street corners talking to local residents. I spent time in bookstores and galleries. But most of the time, I really did not have much to do. A lot of the time, I was thinking about how spending time is always questionable or is always the biggest obstacle in my life.
BLVR: Were you the quintessential struggling artist?
AW: I lived there as an artist, but never as a Chinese artist. Even though everybody who looked at me would call me a Chinese artist, that’s the 1980s. New York in the ‘80s was not so interesting. I think it’s quite narrow-minded. There wasn’t much encouragement or opportunities for any artist—not just Chinese artists.
BLVR: What do you mean you weren’t a “Chinese” artist?
AW: To call yourself a Chinese artist or woman artist or African artist reflects a certain kind of condition. To me, that is not necessary. Of course, people will call you an old artist or young artist, which is just a character of you. But personally, I don’t think my work and my understanding of art is so much related to being Chinese, but the character of that. Maybe it’s beyond my own consciousness.
BLVR: Why did you stay in New York for such a long time?
AW: I was an illegal alien for many, many years. I couldn’t move. If I moved I could not even get a visa back. In my case, I was stuck there for quite a while. New York is large enough to be a very abstract city, so nobody cares. It was not a romantic city at that time. Nobody knows who you are and you don’t have to care about anybody else. It’s a very cold city, I should say.
BLVR: You were friends with the poet Allen Ginsberg, who lived near you in the East Village. How does one befriend Allen Ginsberg?
AW: I think Allen was a person who was like a child. I never saw him as some kind of crazy figure. I saw him more as an old man who liked poetry and who had a lot of physical and emotional problems. We liked our time together. I never really read his poetry, even though I have a book he gave me. I liked the cover and I admire that he wrote so much. But I never really read it.
BLVR: It’s hard to imagine that such well-known artists like composer Tan Dun and director Chen Kaige once hung around the East Village, and even crashed in your apartment. Did you guys have a sense that one day it would be like this? All of you having reached great success?
AW: Somehow, we were all privileged at the time; we could be outside of China. But at the moment, we had no sense of what the future was going to be like.
BLVR: After twelve years in the U.S., your father became ill. So you returned to Beijing and stayed—in a country that might not necessarily be the obvious choice to live in as a “counterculture artist.” Why did you stay?
AW: In my life, I often make so-called major decisions by very quick, immediate responses. I came back because that’s the only time I had an excuse to come back, or otherwise I would never have a reason to come back. I don’t like China. Even today, I still feel I have no emotional relations with this place. I also doubt a man can give really clear reasons for anything. Man has a tendency to try to give clear reasons to be rational, but often you can see how all those reasons are not convincing and turn out to be a big nonsense.
BLVR: Do you believe in a sense of home?
AW: I don’t believe in a sense of home. I never had a sense of home. Growing up, my family was an enemy of the state. I have experienced more disappointment than joy, much more sad stories or desperate conditions. So I never had secure, belonging feelings with this society. That’s why I always question this sense. The feeling of home really requires a lot of trust. It requires you to identify with it, which I always find myself very contradictory to.
BLVR: Would you move back to New York?
AW: New York has given me a lot, but I still don’t consider it home. I don’t think I was very structured in that society and I don’t really believe in personal success, which most Americans believe in.
BLVR: But you’re successful.
AW: It’s really by mistake. If I look at it, I would laugh. I don’t know how I became successful. Hopefully, other successes aren’t like me. It carries much more meaning to other people; my success story is irrelevant. It doesn’t make any sense. Maybe it’s because I’m in China and I’m more open. Maybe it’s my independent behavior, or because I participated in certain projects. I have no idea.
BLVR: It seems as if there was a distinct change in you from the period you lived in the U.S. and now. Aside from returning to China, was there something specific that altered your life?
AW: I don’t think there is a distinct change, because in the West I’m not a person who can serve his purpose. And after I came back, there was still a long period of time when I felt I had nothing to do. Even if I have hundreds of things to do, the disconnected feeling is still there because it is very hard to find a real purpose of life. You only have temporary curiosity, amusement, and challenges, but that does not necessarily mean you are really convinced that it’s necessary or that it’s not even worth to do it. It’s just a way you have to set up some kind of activities to follow your instincts or your curiosities.
IV. PEARL COLLECTING
BLVR: Describe your typical day.
AW: My typical day is, I wake up and appreciate that I can still wake up. If it’s possible, I will have some noodles in the morning and start talking to people, start to think about a few things in my head—the project or a few ideas which are not finished or if there are possible directions and what will lead into another game. It’s always like setting up some kind of game you can continuously play. I also spend a lot of time talking to journalists. If I really have nothing to do, I just watch my cats, take some photos, and go back to my personal blog.
BLVR: What are some of the projects you’re working on now?
AW: I’m doing quite a few things now. One day, I will go to Kassel, Germany, for a documentary project I’ve been preparing for half a year. I will bring 1,001 Chinese to participate as my artwork there—any Chinese who is a Chinese passport holder and over eighteen years old could apply through my blog. I’m just bringing them to Kassel to see the art show, and pay their room and board.
