Ai Weiwei Speaks
'If artists betray the social conscience and the basic principles of being human, where does art stand then?'
Ai Weiwei - artist, architect, curator, publisher, poet and urbanist - extended the notion of art and is one of the world's most significant creative and cultural figures. In this series of interviews, conducted over several years with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, he discusses the many dimensions of his artistic life, ranging over subjects including ceramics, blogging, nature, philosophy and the myriad influences that have fed into his work. He also talks candidly about his father, his childhood spent in exile and his criticism of the Chinese state.
Together, these extraordinary discussions give a unique insight into the outstanding complexity of Ai Weiwei's thought and work, and are an essential reminder of the need for personal, political and artistic freedom.
Sustainability – A Post-Olympic Interview
I’ve been inspired by the model of David Sylvester, the influential British critic and curator of modern art who had an ‘infinite conversation’ with Francis Bacon, to conduct sustained interviews with artists. The ‘infinite conversation’ is a recurrent interview offering continued dialogue; it offers us the chance to explore all the aspects of an artist or other inspirational figure.
The post-Olympic marathon, which began with this interview with Ai Weiwei, was part of our marathon series of interview events that started in 2005. The first London marathon was in 2006 at the Serpentine Gallery, with Rem Koolhaas, when Julia Peyton-Jones and I invited him and Cecil Balmond to design the Serpentine pavilion. Since then eighteen marathons have happened worldwide.
Almost everyone in the Chinese art world did something during the Olympics – projects, exhibitions, and so on. It’s interesting, in an event-culture world, to think about sustainability and legacy. What do these events really mean in terms of their longer-term improvement of or impact on the culture? We decided to create an inter- disciplinary knowledge festival to reflect on the post-Olympic moment in China, so with Zhang Wei and Hu Fang in Beijing we created a mini-marathon of interviews and discussion. It happened on the last day of the Olympic year, on the eve of a new year.Hans Ulrich Obrist: It’s incredibly exciting to start this Mini-Marathon with Ai Weiwei. It’s not the first time we’ve spoken, we’ve recorded interviews on many previous occasions. I want to start by asking Ai Weiwei to tell us his feelings about this very end of the year 2008 in Beijing, and about this post-Olympic moment.
Ai Weiwei: It’s my privilege to join this interview, on the last day of 2008, and as the first being interviewed. You asked me about the post-Olympic period: I do have a clear feeling about the Olympics, as a Chinese living in Beijing. But saying too much about it is meaningless. We are living in an era in which nothing is clear, and a social situation that’s most primitive, in which the individual still cannot express his or her will. Communication in its most public sense, and discussion concerning the most fundamental questions, are impossible. Everyone, artists in particular, should think about why even today, in 2008, after the Olympics, the Chinese are still stuck in such a situation. If artists betray the social conscience and the basic principles of being human, where does art stand then? So I think 2008 was year one of defending our rights, a year people began to wake up. I believe that the Chinese will face more severe problems in 2009. If our system refuses to communicate, rejecting the idea that everyone is born equal, why should we accept such a system? This is a question everyone must ask. You would be an idiot if you didn’t, and can get out of here right now.
HUO: Ever since I left Switzerland many years ago, at the end of my adolescence, my parents would cut out the articles from the newspaper of their small Swiss village, and give them to me at the end of the year. It was always an interesting exercise, because we could see what reaches a tiny village from our global art world. When I was growing up and into the 1980s, there was a lot of reporting about Joseph Beuys and his ‘social sculpture’, and other very big projects, like the Last Supper by Andy Warhol; but in the last couple of years one of the only things that reached the little village were auction records. Now, one exception is Ai Weiwei, not only his project at the last Documenta, which travelled far beyond the art world, but particularly your blog. Before we started the marathon, a gentleman approached you from the audience and said he was very surprised that your blog is not shut down. I always thought of the blog as one of the ‘social sculptures’ of the twenty-first century,so I want to ask you about how the blog started, about your daily practice of the blog, and about how you see it functioning in the current moment.
AWW: My blog is not that much different from anyone else’s. Only I am rather continuously paying attention to certain issues that attract my personal concern. These issues are mostly about artists’ rights of expression, and the ways personal rights are expressed. In a society like China’s, any issue concerning the rights and ways of expression unavoidably becomes political. So I naturally became a political figure. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, because we were born in such a time and we need to face our own problems honestly. Exactly why my blog is still safe at this moment is not something I am in a position to know. I think all danger comes from times and places unknown to you. So I can’t speculate. On how I started writing the blog: I don’t think there’s anything worth talking about. It’s the same old story, you started doing something, and found it presenting lots of possibilities. I think the Internet and information era is the greatest period mankind has encountered. Thanks to this period, humans finally have the opportunity to become independent, to acquire information and communicate independently. Although such information and communication is still restricted and incomplete, compared with the past, people are granted more possibilities to be independent.
HUO: Can you relate to us a few examples of recent entries on the blog. I remember that when I was in China last time, you had protested against the government’s repainting the door of your mother’s house, then you went back and reinstalled it, so I’m curious what’s on right now.
AWW: Let’s briefly talk about one or two examples. Of course this year is the most eventful year for China. In the beginning of the year, we went through snow storms, the Wengan unrest, followed by Tibetan unrest, the Sichuan earthquake, and the Olympics. Of course there is one additional case to which I paid special attention, the Yang Jia case.* Thanks to the attention of blogs, this personal case became very public, making it possible for many people to carefully review the judicial system in China, and the legitimacy of procedure. Of course the result is an unfortunate one, but the procedure was indeed clear. Yang Jia’s ashes haven’t been returned to his mother even today, more than one month after his execution. And his mother was hidden in a mental institution by the police under a false name, Liu Yalin, claiming that she was suffering from a mental disease. This happened in Beijing, during and after the Olympics. It is unbelievable that such an event happened in China. Because we always thought the Chinese Communist Party to be a righteous one, such a thing couldn’t happen in China, it seemed plain impossible. However, I have heard about many similar cases now, of people appealing to higher authorities or dissidents being pm into mental facilities. I think this was beyond my wildest imagination.
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: