Interview by Grace Hong & Clifford Loh
Mention the name Ai Weiwei, and the first image that comes to mind is usually a middle finger flipping off a famous monument. That, or photographs of the artist dropping a Han Dynasty urn. The former, a series of photographs titled Study of Perspective (1995– ) presents a unified posture of political opposition through cohesive snapshots; it is almost as if Ai applies the graphic motif of his middle finger upon various famous landmarks, embodying his stance on freedom of expression through one simple approach. The latter, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), documents a controversial act of cultural destruction, a reference to Communist China’s erasure of cultural memory.
Born in 1957 in Beijing, China, it is hard to pin contemporary artist Ai Weiwei to a specific medium or message. Ai’s oeuvre spans a wide range of media and subjects, from bicycles to millions of hand-crafted porcelain sunflower seeds, to him amassing donations of Lego bricks for a future project. His life has seen tumultuous turns, with both his personal and professional lives interwoven as one and influencing each other. For this reason, when one examines the artistic practice of Ai—in his roles as artist, architect, designer, curator, activist, writer and filmmaker—it is near impossible to separate his biography from the work; they are a coalescence of Ai’s identity, beliefs, and life.
When Ai was one year old, his father, renowned poet Ai Qing, was accused during Mao’s anti-rightist campaign. Their family was exiled to the Great Northern Wilderness (北大荒), before being sent to Xinjiang where his father endured hard labour. Ai also learned manual skills such as making furniture and bricks during this time. Their family managed to return to Beijing in 1975, and Ai then enrolled at the Beijing Film Academy as an animation major in 1977. Ai became one of the first few members of The Stars Art Group (星星画会), a subversive political artist group that championed individualism and freedom of expression, which is still studied today as a foundational movement of the contemporary Chinese avant-garde.
"... my life is my practice. There is no ‘and’ there. And since my life is my practice, whatever changes in my life also changes my practice."Ai Weiwei
In 1981, Ai moved to the U.S. and settled in New York for 10 years. Having dropped out of the Parsons School for Design after six months, he took up odd-jobs including street portraiture, carpentry, and photojournalism. Only in 1988 did Ai stage his first solo exhibition Old Shoes, Safe Sex at Art Waves/Ethan Cohen Gallery. As his father became ill, the artist then returned to Beijing in 1993. During this period, Ai helped establish the Beijing East Village, a community of experimental artists named after the New York City neighbourhood where Ai had lived.
In 1999, Ai participated in the 48th Venice Biennale curated by Harald Szeemann. The following year, the artist co-curated the exhibition Fuck Off in Shanghai.
Tensions between the artist and the Chinese government rose when Ai started his blog in 2005, where he wrote on a range of topics including art, social issues, as well as criticism of the state. He helped to design the 2008 Beijing Olympics stadium in collaboration with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron but later became disenchanted with the project, claiming that it was a ‘pretend smile’ and lamenting the lack of freedom in China. The Sichuan earthquake in 2008 and the state’s subsequent cover-up sparked greater outrage in the artist. Ai assembled a voluntary team to independently investigate the collapse of school buildings in Wenchuan, collecting names and information about the student victims. The Citizens’ Investigation managed to collect 5,219 names before Ai Weiwei's blog was shut down. By this time, many team members had faced arrest and the artist himself was beaten up by police, suffering a cerebral hemorrhage that required emergency surgery. His selfie taken with Chinese police during his detainment in 2009 is one of Ai’s best known, and he has been titled “the new hero of selfie culture” (Chicago Tribune, 2017). In subsequent years, Ai was placed under house arrest, had his Shanghai studio demolished, and was ultimately arrested and detained in secret for 81 days without formal charges brought against him. The artist's passport was confiscated and he was placed under constant surveillance for the next four years. In 2015, Ai's passport was returned to him and he moved to Berlin, Germany where he continues to live and work in today.
Just last November, Ai released his latest work, a documentary film titled Human Flow (2017). The film spotlights the ongoing refugee crisis through a series of individual stories from diverse environments and circumstances, stitched together from Ai’s perspective and paired with voices from the past—philosophical ruminations on humanity ranging from a Buddhist saying to an Iraqi poem shown on screen.
This is not the first time the artist has emphasised the power of the individual. His installation of student backpacks representing the student victims of the Sichuan earthquake on the Haus der Kunst facade springs to mind. In addition, the artist is also knowledgeable about moving people. For his submission to Documenta, Ai’s Fairytale (2008) he brought 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel with sponsored lodging and plane tickets, 200 at a time. In so doing, the artist “hoped to find a way to bring China’s current social condition to Kassel, and thus allow Westerners to view a sample of modern China society” (DW Akademie, 2007).This was later compiled into a three-hour long film which followed the journeys and experiences of the volunteers, as well as what some visitors thought of the work.
In Human Flow (2017), we see migration of a different kind—one that comprises 65 million people displaced from their homes due to war, politics, and environmental reasons.
One of Vulture’s contributors conducted an interview with you in 2014, and that was in Beijing. So I wonder how has your life and practice changed since then.
