Ai Weiwei after the attack
I visited Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on a cold Saturday afternoon this November, Beijing had just had two blizzards, courtesy of the government’s metrological bureau, who wanted to alleviate drought by seeding the cloud cover with silver iodide, resulting in the heaviest October snowfalls in 20 years. His courtyard studio is in the city’s remote Caochangdi art district, which has been threatened with demolition in recent months.
On this visit Ai is notably less animated, his eyes look tired and slightly jaundiced, and he has a shaven stripe on the side of his head following his recent brain surgery operation in Munich, the result of an assault on Ai by police officers in Sichuan Province. “The operation saved my life,” Ai said. His popular blog on China’s top portal Sina.com has been removed by the site for some time, and there is noticeably less activity around his studio- previously it would have been hard to get a short 7am slot on a Sunday morning, but now it seems Ai has fewer visitors as his cold war with the government has turned hot. There is one interruption- a young lady appears with a video camera – Ai says she is starting to make a documentary about him, starting today.
Following his brain surgery Ai says it will take about four months for him to fully recover, and his blogging and reporting activities are now limited to twitter (Ai Weiwei twitter feed http://www.twitiq.com/?action=people&user=aiww). “140 characters is enough, following the operation that is all I have the attention span for, I cannot write long articles right now.” Ai said he has around 10,000 followers on twitter. Twitter users in Chinese can write much longer posts- because each Chinese character represents a syllable equivalent in English. Users in China access twitter, which is blocked by the government, via use of a VPN or other hacker type software.
Recent topics on his prolific twitter feed have included his ongoing struggle with Sichuan police over the assault, his research into the 5.12 earthquake in Sichuan, the nomination of Chinese writers for the International PEN writers in prison award, the recent Obama visit to China, and other matters, often using strong language. On November 19 he had already posted 78 updates by 10.30 in the morning. In the two latest twists in his struggle with the government the police in Sichuan issued an official denial anything untoward happened when Ai claims he was assaulted, and the government has now launched a probe of his finances. Ai said he has a recording of the assault that took place against him.
His sense of humour returns briefly when he points out his “beautiful model” of the Munich Kunst Haus, which he used to plan his recent show there, demolished by his cats. “They liked it too much,” he said.
Describing his move into writing and other media Ai said: “To use art is not enough, to describe your view, in the old traditional forms, such as painting, sculpture… as a citizen you need to express your views, writing, blogging, giving interviews, is a part of that, otherwise you will very easily be misinterpreted, or misunderstood, by the society, by the establishment I should say….as long as there is power and people there will be a struggle.”
“I enjoy my life because I have developed so much- I didn’t know I was an architect- what is an architect? But I needed a house so I built this house, which led me to do sixty projects including Bird’s nest. Then I saw blogs, and I thought this is a good idea- you do an interview for an article and it comes out months later- and completely you can’t even recognize it. So, aha, I can just directly put my ideas there. So maybe, some person, in an unknown corner of the world, can touch it and read it. I mean, especially in China, in some remote region, I write in Chinese language, but if someone like that can be touched by an idea, their life can be very different, it can completely change your life- I grew up in a very remote region. So I started to do it. Then I became a kind of blog leader, and people said- oh, how come this guy is so brave, he can say that, but no matter what I said, or how brave, its just common sense….so what are you so nervous about? Everyone was so nervous – my family, my friends, people I don’t know… they would say they like it, then the next question is how can I do it, why don’t they put me in jail? That is the mentality, because everyone is so afraid. I always reply if you also do it, I wouldn’t have half as much chance of being put in jail, if everyone did it I wouldn’t even have to do it.”
His blogs are often criticized by other internet users in China- “People often say, ah, you are some kind of fucking bastard from the United States, you are a running dog of the West, you have your passport there, so I put my passport on the blog, a Chinese passport, as ordinary as any. They didn’t believe it, 12 years in the United States…that’s the way the public always thinks, it doesn’t matter where. So that’s my advantage, I never take their shit, it doesn’t matter here or in the United States. There are a million reasons for me (to have a US passport) – my father was exiled, I grew up in an exiles camp, though in 1981 I was in the first group to enter university, I still don’t, to today, have a bachelors degree. I didn’t finish school in China or the United States. I don’t give a shit, and people say oh well, its because of this or that, well why don’t you do it? Nobody will do it. One million students study outside of China, they stay there for 5, 10 years, but they know nothing about say the United States except their campus, the professor, a bbq perhaps. People won’t take anything that is not safe. That is how the Chinese race has become today, they are so self protecting, so self conscious of their own safety and well-being, they don’t care what ever happens to the next person. A culture has finally produced such a kind of race.”
