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I’m a refugee of the world – Ai Weiwei

Contemporary art can be a powerful social commentary – but can the personal emotions of the artist get lost behind the political message? We’ve talked to renowned contemporary artist Ai Weiwei.

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Podcast https://soundcloud.com/rttv/sets/sophieco-visionaries

Sophie Shevardnadze: Ai Weiwei, it's really great to have you on our program today. Welcome.

Ai Weiwei: Thank you. Nice talking to you. 

SS: So now that I have you here, there's so many things that I want to ask you. For instance, your art mainly is a commentary on certain events. It's a reflection on things, situations. And that's understandable because you speak from your whole experience. Your whole life experience is behind that art. But I just want to know your perception. Is it just important to have a self-reflection on your own experience? Or do you expect this to actually change people's lives as well?

AW: Well, as you said, in my work, I really relate to myself, to my experience, and with this kind of struggle, art or political struggle, it changes my life. And also, I believe, whatever benefits me would benefit other people. 

SS: But do you feel it's your mission also to change other people's life with your art or this is not something you strive for? 

AW: It's not something I am looking for. You know, I'm not propaganda or just [designing] a certain set of my art for a certain political goal. But as a human being I do believe we are living at a time with this intention of change. And it's always there. So I'm very happy to be part of it. 

SS: I'm not a person who sees contemporary art and loves it. And there are very few people who are like that, actually, because contemporary art is usually not a visual thing. It's more about the concept behind it. And unless that concept is explained, you don't really understand why that installation is there or why this painting is here. And there are a lot of people like me, who are very visual people and they don't get conceptual art unless someone like you, an artist, is there to explain. Do you feel like that art should be more adapted to people so that we understand, so that it's easier to for us to understand, more accessible?

AW: I think you're right, and I would not say I like contemporary art. I practice my art. It could be related to tradition, really, to clear old concept. And most time the contemporary art is just rubbish, you know, it's not really designed for the people. They are arrogant. They push people away. And they're trying to set the tone that art has nothing to do with ordinary people, which is a very sad situation. 

SS: Yes. Also, there's a problem with what I see as contemporary art because it's supposed to be the most liberal of self-expression places, but then somehow there is a complete dictatorship of the law within that spectrum of contemporary art. For instance, you can say, “This is art”. And if you're an artist and you say, “This is art”, they we are supposed to believe that this is art. And then where do you make the difference where there is real art or not? How do you make that difference in contemporary art?

AW: For me, the judgment is how real it can be. You know, we have real emotions, we live in the real world, facing real struggle. But the so-called ‘liberalism’ very often is also dictatorship, the liberal idea, which is very detached and has nothing to do with our real struggle.

SS: I have spoken to many people during my career and there was a period when I was interviewing war reporters a lot, and I would ask them, “Why are you doing this?” Because they would keep going back and back to hotspots and make these scary but amazing photos, and then come back home and go to psychiatrists all the time and not be able to have a normal life. And they're like, “Well, because we feel like if we capture the real deal and we show the horror to the whole world, this will change things and wars will stop.” I don't want to discourage them, but wars don't stop. They don't. Same for something that you’re doing. I mean, it can be a protest against, I don't know, fires in Amazon, Chinese system, Hong Kong protests, anything, but does it make you sad that it's not going to actually change the real course of events?

AW: Very often I feel sad because you feel there's not much being changed. You feel what should be changed is never really going to be changed or it doesn't seem it will be changed in the short time. But just think, without that you become part of the other side. That's what I refuse and defend myself not to become a part of something I don't believe in.

SS: Protesting the establishment is in your veins, and some would think that, you know, you would only criticize the Chinese government, but then you don't make it easy for the White House or for the European establishment. Did you ever think that at some point you could separate the political aspect from your art? Or you don't see your art at all without the political aspect?

