There is a sly wryness to conversations with Ai Weiwei. China’s preeminent contemporary artist talks about his work with both self-importance and self-mocking irreverence, calling it silly and childlike even as he tries to explain its significance.
Lately, notes of weariness have crept in as well. After clashing for years with China’s Communist government — thereby winning international fame and political persecution — he said he feels his mind slowing and worries it might be the lingering effect of a brutal beating by police in 2009 that caused a brain hemorrhage.
Ai is better-known now than ever after the release in 2012 of a critically acclaimed full-length documentary on his life. A new documentary making the rounds chronicles his legal battles against the government and the 81 days he spent in detention in 2011 as a result.
But he remains as confrontational as ever in his life and art. Of late he has gone from fighting the government to warring with others in China’s art community, criticizing some for surrending too readily to government pressure and censorship. Recently, after his name was left off a press release about an exhibition at Beijing’s influential Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Ai pulled his work from the exhibition and posted transcripts on Instagram of embarrassing conversations with the director about government pressure to omit his name.
Then, he went a step further and began taping interviews with other artists about what they thought of the omission, demanding that they choose a side: to stand with him or against him.
The fight has kicked up controversy and debate among Chinese artists. Some have dismissed Ai as an egotistical diva warped by newfound fame, while others praised him for exposing the compromises many now quietly make in China’s art world.
We sat down with Ai at his studio on the outskirts of Beijing to ask him about this latest controversy, his contentious relationship with the government and his newest work. Here are condensed excerpts from our hour-long conversation.
Q: How has your relationship with authorities changed over time?
A: In 2011 I was arrested. After 81 days I was released, and then they gave me a year probation, but there were no clear charges.
During that year of probation, every move I made, I had to call them. If I go out to the store, I have to call them; before I come back, I have to call them and say who did I meet. Everything. I had to call them 10, 20, 30 times a day. Finally I think I caused their nerves to break down, because nobody can bear this.
After that they said, “You are free. You were pretty good during the probation.” That was June 21, 2012. I said, “Where is my passport?” They said, “Okay, your passport, we still keep it. But one day we will give it to you.” “Okay, when is this one day?” You know Chinese, they like to say “very soon, very soon.” It’s been another two years.
Now it is pretty loose and friendly, I should say. They don’t follow me except if I go outside of the city, like bringing my boy to the beach.
Q: Of late there’s been this split and controversy in China’s art world and a lot of criticism of you. Can you explain your place in that?
A: First, my name is banned from Chinese domestic Internet. I know there are a lot of arguments, a lot of criticism of me, but we are not on the same platform. There is no single chance I can face them or discuss or communicate. So all the criticism I see people post online, my criticism for them is that art is about expression. If we are in a place with such a curbing practice on freedom of expression, such restriction, the first thing artists should do is to protect that right.
As for the event at UCCA [Ullens Center for Contemporary Art], their argument is that if my name appeared, my work cannot be there. I think that argument is not strong enough, because my name is my work, my work is my name; it is inseparable. So I just pulled out. To give you a little bit of history, about three weeks ago at another exhibition in Shanghai, my name was erased from their wall 20 minutes before the show. They had to use hair dryers to dry the wall just to redo all the graphic design in time.
The Ullens show is about my friend. [The show was dedicated to the late Hans van Dijk, a Dutch-born curator in Beijing, who was one of the earliest supporters of Chinese contemporary art.] We made the first gallery together, the first promotion for artists in 1990s. A friend showed me their newsletter. My name wasn’t there, no mention of my effort with Hans during the 1990s, so I said, I have to pull out my work. A very simple act.
Of course people started to criticize. Some said, “Weiwei, you just care about your name. You hurt Hans’s show. It’s all about you.”
I don’t really think so. I don’t really need it just for me. I know if I don’t do it, if I don’t question those artists, nobody will see our words [meaning censorship will run unchallenged].
Q: For you, what is primarily at stake here?
A: In China, everything is so easy now. Everybody is so mature, so sophisticated. They can accept anything. They can accept tanks in Tiananmen Square. They can accept any kind of problem, because Chinese people are so flexible. They roll with punches.
I think today’s problem is not always the Communist Party and the system. It is the culture. The culture produces the system. And who makes the culture? We all are the culture. We all have to say yes or no at a certain point.
That is the whole purpose of bringing this up. I interviewed over 10 artists about this and confronted them about this to put their words online or on film. I asked, “How did you get to know Hans? Why should we have this show? Do you think to exclude my name, was it right to change the history by doing that? If it is wrong, what kind of position you will take?” Few Chinese people will ask each other such questions so directly. But I always ask questions this way, so I look like this guy who is being too pushy.
I want to use this to stir things up, to show the true colors, true attitude among the art world in China: curators, critics and artists. I think I’ve achieved it very well. There hasn’t been an incident like it in the past 20 years. It’s like a true fight, really enjoyable.
Q: What is wrong with China’s art world today?
A: There is almost no aesthetic or moral discussion in China. No philosophy being talked about. So the art becomes empty. With such attraction to the marketplace, artists today are selling like crazy. For the past 30 years, China has been about making a profit by any means necessary. That’s [historic Communist leader] Deng Xiaoping’s idea, let somebody become rich first. There is no question of how or through what method, just make money. If we cannot share or care about feelings of others, I think the art is fake. You have nothing to be proud of. And it’s not worth the price people are selling it for.
Q: When creating a piece, what are your guiding principals? What are you working on now?
A: It’s hard to say. I’m not saying I’m a master or somebody skillful. Every work is equally difficult. Each time, I have to go through everything again. I always ask myself, is it necessary or not? Has somebody done this before? What is the difference? Those are very essential questions. If this is my last work, can I accept it or not?
I’m now working on this Alcatraz show in California. It’s about people who violate law and have to be locked up, serving time. I’m interested in the topic of freedom, mostly about people who lose time because they want to achieve so-called freedom. It will take place around late September. It’s about 80 percent finished.
Q: What’s after the Alcatraz show?
A: [Laughs.] Hopefully I’m not going to be put in prison and lose my freedom. As an artist, I’m quite old now. I’m almost 57, and I don’t know how many years I will still have the energy or kind of passion for these things. I really don’t know.
I’m still waiting for my passport. It’s been a long wait, but the sense of waiting is always interesting. I kind of like it. It’s kind of like, you know, the feeling of falling in love when you were young. The sense of waiting. I always think that the most interesting time is before the person actually shows up.
Q: What will you do with the passport if you really get it?
A: I will finally show my boy the world. There are so many beautiful places in the world for children to see. He has been in London once, for the “Sunflower Seeds” show, but he was too small. He was 2 years old; now he is 5. It’s urgent because I’m old. My physical condition is not so predictable. I feel myself slowing down in my mind and memory. Energy wise, I have much less than before. So I now think if I have time to do something, I will do it. I made that decision three years ago, when I was in detention. I worried I won’t get out for 10 or 15 years. I thought then, if I have a chance, I really want to show my son the world.
Researcher Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.