Conversations with Ai Weiwei
Below follows a couple of brief transcripts from an interview with Ai
Weiwei in 2009. During the interview I inadvertently introduced Ai
Weiwei to twitter. This was just something small within the interview,
and I didn’t realize it was that significant, as I was more focused on
Ai Weiwei’s blogging and political opinions, history and other issues.
The way it came up was I had noticed a brief mention that Ai was
involved in the M+ project, and as I have written about that a few
times it was one of the questions I had in my mind to ask him. The M+
is a multi-billion dollar art museum project in Hong Kong.
Later I had a bit of an argument with Jonathan Watts of the Guardian
as he thought he had been the first to introduce Ai Weiwei to twitter,
also during an interview. These are the kind of silly arguments we
have. But then we compared dates, and as I had been sleeping on
Jonathan’s couch the night before interviewing Ai. Jonathan couldn’t
in the end dispute that I was the first to introduce Ai Weiwei to
twitter. Whether Ai later forgot all about it and someone else
introduced him to the idea, I imagine is a strong possibility. But I
did find it quite amusing watching Christiane Amanpour of CNN
introducing a whole TV special about Ai Weiwei’s activities on twitter
a year later, and also watching Ai in discussions with the founder of
twitter in front of a global audience. Sometimes small inadvertent
actions can have larger consequences. But it also says a lot about Ai
Weiwei himself, within a year of grasping a new idea and technology he
was a master of it.
Chris Gill)CPG: Are you jetlagged? From flying from London?
(Ai Weiwei) AWW: Me? No
CPG: I get it bad
AWW: I’m just too busy…so many things to do
CPG: Did you try sleeping pills?
Aww: My friends tried it, they said it is fantastic, but I won’t take it
CPG: Me neither. Is it alright if I record?
CPG: So I have just become Art Newspaper reporter for China
AWW: But you have been in China a long time
CPG: I know, from 92…
Aww: Oh, have we met before?
CPG: Maybe, I don’t know
AWW: So what are you doing here from so early?
CPG: A painter
AWW: Oh amazing, so from then you are here an artist. That’s very surprising.
CPG: I don’t know. I also work as a journalist for about 10 years, for Russia.
AWW: But you are always art.
CPG: I heard you are involved in the West Kowloon Project?
AWW: Ah? How could you hear that?
CPG: You know, the M+ museum..
AWW: Yes, but how could you hear that? They announced..?
CPG: It was on the internet
AWW: Ah so on the internet, so someone announced it right?
CPG: No, not really
AWW: But how could the internet know? Nobody knows, somebody just
called me. Norman Foster called ,me. but nobody else knows that, its
CPG: It was on twitter, I don’t know if you know what that is…it’s a
new kind of like a thing, twitter You know you have like a blog, and
you have some other things, but now they have a new thing called
twitter, where people just write 100 characters (nb 140), boom boom
boom, and it was on there, just very brief.
AWW: So you can also check out here the persons name and something
will come out?
CPG: Well you have to follow that person,
CPG: So if you were Aiweiwei you would make an account and people
would follow your words, subscribe to your feed, and you can follow
other people, its just like a new internet thing
CPG Twitter T… W… I …T… T… E… R
AWw: Oh Twitter
CPG: Like a bird. Anyway, I just saw it on there, you don’t want to
mention that? Is it sensitive or..?
AWW: No, no , no. Only until you mentioned I thought it might be
sensitive. Its just an architectural development issue in Hong Kong
A Conversation between Jing Kewen and Ai Weiwei
7 August, 2008, at Jing Kewen’s studio
Ai Weiwei: How old are you?
Jing Kewen: I am 43, I was born in the Chinese year of the snake. I came to Beijing in 2005, before that I was in Xi’an.
Ai: Why did you come to Beijing?
Jing: At that time I was visiting Beijing several times a year. I cooperated with Chinablue Gallery on several exhibitions, and got to know some people.
Feng Boyi: You stayed at art college after graduating?
Jing: Yes, I stayed after graduating in 1986.
Ai: Where did you study?
Jing: I studied at the Oil Painting Department of the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts.
Ai: The Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts is renowned for its New Year painting style?
Feng: And Chinese calligraphy painting in the style of Liu Wenxi.
Jing: Actually our college is quite special. The so-called Chinese tradition is not a strong as at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing or the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. In Xi’an we have some professors who went to study in France and also in Russia..
Qian Zhijian: What about the Northwest Chang’an Painting School of Zhao Wangyun?
Jing: Not really. At that time the Chang’an Painting School was not properly acknowledged by the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts.
Feng: They didn’t acknowledge Shi Lu and Zhao Wangyun?
Jing: People at the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts are quite independent thinkers and do not like to conform.
Ai: Were you born in Xi’an?
Jing: No, I was born in the city of Xining, in Qinghai province. My home town is near the border with Gansu province.
Ai: Are you from the Hui ethnic group?
Jing: There are many Hui people there. My elder brother Jing Anning is a historian and he said we are descendants of the Hui. He did a doctorate at Princeton University with Professor Fang Wen, graduating in only three years.
Ai: I met Fang Wen when I went to New York to attend the Parsons School of Design. He told me it would take seven years to gain a doctorate and that I would have to study Japanese and German. My English was poor then and I was shocked! Fang Wen was kind to me and I stayed at his house for one night.
Jing: My brother was an outstanding scholar, studying Asian Buddhism and Asian Art. Afterwards he did postdoctoral work at Columbia University. Now he is in Michigan.
Ai: How much older is your brother than you?
Jing: Twelve years, he is also a snake. I am the youngest in my family. When I was just a little boy, my brother took up an apprenticeship at the age of sixteen. He also began to learn English, listening to the gramophone. He influenced me a lot.
Ai: So after graduating, you stayed in Xi’an. I can see why, it’s an important city. You continue to paint in the same style?
Jing: Yes, this is my style.
Ai: You are the kind of student who was not well taught in school?
Jing: I was a good student when I graduated.
Feng: Otherwise he would not have been able to stay on and teach.
Ai: Do you keep painting like this on purpose? Or can’t you paint anything better than this?
Jing: This is the best I can do. I am very meticulous in my painting, down to the last subtle detail. You might say I am obsessed by detail. I hope to become less like this one day.
Ai: Have you changed since moving to Beijing?
Jing: I find the best thing about living in Beijing is the relaxed environment and having more room to grow as an artist. I am a bit more confident than before. Seeing how people live in very different circumstances, I find my own are pretty good. I feel more liberated in my painting than before.
Ai: It’s like singing in a noisy place, no one can hear.
Jing: One important reason for me coming to Beijing is that I was afraid that if I stayed in Xi’an after the age of 40, I would become the local tyrant. In Xi’an I was the Deputy Director of the Oil Painting Department.
Ai: People from Xi’an are tough, such as Zhang Yimou, Gu Changwei and Zhao Fei. A lot of my friends are from Xi’an and are accomplished, assertive and talented. Actually they are also quite stubborn.
Jing: Actually I have spent half of my life in Qinghai and half in Shaanxi. My ancestors came from Shaanxi. I grew up in Qinghai until the age of sixteen and then I went to Xi’an (Shaanxi).
Ai: Looking at this photo and this painting, I see they have the same background? Is it a family photo?
Jing: No. I collect lots of photos of this kind. I especially like that architecture. Shanghai people of that time liked taking photos at that place.
Ai: It looks like the newly built Beijing Hotel in 1972. I took photos there too.
Jing: Actually, it is the Consulate of the Soviet Union.
Ai: The Seamen’s Club is close by too.
Jing: I find the architecture of buildings on the Shanghai Bund a bit flashy and tacky. This one, in contrast, is extremely simple.
Qian: Did this building belong to an American company then?
Jing: No. It was designed by a Jewish architect from Hungary or Czechoslovakia, an extremely talented man who designed lots of nice buildings in Shanghai.
Ai: There is a nice hotel nearby, an old hotel.
Jing: Yes, the Peace Hotel. It is currently under reconstruction. It was originally the Cathay Hotel, built by Sir Victor Sassoon.
Ai: When do the paintings in this catalogue date from?
Jing: From 1986 until 2007. After my college and dissertation works, I did not paint many paintings. I was lazy in Xi’an, it is a leisurely place.
Ai: What did you do there?
Jing: I wandered around the city all day.
Ai: Is that how you collected all your material?
Jing: Yes. I particularly like collecting material from the period of the Republic: books, magazines, photos, anything I find interesting.
Ai: Why this interest in the Republic?
Jing: Two reasons. As an educated Chinese person, I think the combination of traditional Chinese culture and contemporary Western spirit would be perfect. But I find that our generation lacks traditional culture.