My life and practice... my life is my practice. There is no ‘and’ there. And since my life is my practice, whatever changes in my life also changes my practice. How has it changed? I don’t have Chinese food anymore. I don’t understand what people on the street are saying. I have no place I feel familiar with. Being in another environment, I try to keep my focus to work on my projects. So that has not changed in any place because projects have their own nature, own language and own way of dealing with issues. There is not much change in that way. But I don’t have to face the authority which made my life more dramatic or complicated. I don’t have to talk to the police anymore and I even kind of miss it. At least, they spoke Chinese. [laughs]
I want to pick up on a quote you mentioned: “I am a refugee, every bit... Those people are me. That’s my identity.” This is specifically about your latest project Human Flow. In what ways do you compare yourself to the refugees?
I realised when I was born that my father was in exile. And exile means being placed in a location you do not wish to be as a punishment. We were sent to the most remote place in China, called Xinjiang, which means ‘new border’. My father spent 20 years in exile, and I spent that time with him. Then I went to the United States, which is again foreign. I only left China because it is a communist society that has no freedom of speech. But once you go to New York, it is another location you cannot call home, because people do not speak the same language or have the same habits as you do. I did not aspire to the American dream. What I liked was art. I struggled economically and I did all kinds of jobs to survive. In 1993, I went back home, or my so-called home. Home moved. China was no longer a nation I recognised, it was capitalised and [had] developed quickly. And everybody felt lost, because everybody moved. So, change becomes real life in that society. Later, I was pushed out in 2015 as a political dissident. So, by nature, all my life experiences have been like a refugee’s: you are forced into one location or forced out, and you don’t see anywhere you can call home.
When you mentioned that you don’t think of China as your home anymore, you said it with a sigh.
Of course. As a Chinese, there are components (部分) within me that I cannot understand, portions that have been passed down over generations of people. And due to political reasons, or other reasons, I have no choice but to leave China, and have no choice but to cut off these connections. This in itself is a huge issue, it is an issue as well to all refugees. Because all refugees used to have a home—that home might be poor, dirty, or in a bad state, but it is still his home, and he has no choice but to leave. All that he is familiar with—his neighbours, friends, even sights such as the common well, the tree that served as a community landmark, or the local dialect that he is familiar with, and offers a sense of safety—when this is violently cut off, the human life is put in jeopardy.
However, when the umbilical cord is cut between the mother and child, in life there might be times when the child rejects his mother...
But in reality, acknowledgment is subjective. Even if children reject their mothers, they inherit something from their parents. This is beyond our control. Many children say they would hate to become like their mothers, but they end up being so. And another thing is, humans have to stay with their families for a long time, it is part of their education. Even elephants have to spend the first seven years or more with other older elephants, or they cannot live. If a baby elephant loses its parents, you can still feed and nurture it, and it will grow up into an adult elephant, although it will face other mental problems.
You mentioned before that if people’s understanding of the word ‘refugee’ changed to that of ‘displaced person’, it would change the way policies are being formed. What would be your proposed definition of a ‘displaced person’ then?
In truth, refugees are the same as us. [The term] refers to a person; a person who is moved from a place he dwelled in before. When we [say] ‘refugee’, this word used to be simple. It meant a person who is in need of help, someone who seeks and needs refuge. But this is no longer the case. The term ‘refugee’ [now] suggests an outsider, someone who is not part of us. So this perspective means that we see them as an Other, even though they are part of us. We have to stop [defining] our understanding of the word ‘refugee’ in this way. When we do the opposite, to see refugees as people in need of help, we see our responsibility. And we won’t think of it as a choice, we won’t think it’s not our responsibility.
Because we are the same.
Yes, just like when an extended relative—our aunt, nephew, or cousin—faces a problem, we feel a sense of injustice for them, and that they should receive fairer treatment.
As the audience, we get to see the larger issues at hand while hearing the personal stories of individuals. How do you achieve this balance between the big picture and the voice of the individual in your documentaries? What are the deciding factors?
This is a huge problem. Because all of the ‘big pictures’ are made of small human individuals, lives which compose the 65 million refugees. But if you look at just one life, it does not demonstrate the entire history of what has happened. Some are refugees because of war, poverty, environmental issues—they are not the same. The wars they face are also different—some are more recent wars with foreign intervention, others are wars that are centuries old, or even due to religious differences. So the reason why we need a larger picture is to answer the question: who is a refugee? When is someone called a refugee? It is complicated. For example, people in Bangladesh are very different from people in Kenya. And without these perspectives, we only often think of refugees as those in Syria because of war, which is not true. Refugees have always been there, since the first humans. From Grecian times, from Biblical times. We cannot say it is a modern problem. But why has it escalated to what it is today? Why are there 65 million refugees? It is the largest recorded number of refugees in history. This is the 21st century, this is after globalisation. We are so developed in many ways, but still so primitive in dealing with this essential question. That is why we still need a big picture perspective, but we must [also] remember the individual struggle and not just look at the numbers. Every child or elderly person, their struggles are different. The children of refugees may not have access to education for years... and [there are] implications that follow. It is a large issue.
I want to ask about documentary as a medium. Would you consider presenting this issue through a different medium, which you have done before in installations and sculptures? How would Human Flow be different?