BLVR: What motivates your work?
AW: I have people working together, doing different things: architecture, art installation, photography, publishing, and curatorial works and design. The motivation is really to say people can find the game of getting involved interesting and find the problem and really have the passion and the enthusiasm to solve it and move forward, but that’s all I know.
BLVR: You collected a half ton of pearls to fill a giant porcelain bowl for Bowl of Pearls (2006). Tell me about this.
AW: I grew up in a desert, which has no kind of imagination. The fantasy we had with pearls was always so luxurious and unique with a kind of rareness. We grew up in a very material-lacking socialist society, but today China is a capitalist society. It’s very materialistic. It’s full of desire and luxury goods. It’s always the rich and there’s plenty to waste, yet still China has a lot of people living in very spare, poor conditions. So I think the pearls—one is a necklace, and another you have five hundred pounds of pearls, which may be one million pearls in a bowl—really show a kind of condition. A nation like China has become one of the biggest production fields for exporting cheap labor, which also re-questions our history and past, re-questions human desire, and the human illusions of the past.
BLVR: A lot of people look at China when it comes to problems with the environment.
AW: Yeah [laughs], now they really come. Of course, it’s a big problem, but it’s a problem everyone in the world has to think about. China hasn’t only existed for one day. Now, the whole nation has become richer and it’s become a problem. The problem is universal. The factor is big. Everybody has to rethink the balance of the world and the whole landscape.
BLVR: The Chinese government’s push to build Beijing up into a world-class metropolis filled with skyscrapers is destroying historic neighborhoods. Are you OK with that?
AW: First, I don’t think it comes from design. Any design, any city, any kind of craziness or tragedy, it all comes from a long time of preparation. Destroy or build. Crazy or non-crazy. I’m not nostalgic about the old city. I don’t enjoy it that much. It was just a city with one emperor and the rest of them just rats or meaningless people. Of course, it had its own conditions. The society was so different—it was a feudalistic society. It didn’t come to a point of industrial revolution until twenty years ago. And today, we jump into this globalization of the economy and the Internet age. Of course, there has to be chaos. It has to be crazy, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong about it except this government, which is really incapable of doing anything meaningful. Otherwise, I think the building can be bigger, larger, and the city can be much more crazy. The problem is the government structure is so deadly stupid, not really solving problems but creating a lot of problems itself every day.
BLVR: How are you so free with your criticism of the Chinese government? Don’t people tend to end up in prison for that? Or are you safe because of your involvement with high-profile projects?
AW: It’s not like before. It’s very clearly losing power in every aspect, but trying to fix up all the problems or potential problems. The whole attitude of society has become much more open and realistic. They realize that the only way to make a more democratic and free society is to let different opinions come out. The government has improved in the last two or three years. Of course, the structure is still the same; there’s still a one-party system and strong censorship.
BLVR: Now that you have been helping with the design of the Beijing National Stadium, a government-sponsored project for the 2008 Olympics, do you still consider yourself a counterculture artist?
AW: I have always stated I designed the stadium as a toilet seat. I don’t care if this is a great cultural event or a national symbol. It has nothing to do with me. It deals with the city. Many people are going to use it, which makes it more meaningful. If we don’t design it, somebody else has to design it. I believe [the architecture firm] Herzog and de Meuron and our collaboration made the product the best it could be. But also I don’t personally feel any association with a kind of culture related to state, or culture related to power, which I think is always disgusting.
BLVR:Weren’t you selected by the government to work on it?
AW: Everyone thinks the Chinese government selected me. Never ever. I was selected by Herzog and de Meuron. I don’t belong to a working system. They only select people if you belong to one so you can be controlled. I’m totally independent. I don’t bear any responsibility to any system.
BLVR: Is that unusual?
AW: Individual used to be a bad word, like you’re a loser in society.
BLVR: It’s changed now?
AW: Yeah. Now many enterprises are made by individuals, so the attitude has started to change. Still, this is not a guaranteed condition. You’re still not in the mainstream. You’re still being looked at as somebody who—it’s a very complicated issue.
BLVR: Is there a work of art you created that you are most proud of?
AW: There’s no single artwork I even want to mention or that I can even really think about it to have any feeling, to be proud of it. But as a total activity—I practice curating, art, architecture, writing, and publishing all together. I still act as a living creature. I can still wake up the next day and feel that there’s something that needs to be done, which always amuses me.
BLVR: When will China be ready for a solo show of your work?
AW: I don’t really care. I don’t think China should care if this crazy old guy should have a show here or not. You have so many museums in the West, and so many shows, you need somebody to show the work, otherwise it’s empty. But in China, we don’t have any contemporary art museums. Until a few years ago, we didn’t even have a gallery. Now everything’s moving up to a more Western standard, but I don’t think it matters at all. Even if there’s a show by me, I will be more or less ashamed about it rather than have good feelings toward it. I’m a person who always wants to move to the next project, which can occupy me or give me some stimulation. But whatever’s happened is already not interesting at all.
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