The other reason is my parents. They are people of that time and they are very traditional. My early education was all about the four virtues “propriety, righteousness, incorruptibility and shame”; they were always echoing in my ears.
Ai: Maybe your exhibition should be named “propriety, righteousness, incorruptibility and shame”?
Jing: No, that would be immodest.
Ai: When did your parents mention these four virtues? Was it your mother or father who insisted on them?
Jing: Mostly my father.
Ai: Was he very strict?
Jing: Yes, a typical Shaanxi person. He was born in about 1921. He was an intellectual of the Communist Party, and he was once the editor in chief of “Malan Daily”.
Ai: That is impressive!
Jing: I had nothing to do with that. I have no contact with my family. I have two memories of the Cultural Revolution, from when I was about three years old. One was my father being arrested; the other is visiting him in prison. It was interesting when he was arrested. When I was young my father was tough, he made no sound when he was beaten. Those who came to arrest him didn’t speak either, as if it was agreed. Everything was prepared.
Ai: That is typical of an old Communist. He was familiar with the routine.
Jing: I found the most absurd thing when I sorted out my father’s papers. In 1957 he was the Secretary of the Party Committee of Guoluo Prefecture, and he was there when the riots took place in Tibet and Qinghai. In 1957 he wrote self-criticism and proclaimed himself as “leftist”; but in 1958 he confessed himself as “rightist”.
Qian: Did you keep those papers? They are valuable.
Jing: Yes, I kept them all.
Ai: Then you met him again?
Jing: My mother took me to visit him in prison. It was lunchtime. I remember very clearly, those people threw a plate of potatoes onto the table. That is my only memory from when I was three years old.
Ai: How long was he held in prison?
Jing: More than half a year. He was almost beaten to death. But he regained his job after he was released in 1972.
Ai: So he was among the first group of people to be released. The Lin Biao Incident happened in 1972, and then Deng Xiaoping was reinstated.
Jing: He came back before the Lin Biao Incident. After that he went to Qinghai.
Ai: So he stayed in Qinghai?
Jing: Yes. They thought Qinghai was near our home town; otherwise they would have gone to Xinjiang. Shaanxi people love home.
Ai: It would have been worse going to Xinjiang. Do you also have the strong personality typical of Shaanxi people?
Jing: Yes. I’m also very strict. But not with others, more with myself.
Ai: You are modest.
Jing: In Beijing I feel I don’t have any relationship with those around me.
Ai: Do you feel isolated?
Jing: Yes, but not intentionally. It is for psychological reasons.
Ai: Are the people not good enough for you?
Jing: No. I think I lack confidence in my work and I am not good enough.
Ai: In a religious way?
Qian: Does it have something to do with your childhood experience?
Ai: Do you believe in God?
Feng: He believes in propriety, righteousness, incorruptibility and shame.
Jing: I think the Chinese love “face”, and that is how we were taught in my family. Our family doctrine was education by shame. The result of such an education is that you always think you are not as good as others and that you are always wrong. This has shaped my character.
Ai: There is a very big age difference between you and your father, and you were the youngest person at home. You must have been spoilt.
Jing: I have several elder brothers and always felt under great pressure. My father was very strict. So I always felt I was not as good as others. Now I am older and feel more comfortable somehow. I find there are plenty of positive things in life. However, I can’t change and I don’t make an effort to change.
Ai: I have almost never considered that I might not be as good as others. I will go home later and think about it. You didn’t talk about your mother.
Jing: My mother was even more traditional. She is an extremely good, typical Chinese woman. Everything she did was for my father. They had a good relationship and were always considerate of each other. Throughout their lives they did not bother about other people. My mother cared for my father and for me; my father cared for my mother. That is how it was always.
Ai: Like water lily leaves.
Jing: They never thought about themselves.
Qian: Your mother was also a revolutionary?
Jing: My mother’s health was not good and so she retired early. She suffered a heart attack during the Cultural Revolution. After my father was arrested, my mother had to look after six children. My grandma and one of my uncles also lived with us. With so little money to support so many people, my mother suffered a heart attack.
Ai: She was under too much stress.
Jing: The Cultural Revolution was a terrible time.
Ai: Every family was miserable. The strangest thing is that no one benefited and everyone was miserable.
Jing: When I was at middle school, we began to criticize Lin Biao and Confucius. No one was beaten or arrested. Everywhere there were big-character posters and big slogans. Every day on my way to school I tore down those big-character posters.
