Ai Weiwei: ‘It is so positive to be poor as a child. You understand how vulnerable our humanity can be ‘| Ai Weiwei

ONEin Weiwei is hard to determine. For the first few minutes of our Zoom call, I think he’s talking to me from his new base in Portugal. My mistake – this is Vienna, where he’s planning a show for March next year. One and a half years ago, Ai gave interviews about her new life in the UK; before that it was Germany, the country that offered him safe haven when he finally left China in 2015, after years of hunting by the authorities and a period of detention. So where does he really live?

“Yes, the question always comes up,” he says sheepishly. He moved to Cambridge so that his son, Ai Lao, could improve his English. His son is still there, but in the meantime, “I found a piece of land near Lisbon, so I’m living there a bit, but it’s only for the last year”.

A star in the Chinese art scene from the mid-90s onwards, Ai became a household name in the West after co-inventing the “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games, before rejecting its use as “culture for the purpose”. of propaganda ”and refuses to attend the opening ceremony. His many projects since then have continued to pinpoint the Chinese state, up to and including Coronation, his 2020 documentary about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

Of course, you would expect an artist as world-famous as him to travel a lot of international travels. But there is something more about his rootlessness. He explains a bit gnomically: “When you do not have a place to go, you can go anywhere.”

You mean, like, saltines and their ilk, eh? The word does not fall to him in good soil. “I’m still a Chinese citizen, passport holder. But I do not feel it is my home country. I speak Chinese and I am a typical Chinese – but I have never had a home there. The year I was born, my father became “So my story started without a home, just being pushed away to a very remote area as a kind of enemy by the state.”

Ai Weiwei with his father, Ai Qing, at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1959.
Ai Weiwei with his father, Ai Qing, at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1959. Photo: Lent by Ai Weiwei

It is true that Ai’s trajectory is impossible to understand without knowing about his late father, Ai Qing. Ai Qing, considered one of China’s greatest poets, was a left-leaning hero after being imprisoned in 1932 for his connections to communism. Later, he was a friend and intellectual sparring partner of Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, before dramatically falling from grace in a purge of so-called “right-wing” intellectuals. This story is told in careful but often beautiful details in Ai’s new autobiography, 1000 years of joys and sorrows. It’s more like a double biography, in which Ai Qing’s story fills the first 150 pages, a useful corrective for Westerners who know a little about him.

What emerges from these passages is the sheer cruelty of Mao’s system of ideological enforcement and the eerie conditions Ai experienced as a child. The saddest period was when Ai Qing and his two sons lived in an excavation in “Little Siberia”, part of China’s northwestern part. Their “bed” was a raised ground platform covered with wheat stalks, with a square hole in the roof to let the light in. The paraffin lamp they used inside made their nostrils black with soot. Rats were a constant problem, as were lice. Ai Qing’s job for most of this time was to clean common toilets, which consisted of holes over a sewer hole. In the winter, it was about “breaking the frozen feces into manageable pieces and moving them out of the latrine one by one”. Eventually, his father was rehabilitated and the family moved to Beijing.

When I ask Ai about this period, he picks up his phone and turns it towards the camera. His home screen is a black-and-white photograph of the excavation, a reminder of how difficult life can be – or at least that’s what I assume. “Well, it was a hard time, but you also have a lot of joy.” How? “You feel safe. You are down there, you are on a different level than other people. They are all above you, but you feel safe.” He goes on to say, “I think it’s so positive to be poor and have an empty life as a child. I think you establish an understanding of how vulnerable our humanity can be.”

Ai Weiwei's home screen showing the excavation where his family lived.
Ai Weiwei’s home screen showing the excavation where his family lived. Photo: The Guardian

Ai is given to bold statements like this that are not necessarily coherent. The experience of cutting poverty can be useful to look back on, but perhaps only when it is mitigated by wealth. I’m not sure he always thinks through the implications of what he says, but I’m not sure he cares that much either. Perhaps this is the legacy of his childhood: When you have already been rejected in the most extreme way, there is little to fear from people’s opinions about you. But it also seems to have spawned a kind of nihilism.

I ask what motivates him. “Good question,” he replies. “You know, without your interview, I would not know what to do today. I have so many shows, but I have never started a show and have never contacted a curator in my life.” If it were not for the fact that people came in contact, he says, “I might be walking on the beach and trying to find some beautiful shells.”