We often think about, as artists, what kind of medium we should engage to successfully express our feelings and build up communication. We have done at least twenty shows with refugee topics. Normally, a museum show would have 100,000-300,000 visitors, which is a large audience in any major city. But I also want to meet the people who never go to museums. I thought of film audiences. For us, it is very natural to watch a film. So, we get to reach wider audiences—in cinemas, and even online viewers. I think it’s very important. They are being informed, they are put in the position where they have to question themselves. They can no longer say they do not know about it. So far, the response has been very positive. We screened [Human Flow] in a hundred universities in the United States, and many museums have also shown it. Because of the film, I have participated in over 150 interviews.
Aside from these positive responses, were there other kinds of responses, perhaps on the contrary?
Definitely. If you do something special that no one has done before, and there is no negative response, then that is a problem. How can that be?
Was there something that you didn’t quite expect?
Not at all. As doers, we are more focused on our projects. We do not think so much about whether people are saying they like it or not. If I feel that this needs to be done, it has to be done. Even if nobody or everybody agreed, I would still do it. You have to be clear about what you need to do. If you are clear, then you only need to convince yourself. Your starting point and attitude is important.
As you’ve mentioned before in a previous interview, you think very deeply about the medium of the work. Can you explain this process? And perhaps use the example of Human Flow as a film and now as a series of drone photographs to illustrate—what kind of results do you think the photographs will achieve (in the audience or visual impact of the work) that the film does not?
As an artist, I am always experimenting. An athlete trains daily even if he’s not competing. You can’t say that his training is not important. If he doesn't train, he is unable to compete. Recently I saw a performance by Mick Jagger. He has vocal practice daily even though he has been singing for so many years. 40 minutes every day. As well as physical exercise. To me, my daily discussions and activities are a part of my entire practice. Maybe just a different method. Whether it has a final outcome or product, I don’t think this will achieve such finality. We are trying to make a smart move in our game of chess, but our lives are short. You cannot just sit there.
As an artist, every day’s “training” is about thinking through critical issues...
If Vulture was not produced, then Singapore wouldn’t have such a magazine. And if I wasn’t presenting and expressing how I feel about this issue, I would be doing so for another issue. And it is hard to say which issue is the most important of all—but I feel that we have to commit to our viewpoint and attitude. This is important to me. For Vulture, you have a message and purpose that you wish to communicate, and this speaks of your identity and perspective. And I believe that all of us should have a perspective and attitude we commit to, at the very least. Even if I was born crippled in some way, I would ultimately have the right to hold onto my perspective and posture towards life.
Would it be right to say that the more subversive acts of performance in your earlier career have later on evolved to more humanistic and grounded approaches, as seen in works on the Sichuan earthquake, and Human Flow, to people and the issues they face?
Actually, we are all in different situations and environments, living in different circumstances. And something is always changing. It’s like you’re a log floating in the river, your position always changes, your perspective always changes. But you’re still a log, floating. So what I’m saying is that it looks like my works are very different, but it’s still the same. It concerns human dignity, rights of free expression, human rights, to exercise a greater ability to achieve something that can give a new identity to ourselves. Because we are changing daily, and we try to grab something. It’s like someone climbing a mountain, it doesn’t matter how tall the mountain is, it is about the next boulder you grab onto, it concerns your life’s safety. Can you make the next move? You can’t hang there forever, you have to make a move. And how you move on depends on what you grab onto. Do you grab a solid rock or some branches? You make a move anyway. [pauses] I’m very realistic.
What I’m also very inspired by is what you choose to hold onto and let go of.
You have to let it go. If you don’t let things go, you build your own jail. I’m a person who if forced to leave, I will leave with no regret. Because I did what I should do here. And with every show or performance, I think of it as the first and last show. So, I do that to every interview as well. Because it’s not easy that we met, and talked about these issues, and then parted ways. It’s a miracle that something can happen like this.
Beyond the shows and exhibitions, it’s also about your identity.
I think that people very often have a misunderstanding that we already have an identity. And yes, it’s half-true, but we still have to find our identities. We may never find out who we are unless we test it. For example, you cannot assume your one million in the bank account or your relationships will last forever. What is your identity for the next day? Your circumstances might change in an instant, and you may surprise yourself. So, we never know who we actually really are. Page by page, correcting a sentence, making a new paragraph; that is a new identity for that day. That is why all the details are so important, because we cannot afford to make these kinds of mistakes. It shows a different image of ourselves, we either lower the standard of how we look at ourselves, or we don’t trust society so we don’t give our best performance.
We would like to throw your question, which you mentioned in your write-up for this series of photographs from Human Flow back to you: will our global society emerge from fear, isolation, and self-interest and choose a path of openness, freedom, and respect for humanity?
It’s a choice everyone has to make. Every young or old person has to decide. Often when people see art, they see the problems—but are all those problems in our own mind? Are those man-made? And if they are made by us then they can only be solved by us. It takes constant struggle for freedom. If you feel that you are so comfortable, so free and privileged, then you are lying to yourself. You avoid seeing the true meaning of human life, which is to fight and find out who we are, and to benefit other people.