Earlier this year, in March, when talking about his father the poet Ai Qing, Ai said some words which proved prophetic: “They say to me- ah, well, you are too famous now, nobody can touch you, no! Nobody is too famous for them to touch. Ah, they say it is because of my father- don’t forget my father was in a Nationalist jail for four years, and in exile under the Communists for 20 years, what are you talking about? You know, because of my father I wouldn’t do it- because I know how bad it can be. If you were in that situation for twenty years you would know, to clean up all those public toilets, to be insulted by everybody.”
Ai grew up with his family in exile in Shiheze, on a semi-military farm camp in Xinjiang Province, in China’s north west, next to central Asia.
“(The Cultural Revolution) it was nothing but frightening. The whole society was frightening. I was born in 1957- the year of the anti-rightist campaign, when my father went into exile. First he was sent to the forests in North China to work. Then one year later to Xinjiang, so I grew up in Xinjiang, until I was 18 years old, I finished High School there. During the Cultural Revolution we were sent to live in the poorest conditions as a punishment. Funnily enough in Xinjiang for 18 years I met less than 18 Ouiga people (the indigenous people of Xinjiang). It was kind of a military base. I hate to tell those stories, there is too much sentiment in there. The fact is people died, were dieing, my father almost died, he lost sight in one eye, he almost died several times, and I came out of there very fragile.”
And then Ai went to New York “A completely different civilization, different. You know, 80s art, German Expressionism, all these kind of things there.”
Ai’s early career started as a painter. “In school I majored in animation and then started doing more installations or objects. I came back to China in 1993, I left in 1981.
When asked if he was drifting away from art- perhaps taking on other roles, such as a journalist perhaps – he replied: “Certainly, I found out, it was not my goal, or intention, but I did find out I am drifting away, it is like moving in a river, the society, every day is shifting, moving, you have to be a part of it.”
Ai was one of the original members of the Stars Group, in the early period of modern China’s contemporary art history considered the most important movement following the opening up and reform process of the 1980s. “This was completely new, freedom, but the party wouldn’t let you go too far, unless there was some structure there. There were struggles there, I mean there was no real understanding of contemporary life then, it was more art for art’s sake- and already quite political.”
Ai said he threw away his work from that period – “I never knew I would be so successful today, even ten years ago, maybe I’m exaggerating, more like six years ago, I had my first show in 2004, in Bern, after 20, 30 years.” Ai had already been in China for more than 10 years, doing his underground book project, and had founded China Art Archives and Warehouse with Hans van Dijk. He also co-curated the Shanghai show “Fuck Off” in 2000 at Eastlink Gallery, with Feng Boyi. “I was quite unhappy about some of the content (of that show), but art is not about making people happy. Not so much art touches the taboo, it was ugly, bloody, violent, and sickening, but not too far from the reality, you know? The reality in China is at least one million times worse.”
Commenting on possible influences, such as Andy Warhol, behind his art practice, his string of worldwide shows, media profile and art stardom Ai said: “Nobody has inspired me in that sense, my only influence is that you are human, and you have this time, of hours, months, and years, and then you disappear….and most people think this won’t repeat, so nothing can be more inspiring than that. You have a sense of crisis all the time, everyday. Its my life experience is like that- who are you? Your experience, are you a product of that experience of someone sitting beside that? I believe I am a product of my experience, of this period, what I have seen and heard.”
Ai’s latest work is Sunflower Seeds- a six ton pile of hand made ceramic sunflower seeds. “These seeds, they are a memory of the Communist times, we would share these seeds with friends,” Ai said. Ai does not know what affect the new Chinese government censorship on artwork exports will have on any future shows he may have abroad- works for his previous two major shows this year at the Munich Kunst Haus and Mori Art Museum were shipped out of China before the rules came into place in August 2009.
Commenting on the Chinese government’s increasing role in the arts Ai said: “I think China strategically now has come to a very crucial moment, they have to rejustify themselves, even the past 20-30 years are based on a kind of destructive, self suicidal act, now they are trying to reach a higher level, but I think in any society culture should have its own rights, not to be touched by the government, not to be promoted by the government, also not to be destroyed by the government, so when someone has a style or way to talk, that’s natural, kind of charming, but when the government encourages that it becomes disgusting, its very sad, its obvious. So for artists, I don’t think the government should interfere. If there is no understanding on these fundamental issues, the Chinese government uses these things like the Olympics to promote Chinese culture, but it remains embarrassing.”