It’s an extraordinary commentary for someone as productive as Ai. Each year he produces several major solo exhibitions (in 2016 he had 17, from California to New York to Turin to Athens). His work includes photography, sculpture, film and social experiments such as Fairytale, where he made sure that 1,001 Chinese travelers visited the German city of Kassel. At other points, he has strayed into something resembling journalism, trying to document the names of children killed in the Sichuan earthquake when authorities failed to register them. He gets help from a small army of helpers: he says their numbers vary, but “if we do big projects it would be hundreds, sometimes thousands”.

As a child, he says, he had no dreams of his future because such things were contrary to communist ideology. Ambition was a dirty word: “If doors and windows are closed, you have no view.” But even after fleeing to New York in the early 20s, he soared, enrolled in the Parsons School of Design, but declined his final exams by simply writing his name at the top and nothing else. He rented an apartment on the Lower East Side, worked night shifts at a printing house, and lived as a stroller. In St. Mark’s Church one evening, he listened to Allen Ginsberg recite a poem about China; it contained a line on “revolutionary poets [sent] to shovel shit in Xinjiang ”. Ai approached him, explained the connection, and the two became friends. He remembers him as “a wonderful man, very kind, but with the heart of a rebel”.

Allen Ginsberg and Ai Weiwei in New York, 1988.
Allen Ginsberg and Ai Weiwei in New York, 1988. Photo: Krause, Johansen / With permission from Ai Weiwei

His walks also led him to the Strand Bookstore on Broadway, where one day he picked up Andy Warhol’s philosophy, a book featuring the artist’s deadpan observations of fame, love, and work. It occupied him. He highlights Warhol as one of the most important influences on his life, along with concept artist Marcel Duchamp, his father and, more surprisingly, philosopher Wittgenstein.

“I was so fascinated by this person who seemed so empty but at the same time was a true reflection of our American culture,” he says of Warhol. He is disappointed that they never met, even though he attended a few gallery openings in the big man’s presence. “Warhol understood irony so well, but also tells the truth. Very harsh truth in his writing. He was 50 years ahead of his time. He understood freedom of speech, media and communication, he took selfies all the time and recorded people all the time. “Does he feel they have much in common as artists?” We are both sincere and sincere at the same time. And we love life, but without purpose, without purpose. “

I point out that Ginsberg and Warhol – and Wittgenstein for that matter – were gay. “Homosexual people in society have a complicated state of mind … they are generally more sensitive and wiser,” says Ai. This is yet another of those disarming bald statements that anyone who is more anxious about how their words will be received would avoid. I find myself trying to reshape it for him: is it that they have a more complicated relationship with society? “They are complicated, and that complication gives them uncertainty because they are different. And that uncertainty makes those you know more sensitive – they are artists, poets, musicians. ” I think it’s a funny description of the homosexual condition, but I take it.

Back to Warhol: what would he have done off the internet? Would he have enjoyed memes and social media? Ai thinks no, he probably would not – what he liked about selfies and livestreams (as one might credibly call some of his eight-hour-long films) was that he was the only one who did. Ai, on the other hand, is famous for her love of Twitter, and sees it as a tool for free expression and connection. And while you imagine that Warhol would have reveled in our current state of advanced capitalism, for Ai there is no major threat to humanity.

“I used to think the danger was from authoritarianism. But now I really sense that corporate capitalism is a greater danger to the entire human environment. It will totally destroy human society by encouraging the desire to just get more, just to make a profit. ” Does that mean he has come full circle to communism? “I do not think so. I hate the communist point of view. I think that is only a thing of the past.” So what is his solution? “We must return to humanism.” What does it mean, however? “Respect for the life, property and development of individuals,” he says, throwing me a little by mentioning property, which at least suggests some sympathy with Humanism centers on “the rights of individuals to be themselves and to speak out what they think.”

If other aspects of his political thinking are confused, there is no doubt about Ai’s commitment to free speech. Donald Trump may actually pose a danger to democracy, he says, but the “much greater danger” is social media platforms that “manipulate our thinking” by banning him. The freedom to say it as he sees it is perhaps the only true guiding principle in Ai’s eclectic career and provides yet another link back to his father, who wrote Mao a long letter about the need to preserve artists’ ability to speak the truth, whatever the circumstances.

Ai tells me he has “no plan, no goal, no purpose for my life”. But that is not entirely true. His plan is to be himself, unfiltered. It is a quest that explains his restlessness and dizzying productivity, which even during the pandemic gave rise to more shows, more public art, 10,000 printed face masks, the Wuhan movie and of course the book. I ask him what he thinks the job as an artist is. “An artist’s job is not to have any work,” he laughs. What matters is to “pay attention” and “speak out the truth.” Ai Qing would no doubt agree.

1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai Weiwei, translated by Allan H Barr, will be released on November 2 by The Bodley Head.

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