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Ai Weiwei

Patrick Rhine

Ai Weiwei. Photo: Gao Yuan

On the occasion of Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (December 4, 2013 – March 16, 2014), the artist sat down in his Beijing studio with Patrick Rhine of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in November 2013. They spoke about the exhibition, immaturity and nihilism, and China’s current sociopolitical climate.

PATRICK RHINE (RAIL): You spent about a decade in the US in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Have you been to Miami? Are you familiar with the city at all?

AI WEIWEI: I have been there in recent years, twice.

RAIL: The city itself seems to embody a lot of the themes in your artworks: cultural preservation and destruction, giving voice to underrepresented and minority populations, the struggle for government protection. How do you think your work will be received there?

AI: That’s very hard to judge. I’ve been there a couple times, once to give a talk, and once for an installation. I didn’t even go to the art fair because I’m a little bit allergic to art fairs. So I stayed on the beach. It’s so warm and relaxing, you know. But Miami is a place that has this kind of artificiality, because it’s so different from other places. I enjoyed that part.

RAIL: You enjoyed the artificiality?

AI: Yeah. It’s like you’re in a tunnel or somewhere with special conditions.

RAIL: In the exhibition text for According to What?, you said that the show is an opportunity to “re-examine past work and communicate with audiences from afar.” So much of your work is deeply engaged with Chinese politics and culture, what do you hope American audiences might take away from your exhibition?

AI: I think artists inevitably make artworks related to their experiences, their concerns, that which affects their lives. [They produce works based on] issues, aesthetic judgments, their philosophy, or some very personal experience. Since I have been living in China for the past twenty years, and most of my artwork was made in the past eight years, inevitably it relates to what happened to me. I think China is some kind of cultural study model or ready-made, so I have to deal with the past from my family background and my current occupation with architecture, curating, writing, the Internet, and sometimes confrontation.

RAIL: Can you elaborate on Chinese culture being a type of ready-made?

AI: Overall, China is a society that, even today, has so much happening. It’s one of the central points of the human change or development in the world. At the same time, it’s so cut off from the rest of the society. If you look at China, it’s a machine or object that functions and dysfunctions at the same time. If you talk about China, you cannot avoid what China means. And from the political view, after 60 years of the so-called new nation, or nation of the people, or communist nation, they still don’t trust their own people. They still don’t give them the very essential right to vote. It seems very simple not to have the right to vote. But for a society not to trust its own people, not to give them the right to vote—the legitimacy of the power is questionable.

So how do they maintain control? They use other tactics: the army, police, tanks, bullets, jail. They detain you, make you disappear, or make you scared to lose your job, make your family scared. Your friends don’t want to talk to you anymore, You’re scared of your phone calls being tapped. You’re in the park and you see people following you, watching behind the bushes, or you’re in a restaurant and at the next table, they’re not enjoying the food but taping your conversation. It’s not really a practical, functional thing, except in its goal to separate you from very essential values: common values such as freedom of speech, human rights, and an independent judicial system. [It separates you from] very essential fairness that can protect all the young people’s growing, learning, and working in a healthy environment. So that’s why I think China is an interesting, abnormal society, because it clearly announces itself as recognizing all these essential values. It makes you wonder how this kind of really strange structure can exist in such a way.

RAIL: Preservation plays a key role in many of your works. It’s often the preservation of things that would normally be discarded—from the collection of Qing Dynasty wood in “China Log” (2005) and “Grapes” (2011) to collecting the names of children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. How do you see preservation in the context of artistic practice?


Ai Weiwei, Map of China, 2008. Collection of the Faurschou Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist. 

AI: When we start to reinterpret the world, we have to be very conscious of what is happening around us. We are talking about history, art history, political history, and social history. Although there are existing structures,vocabularies, and definitions, as an artist you always give your own interpretation, or at least produce a kind of announcement or declaration about what you think. You have to communicate with other people. If it’s not just made for yourself, if it’s not a game you play in your bedroom, then you must have a gesture, shape, or form—a kind of tone or accent other people can recognize. Even if they can’t recognize it, they have to be aware of it, even if they’re critical or against it.

RAIL: Is using found objects or found histories a means to that more direct communication?

AI: Yes, I think it is. To talk in continuity with the issue or with the matter, but to give an argument. The argument always exists. There’s no single argument that just comes from nowhere; that wouldn’t be an argument. I think I like to argue, and sometimes even be humorous in a sense, but all of these are based on our knowledge.

RAIL: Do you see artworks like “China Log” or “Map of China” (2008) or “Grapes” as continuing the 20th-century tradition of ready-mades and the found object?

AI: I think I have been heavily influenced by what happened in 20th-century art. I’m still using that language. You don’t create your own language, but you use a language in your own way. So, of course, the content and the meaning are different because I’m facing different personal experiences here. But I think you extend the language itself to a certain extent that breaks up borders. But basically the language is contemporary.

RAIL: Which of your works would you say have extended that border, have pushed those definitions?