AW: I don't see my art without human struggle, and the political aspect is a very strong part of human struggle. So my art is not about China. It's not just about dictatorship. My art is about human rights, about freedom of speech, about the individual's freedom. So that would always take a struggle anywhere. Does not matter, Europe or China.

SS: What you're saying fits perfectly the definition of the word ‘dissident’. Do you consider yourself a dissident?

AW: Yeah, I was born as a dissident, and I think I would die as a dissident.

SS: In your own words, what's a dissident? For us, people with the Soviet background, we automatically think about Solzhenitsyn, we think about Sakharov. In the eighties when their statuses were actually normalized, they came back and they started criticizing their liberators. You know, because this is a perpetual mission, they would say. What is, in your own words, a dissident and the mission of a dissident?

AW: I think, a dissident is about the individual's judgment. It always relates to human rights and human conditions. And it would reflect in very different political conditions and be alone, be an individual.

SS: Alone?

AW: Yes.

SS: In what sense? Like a lone wolf fighter?

AW: Well, a lone wolf fighter in terms of intellectual judgment. You know, you're not easy to just obey any kind of value judgment, but have to really come out from your own experience.

SS: So basically always make it super uncomfortable for the system, whatever system you're existing in right now.

AW: Yeah, I think if I can, I would make them uncomfortable. I'm questioning, always questioning the power, the existent power to see if they are legitimate, if they're really there for the people.

SS: I've been here for a week in Berlin. And when I found out that I was going to the interview, I told some of my German friends, “Oh, I'm going to interview Ai Weiwei!” And they said: “Can you ask him why he's being so snobbish about Berlin? Because we love him and we welcomed him here, we gave him this amazing space to work and it was like a safe haven for him, and now he’s saying, ‘Germany is not tolerant enough, so I'm gonna move to the UK!’” So do you see how Germans may think that you are ungrateful? Or that doesn't matter when it comes to self-expression and art?

AW: It doesn't matter, and nobody can buy me, that's the problem. If they think they'd given me a space, that's totally wrong. Germans are arrogant, Germans are very self-centred, and I think they are not open for deeper discussions. I don't like that kind of things. I don't like to be decorative for German society. Of course, they have many good characters. But that's not what I appreciate. I appreciate a real intelligent individual struggle.

SS: So you're moving to the United Kingdom from what I gather, right?

AW: Well, I'm not moving to anywhere, I'm a refugee of the world. You know, I can go to Russia, I can go to India, I can go anywhere, but I cannot go back to my nation, China. That's my problem. So anywhere else to me is the same. I think Germans just misunderstood, when they welcomed me. You know, I'm not an easy guest.

SS: That's for sure. You're not making it easy for people. Can I talk a little bit about the difference between the Western culture trends and the Chinese? Because Western culture, the way I see it, centres around individual and individual needs. And then, from what I understand of Chinese culture, it's much more socially elevated. It's much more collective. You're saying, “I'm a refugee of the world, because I can't go back to China”, but mostly you live in the Western part of the world. So when you protest the existing establishment anywhere you go in the West, do you think this is the Chinese background coming into play? Because you're talking about things that matter not only to you, but to other people.

AW: I do feel there's different understanding. Chinese, in the old tradition, not as communists, they have this kind of common good belief. So the individuals more relate to the environment. It could be nature, or it could be larger understanding of the ritual, right or wrong, which is beyond the so-called individual and the government. In the West, I think individual become a propaganda point. It's not really individualism. You see what happens in the West, the so-called ‘individual’ is poisoning. It's not really a strong belief in democratic society and the freedom of individual.

SS: Just off the top of your head, would you say there is such place on planet Earth where there is like a perfect democracy, individual freedom, self-expression? Is there such a place on our planet?

AW: Yes. There is such a place on the planet of individualism, or human rights, or freedom of expression. That place is in my heart. That's why I have to fight for my dream. I don't see that would ever going to become a reality, but I will well protect it in my heart.

SS: So we agree that there is no such a country or place on Earth, which would be like this perfect democratic heaven.