Ai: Did you get tired of that?
Ai: Did anything happen?
Jing: No. It was relaxed at that time and it didn’t matter.
Ai: Are any of your paintings about the Cultural Revolution period?
Jing: Almost all of them are about that time, that is, the 1970s, because that decade had a great impact on me. Although I don’t like that period, I can’t eradicate it from my mind. It is painful yet fascinating.
Qian: Even though you don’t like that time you still paint it? Isn’t that painful?
Jing: I will never get over my feelings about that time. But it has changed and become something different. Although I did not like the general environment, there were some aspects I did like.
Ai: Just like when you find some colour in a colourless place, the colour shines more vividly.
Jing: When I went to college in 1982, the Reform and Opening-up started and society began to change. The 1970s for me was the quietest time, it was simple and quiet.
Ai: So you are quite introverted. Sentimental and nostalgic.
Jing: Fragile and nostalgic. Quite sentimental.
Ai: The 1970s is an empty period. The so-called revolution had passed and the restoration had not yet started. It was comparatively quiet. There were no problems in society. The only sound to be heard was when a car drove by.
Qian: The end of the Cultural Revolution.
Jing: I lived in other people’s lives. It was so quiet staying at home the whole day. I had many elder brothers who went out all day long. This brother went to college, that one came back from Shanghai and brought me something, and I lived in …
Ai: A fantasy world.
Jing: One of my brothers worked as a part-time conservator of the middle school library. He stole a lot of books and magazines when they were burnt in the Cultural Revolution. There were Soviet pictorial magazines, copies of “PLA Pictorial, “People’s Pictorial” of the 1950s, and also many great books published before the Cultural Revolution.
Ai: You could not grow up balanced in such circumstances. Some parents spoil their children and they get bad habits. You were not spoilt but grew up like a tree growing sideways, not straight.
Jing: No one taught me. It just happened that there were so many of these publications at home, I read all day, and that made me interested in historical material.
Ai: That is quite important. Now education has problems. Parents dominate too much and don’t allow children to grow by themselves.
Feng: After the Lin Biao Incident, it was a pleasant period. Children never brought their school bags home.
Ai: When the plane crashed, everyone was shocked. Some people believed passionately in Lin Biao, but what they believed in had literally fallen from the sky.
Jing: I was in the first grade of primary school then. One day we were going to paste slogans in class. The first slogan used to be “Long Live Chairman Mao and Long Live the Communist Party!. The next slogan was “Chairman Mao and his comrade Vice-Chairman Lin Biao Forever Healthy!” They were all taken away. My father said that Lin Biao was a traitor. I said, “How can Lin Biao be a traitor? You are a traitor. How dare you say that?” Several days later I realized what he meant.
Ai: The central document was first passed down to regiment level and then down from one level to another. One night someone knocked at the door of our home in Xinjiang. This person was very reserved; he never talked to anyone, did the hardest jobs and ate a lot. He took something from his sleeve and gave it to my father to read. He had stolen this document and thought only my father deserved to see it. This turned out to be a big case, the guy was arrested and beaten almost to death. My father was involved and was asked to confess. People thought our family had stolen the document. At that time such an action was anti-revolutionary. I was young and impressionable and it was terrifying.
Jing: So we cannot forget it.
Ai: There is something very peaceful in your painting, and your strokes are lively and vivid.
Jing: That’s my style. I was the youngest when I went to college. My teacher said my painting was the worst and I needed to practice by doing landscape sketches. So I sketched every day and developed that kind of style. Sometimes I feel that the style is unrestrained, but I aim for a style that is joyful yet controlled.
Ai: Your style resembles Chinese calligraphy. Have you ever thought about that?
Jing: Some people have said that.
Jing: I used to make some changes in my painting, and I just removed anything I didn’t like. But now when I feel something in the photos, everything becomes indispensable, and those which I thought were bad are good. I copy everything and do not make a single change.
Qian: Do you have someone to choose those photos?
Jing: I go to Shanghai three or four times a year. There are people who collect photos for me and they call me when they have a collection. Each time there are hundreds of albums and I choose from them for three days. Every day I select thousands of photos.
Ai: How many do you keep?
Jing: I still have about two hundred photos to paint. I have boxes full of catalogues, and just tons of photos.
Ai: Is this an obsession?
Jing: It’s an addiction.
Ai: Be careful. If you are obsessed with whatever you do, you will be exhausted.