AI: It started with “Fairytale” (2007) when I invited 1,001 Chinese to the West to see Documenta 12 [in Kassel, Germany]. That audience was not artists, but rather people attracted by the chance to travel. By doing that, I both examined the art of western contemporary practice and lives elsewhere in China—how those two images, two pictures, overlap. There are very different layers there. And later I got on the Internet. If I work ten hours, nine and a half are on the Internet, and the last half hour is thinking about producing something.

RAIL: The struggle for individual representation and individual agency is something that comes up in your work a lot. There’s also “Remembrance” (2010), where you recorded the names of the children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Where did this interest in individual subjectivity come from?

AI: I grew up in very political conditions, when the whole society tried to purify everything through collectivism. At that time, you had to criticize any mind that reflected private thinking. In the morning we had to stand in front of Chairman Mao’s portrait to say the day’s self-criticisms, trying to get rid of any kind of selfishness and self-oriented thinking and subordinate oneself to the public or to the unity of the public. Then in the evening you had to stand in front of the portrait again to criticize yourself, say, “Oh, at noon in the lunch cafeteria, I said ‘there’s not enough food, why are we waiting in line?’ I really wish I could be in the front of the line, which is totally wrong. It reflects my selfishness.”

The core of this kind of totalitarian society tries to diminish or make the self vanish rather than to encourage the individual, encourage passion, imagination or mistakes. In my 12 years in the States, I became a true individual because in that society nobody really cares. You’re quite alone. But I still think that’s quite a reality in the world. To recognize selfishness is to treasure this very precious part of life itself.

RAIL: In works like “Grapes” or “Kippe” (2006), you collect precious Qing Dynasty wood, wood from temples, and Qing Dynasty furniture and incorporate them into artworks. How do you balance the cultural and historical significance and meaning of the objects with your desire to make them into new aesthetic works?


Ai Weiwei, Kippe, 2006. Collection of Honus Tandijono.


AI: I’m interested in all of the value judgments we make. For what reason do we have to tear down those buildings, those temples? For what reason do we have to worship them? In Chinese history, there are so many dynasties, and each built the most beautiful Buddhist sculptures or temples. Yet the next dynasty immediately destroys everything. So you can see in the changing of political power, those aesthetics also change dramatically. The Han Dynasty is very different from the Tang, the Tang is very different from the Song, Song is very different from Yuan, and Yuan is completely different from Ming and Qing. Each dynasty is completely different. The kind of language, the kind of appreciation, the kind of aesthetic ideas about form, shape, patterns, and materials—all are completely changed.

I used to be a connoisseur of ancient objects. In this you understand that even the highest, the most so-called absolute conditions or absolute judgment is very temporary, is very limited. The next one can have a completely different set, which has almost nothing to do with the previous effort.

RAIL: Is that why a lot of your artwork incorporates antiques?

AI: I try to deal with the given language or materials. My interpretation or my attitude, which is just a gesture, doesn’t have significant meaning, but it does show my attitude towards those things. And of course you cannot give a simple gesture to answer complicated questions, but simplicity itself is always quite profound, because it gives a moment of some kind of conclusion.

RAIL: What would you say that conclusion is, like say for “Grapes”?

AI: Well “Grapes” is a rather simple work. It developed through an understanding of Chinese objects. All Chinese objects in history are the result of moral and philosophical conditions. There’s no Chinese object in history that comes from purely artistic creation; they all obey a clear line of moral judgment and philosophical understanding of man, his character and social status, and how these relate to the larger structure of knowledge and man’s position within nature. But after the so-called Industrial Revolution and after the Qing Dynasty, this whole set of morals completely collapsed.

There’s nothing left. Especially when Marx and Lenin come in. The very practice of political and social struggle becomes the only act they have. It destroys all the other structures of thinking, but most clearly it destroys the basis of those aesthetic and moral conditions. So I’m using the furniture’s own language— its understanding of wood, proportion, structure, and the kind of hidden vocabulary that developed during its construction.It’s not like Western construction. They have no nails. They understand the nature of moral judgment. So I use their own logic to produce something that looks untouched, original. From the shape and the form it follows the same logic, the same aesthetic judgment, yet it’s so dysfunctional. It only serves to question why it’s been built and how it can be used.

RAIL: On the other end of the dialectic, many of your artworks engage a dialogue of destruction—playfully in the “Colored Vases” (2006) series, and more confrontationally in “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (1995). How do you see these works in the context of your preservationist mode of practice?

AI: Actually, I’ve never really preserved or destroyed a work. You’re using a language that doesn’t really belong to my art practice, so you can be easily trapped in that kind of conclusion. For me a work is not meaningful if we cannot extend it. A road is not a road if you cannot extend it or connect it to other roads. It’s a road to nowhere. By changing the function or questioning the original function or even subverting the usage or value judgment, a new life or a new conclusion emerges. That, for me, as an artist, is very important.


Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995/2009. (Third panel of the triptych). Image courtesy of the artist.

RAIL: So say, for “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn”…

AI: If there were only one, I wouldn’t drop it. If there’s a million, I’d like to drop a few thousand.

RAIL: How does destroying it extend its life? That’s a little paradoxical.

AI: I dropped it only for you to ask this question. Otherwise it would have no meaning.

RAIL: So if it were just on its own, it would be meaningless?