AW: No, I don't think so. I think all the so-called ‘best conditions’ we have today is living on the suffering of the other place. So if we separate that kind of understanding, the people become so selfish and very narrow-minded.

SS: I want to talk a little bit about you, and what happened to you, and what formed you as such a huge figure in today's contemporary art. First of all, in your own words, what is the difference between the expectations of an artist in China and in the West? Because you were in China before you were persecuted, you were also a huge figure. What does the society expect from an artist there and here?

AW: The society expects the artist to be a part of the party's propaganda machine. Of course, you're not directly employed by the party, but you cannot say anything that party doesn't like to hear aloud.

SS: But you did.

AW: I did, that's why I got all kinds of trouble in China, and that's how I've been forced out from my own nation. In the West, under the name ‘freedom’ every individual is encouraged to do their own thinking, but at the same time, nothing relevant or meaningful come out from it. People are very spoiled, and people are very lazy, and the people are not questioning their own living conditions and the intellectual state of mind.

SS: I know, you once said that had you not been harassed by the government, maybe you wouldn't be this famous. You said that, right?

AW: Yes, that's true.

SS: OK. So do you feel like if you weren't persecuted back then by the Chinese government, you wouldn't be this huge figure in the art world just because of your art?

AW: That is hard to measure. If it’s just measured by my art, it has much more meaning than what we generally see in the Western society. But they just don't have the measurement to measure my art. You know, I have to use the same kind of measurement they can measure to challenge the system.

SS: Can you be more precise? What is in your art that the West doesn't see because they don't have that measuring instrument?

AW: My art is about desperately seeking the truth, which is always the value of the art. Classic art’s functions have always been about the truth, about moral, about philosophical conditions. I think the contemporary practices got lost because they are not focused on those issues and so they don't understand what I'm doing.

SS: So what do you think they see in your art, if they don't see any of what you've just said?

AW: I think what they see from my art is partially because I'm a person who raised my voice against authority. Or they see my works bring some unfamiliarness or uncomfortable situation for general practice in the West.

SS: So you're saying they see in you just a cool guy who's not afraid to speak out, and because the Western values sort of mean that there must be a rebel hero there, that's why they have you here just to have you paraded as a guy who rebels but really don't see beyond that?

AW: Yeah, I think they underestimated me, they see me more like a rock star or some, you know, entertainment guy.

SS: Do you blame them?

AW: I don't blame them. You know, people only see what they can see. And I appreciate those who see me.

SS: But if we flip it from the other side, from the government side, I always think about it (and I don't have an answer), “Why is it that government that is criticized through art, any government, is so afraid of it?” I mean, art is not organized protests or strikes, art doesn't help win or lose elections. And yet every time any government does anything against art, on the contrary, it amplifies the problem and actually plays in the hands of the artists or the art. Why is it that governments are so afraid and not able to sort of, you know, ignore the jabs you make by art?

AW: I think you’re asking a very good question here. I think that art cannot be harmful, it doesn't demonstrate that much, but art provides a way of looking and questioning of a value judgment. So that kind of attitude is shaking the foundation of the legitimacy of governing, and that's very dangerous. All the kings and all the powerful people hate anybody who has that kind of attitude and that can be poisoning for them.

SS: Try to be honest here. When you got backlash by the government-

AW: I don’t have to try to be honest.

SS: Sometimes I try to be honest, but somehow I have so many layers that only one layer in me speaks.

AW: Ah.

SS: I thought so much about your life. So you got backlash from the government and you were under house arrest and potentially would go to prison and you didn't know how you would end up. You had no guarantee that you'll be sitting here in Berlin giving me interview, right? Did you at any point thought, “I have only one life and this art that I'm doing is not worth, it is not worth this what I'm going through”?

AW: I would say, only by doing what I've been doing, I recognized what's the value of life. Yes. This is always the ultimate question. We only have a life. We can either polish it, and also we can let it be. So my moments made me recognize what life can be.

SS: Can I go a little further?