Jing: I live a simple life. I have never been to a bar in the three years since I arrived in Beijing. Most people find that hard to believe. In the past when I used to come to Beijing for ten days, I would end up in a bar on the third day. But in the past three years in Beijing, I’ve never been to a bar. Once I went to meet someone but I still did not go into it.
Ai: When do you arrive at your studio?
Jing: I arrive at 9am and I paint until 8pm in the evening.
Ai: Do you paint every day?
Jing: Every day. I’ll take a rest after I finish this painting.
Ai: Is that what you usually do?
Jing: Yes, I have no social life. I find socializing tiring.
Qian: You don’t like dealing with people?
Jing: I find it tiresome.
Ai: But you love painting.
Jing: I love painting and going shopping.
Qian: What kind of store?
Jing: All kinds of stores.
Ai: Do you like fashion?
Jing: I like shopping malls.
Qian: What about book stores?
Jing: Sometimes. I don’t care too much about what I eat, nor do my family. People in Shaanxi live a rough life, and my father was satisfied with a bowl of noodles. I’m the same, but I love shopping.
Qian: You buy things? For yourself?
Jing: I have been to Tokyo and to Berlin, and I bought the most fashionable things available.
Qian: Do you wear them?
Ai: Do you try on the clothes and look at yourself in the mirror?
Jing: No. After buying the clothes, I wash, iron and then wear them.
Ai: Today you are wearing something quite simple.
Jing: These are my work clothes.
Ai: When can we see you in fashionable clothes?
Jing: Look at this, this is limited edition.
Ai: This flower if great. Tokyo is the most luxurious shopping centre in the world. What’s this?
Jing: I love this skull from a designer brand, covered in diamonds. This is the most awesome skull in Tokyo. It is really dark. I love it.
Ai: Do you have a sadistic tendency?
Jing: No, I find it beautiful and rebellious. It goes with my rebellious character. I think a skull is an extreme image. It would be taboo for most people but I like it very much. I was not like other children, I grew up in a world of my own, and now that extends to clothes and shopping. These days I have started buying some classical paintings. They are not by famous artists but they are all from the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties. Pretty cheap, under RMB100,000.
Jing: Yes. They are not by masters but the paintings are quite good. Some are fan paintings, depicting subjects like fishing on an icy river.
Ai: What else have you bought besides the skull?
Jing: Lots of things. Not only the skull, but also clothes, t shirts and belts.
Ai: Next time come to my place to have a look at my jades.
Jing: Jade is too superior. To understand jade would require a lot of knowledge. I’m not that qualified.
Ai: Yes, you need to look at many pieces to gain experience and knowledge.
Qian: I’d like to ask a question. Has there been any change in your painting since you left Xi’an?
Jing: It’s almost the same, but quieter than before.
Qian: By quiet, you mean the style of painting or something else?
Jing: My peace of mind will naturally be evident in the painting. I found the biggest problem in Xi’an was that I did not know what was good or bad, I could not judge. Coming to Beijing, in such a wide environment, you know what are your good points and what are your shortcomings, and you feel real. I do communicate with people indirectly and I read exhibition catalogues, it is inevitable in Beijing. You cannot hide in such a big place. Not like the closed environment of Xi’an, where even if you are busy every day, it is still closed and you can’t escape.
Ai: Did you have any favourite artist during your development or now?
Jing: Not too many! In the past I liked those who were liked by the academy.
Ai: Can you give any examples?
Jing: I used to love Van Gogh. It’s strange that I didn’t know Richter until 2003. One of my students had a printed picture of one of his works when he was doing his dissertation, and I liked it. At that time Richter was one of the most famous artists in the world. It was after I went to college that I learnt about different artists. For a while I loved Van Gogh.
Ai: What did you like about his work?
Jing: His brush strokes, which seemed straight from the heart.
Ai: Full of emotion. So you like to express feeling through brush strokes?
Ai: So that you convey your emotions to the viewer?
Jing: I find I am restricting the subject matter of my paintings. I only paint what I like. My expectations as an artist are actually very low. If I can sell a painting, which allows me to make a living and participate in exhibitions, then it is fine. This has something to do with my character. I am not a very ambitious person and I lack confidence. Painting is just very natural to me and I find it the best way to depict life.
Ai: Painting is not only to make money. You are too modest.
Jing: It is just about making money.
Ai: Are you afraid of death?
Jing: I never think about it.