AI: Yeah, it’s a childish act; anyone can do it. My cats broke a few vases just yesterday, and nobody put that in the newspaper because people and their way of acting and judgment are so fixed. If a cat drops it, “oh too bad.” But if a person drops it, it becomes an iconic act.

RAIL: Do you think our relationship to culture is unhealthy?

AI: It’s extremely unhealthy, but it’s necessary.

RAIL: Necessary?

AI: It’s always needed because it’s always lifting us from the mud of practical reasoning. As humans we’re not designed as just practical animals. Yes, we are extremely practical animals, we know what’s best for us, but at the same time we have a lot of imagination. We don’t want to recognize it in other careers, but in artists we tolerate it both in character and in habit. It shows one side of our humanity—to not really function as a machine, but to cope with this mysterious life that is only given by chance, often by mistake, and is taken away mostly unwillingly by some kind of natural cause or accident.

RAIL: Some have critiqued these artworks as immature or nihilistic. How would you respond to this criticism?

AI: In terms of immaturity, I think this is correct. I think that’s an absolutely correct criticism, which is the condition I made it in. But I wouldn’t say that’s a criticism, I think that’s correctly recognizing a human condition. As for nihilism, I think that’s also correct. I think that’s the best criticism I can get.

RAIL: I’m now thinking back to your “Study of Perspective” (1995-2003) works, which certainly embraces immaturity.

AI: Yes, look at this. The dropping I didn’t do it as art.I did it in 1994. At that time I wasn’t an artist. I came back to see my father. You know, 1994, I did “The Black Cover Book,” and much later I set up one of the first contemporary galleries. There weren’t magazines, no single group of people calling themselves curators, or even any newspaper that would write about China then. So I had a Nikon F3, and I told my friend who’s a photographer that it can take four frames per second, the shutter’s so fast. So everyone was really surprised. Nobody really knows what a Nikon F3 is today, but at that time, you know, when you see all the old Hollywood movies, when you see journalists and you hear the shutter sound, that’s from a Nikon F3 [makes a shutter sound].

So at that time I was dealing in antiques and research. I said, “let’s drop this one.” Everybody got excited, and we took the first one. I realized—“I’m sorry, we didn’t catch it, we pushed it a little too late.” Then we did the second one. That film, when we developed it, caught the moment. I don’t think that’s artwork. When you make artwork, you have to name it as artwork. At that time I didn’t care about that, until about ten years later when I had an exhibition. I realized that I didn’t have enough work, so I had to find some more works. I had painted a Coca-Cola logo on a Han Dynasty vase—nice shape, but it’s so plain. There’s nothing on it, it’s asking for something on it. So I just casually painted it as a decoration to put in the corner, and the collector Uli Sigg said he liked it. I said, “Oh, you like it? Take it.” So he took it, I think as a gift or something. Because for him, it’s most unthinkable, for a Swiss person. “This guy is really crazy, he did something like this.”

But for me, I grew up in the Cultural Revolution. I personally burned my father’s books. Thousands of beautiful books, most-loved books. I think they’re much more treasured than those things. I burned them myself. Because if I didn’t burn them, the Red Guard would come to our family every day, kick in the door, start questioning my father, tear up the books, search for photographs, find some hidden message in there. To us it’s nothing! The whole thing has only become a so-called iconic act because people some- how get scared or excited by it. I don’t particularly like that piece or think it’s important.

RAIL: I wanted to ask you about the “Moon Project “ (2013) that you launched on Saturday.

AI: Yeah, that’s a new one. I have to be more careful about it. It’s a collaboration.

RAIL: Yes, you and Olafur Eliasson.

AI: For years I haven’t been so interested in art shows, but rather interested in communication—to see how people can communicate about even larger issues, politics or social issues, which people are more aware of than art. Art is simpler. Maybe you don’t like me or I don’t even care. But for social issues, I cannot say I don’t recognize you or you don’t recognize my voice. I want to be somehow identified as a human rather than an artist.

It’s like a guy who wants to jump—you only see your ability through acts. I used to think I could do ten pushups, but I do maybe five. So it’s like pushups I do, on Twitter. And I think it’s healthy for me to do that and to communicate. I’m still very fascinated that there’s such censorship. My name cannot even appear on the Chinese web. One time I did a test and took a photo of my back and put it on the Chinese Weibo, and it was deleted. But it’s always amused me how this authoritarian society is so scared of shapes. That made me more conscious about the form of shapes. Why do they care so much? They have everything—they have the army, they have all the resources, all the power, and they care about this stupid artist who makes one funny or one not-so- professional work. That is half of the curiosity.

So I did this with Olafur because we wanted to build a platform. We’re not satisfied with existing platforms. I’m still in love with them, but I think we need more direct ones, where you don’t have to understand language. If I write on Twitter in Chinese, so many people say, “Why don’t you write in English?” Or I don’t understand what people are writing in Arabic. It’s fascinating to create some space that no one can stop, like wind and air, which is my father’s poetry. Before the Berlin Wall came down, he said, “The wall was built very strong and very long, but there’s no wall that can stop wind and air, much less ideas, which are much freer.”