AW: Yes.

SS: I understand how you would say this now, but is this the way what you were thinking back then when you were under house arrest, having no guarantees you would get out?

AW: It's a tough question. I was regretful I didn't have someone or something to protect myself under that kind of condition. That hole is very deep and very dark. That's why once I'm out, I always give voice to the people in that kind of condition, because it is hopeless, it makes you regret about what you're doing.

SS: So here's another emotional question. There is a general perception that big masters, no matter whether it's visual arts, or poets, or writers, or directors, they usually cannot create as well outside of their country as they can on their soil. You started this interview by saying, “I want to go back to China because that's where I belong”. Do you feel your art would be even grander and different if you were able to do it on your own soil?

AW: I feel the same way. I think for writers, especially writers, I think of myself also as a writer, you lose so much being pulled out from your earth. You know, it's like a tree. If you are a big tree, that's more dangerous. If you are a small tree, of course, you can move anywhere and you still can survive. So I have so much rooted in China, and I want people to see me- My performance in the West is may be less than 5 percent or even much lesser. I can’t really achieve [that much]. If I have the earth or the sunshine or the wind in China, I can have a much, much better performance.

SS: I want to turn back to fighting the systems again, because whether it’s China, America or Europe, it is still a system.

AW: Sure.

SS: Some are more autocratic, others are more democratic, but it's a system. So for an artist who is living in a system and not somewhere in a jungle it's always a dilemma, because you're part of this whole string of curators, exhibitions, galleries, grants, but then you have to criticize that that feeds you. Did you ever have that dilemma? 

AW: I don't. I don’t see them as feeding me. I am probably feeding them with some kind of poisoning, but they don't feed me. Nobody feeds me. I feed myself. And also I don't care about that system. I don't give a damn… Those words I'm may not gonna use, but “Do they select me or not? Do I ever have one more exhibition or not?” is not my dilemma.

SS: You have a 10-year-old son, and I've heard once again you said that he once said, “No more Ai Weiwei!” He was not into the whole political art. Do you ever think that you are getting carried away with your art and you want to say, “Weiwei, come on! No more Ai Weiwei! Give yourself a break”? 

AW: Yes, I am telling myself all the time, but I do have some responsibilities to fulfil. You know, there are people who ask me, “Be our voice! Please, be there. Please, stay!” But I have to make this kind of balance: how much so-called private life I would have and how much I would contribute to the struggle. 

SS: You know, the eternal question is comparing contemporary art and what you call protest art or social art with traditional art. For instance, Rothko or Renoir or Malevich, we agree both that it's art, right?

AW: Of course, Malevich is revolutionary art. 

SS: But they're much more about self-digging and self-reflection rather than, I don't know, political statement in your art, or protesting. What do you think, when it comes to art today, is more relevant and more poignant? Self-digging or making a statement that is commenting on a certain event?

AW: If you’re self-digging deep enough, you have to make a political statement.

SS: Why? 

AW: Because we all are created by the system. We all reflect certain cultures and a certain establishment, and without questioning those establishments you cannot really create your own true self.

SS: So let's say Degas’ ballerinas is not real art because it doesn't conflict an existing system? 

AW: I think it's not so relevant. Whatever impression artists did in general is a revolution to the past. But there what they did there is not so relevant. 

SS: Edgar Allan Poe once said that there is no greater value for the piece of art than art itself, that a poem is actually written for nothing other than the desire to write it. Mao Zedong said that there is no art for the sake of art, which side are you on, Mao Zedong’s or Edgar Allan Poe’s?

AW: I think there's no art just for sake of art. I think art is always being used by different kinds of ideology, liberal or conservative, Popes or authoritarians. And also there is always individual announcement in the practice. So yeah, it's just like the real world.

SS: Thank you very much for this interview and it's been a pleasure talking to you. I wish you all the best in your future endeavours.

AW: Thank you so much. It's such a pleasure talking to you, Sophie.

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