Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous artist, is currently being monitored around the clock by the secret police. TOHK gained access to his Beijing studio to discuss the ‘Jasmine Revolution’... and other beliefs. Words by Jake Hamilton; photography by Calvin Sit.
Ai Weiwei’s studio is an unassuming place. Located on the outer northeast rim of Beijing, the exterior consists of a simple blue door, a blank brick wall, and a small signage that reads “FAKE”. The interior is likewise: bare concrete, a courtyard of bamboo and a dozen-or-so cats lounging about in the late winter sunshine. No one would ever suspect this peaceful haven was home to China’s most controversial activist-artist. It’s only when you turn and see the word “FUCK” writ large across the entrance wall that the penny drops. When Ai finally appears, he asks very quietly: “How do you find Beijing?” (He doesn’t avoid eye contact as many artists do.) “Paranoid,” we reply. Ai waves a nonchalant hand. “It’s the time of the big meetings,” he says.
The artist is referring to The National People’s Congress, where the Chinese government will roll-out its 12th five-year plan at the Great Hall of The People. He seems genuinely uninterested in such affairs, but he clearly is. In the past two years, Ai’s art and life have become indistinguishable. His works are charged with potent political context. He’s been beaten, bugged, monitored, gagged by the media, placed under house arrest and even had his Shanghai studio bulldozed to the ground. Such is his importance in China right now that any comment he makes regarding State policy (he’s an avid Twitterer, accessing the site through an overseas server) is immediately picked up by the international press. A London columnist recently went so far as to say that Ai was on the verge of becoming “a cultural figure of serious global importance in the mould of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.”
And yet the overwhelming reaction to his words, and his works, is a sort of bewildering amazement at his sheer bloody-minded bravery. And Ai knows it. He’s all too aware that intellectuals have been persecuted, jailed, killed or have simply vanished over the past 60 years for daring to question the all-powerful Communist Party. You only need look at his father, the poet Ai Qing, who served 26 years in political exile for daring to criticize Mao Zedong, to realise that Ai is fully prepared to accept the consequences of his very public actions. It’s on this troubling matter that our interview began.
When I told colleagues in Hong Kong and Europe that I would be interviewing you today, they were genuinely concerned for your wellbeing. So let’s begin with that: how are you?
This is becoming difficult to answer. My situation is like the studio I’m living in right now. It’s full of problems, but at the same time it’s very peaceful, yet full of crisis. For example, the car park, in that direction, has had a car watching me for over a week, day and night, two people sitting inside, even during the snowfall.
How closely are you being monitored?
Sometimes it’s one car, sometimes it’s three cars. Undercover police. This is becoming such an absurd picture. If you walk into Beijing city centre you see people are quite comfortable, nothing in crisis; but there is a lot of problems I think.
How has your personal safety been these past few days?
My safety is actually OK. I think if you watch the secret police you are especially OK. They will make sure nothing happens to you. But they are still trying to remind you that everything is under their control. Remember, this is the period of year where congressional meetings will take place, and so now that the Jasmine Revolution has been made, everybody is so nervous.
Is the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ a genuine online movement?
Yes, because China censors the entire internet and really crashes down on those who have opinions of why this society should be changed. In the past two weeks, over 100 people have been arrested. Some are long-time writers, scholars, lawyers; some are just one-time students saying ‘let’s meet on a certain corner, a certain street.’ It’s very strong. Many universities will not allow students to come out, mainly because teachers have received a certain note ordering them to do their duty, otherwise they will be in trouble, or their school will be in trouble. So the country is very tight right now. The true result is that China is controlling universities more than ever before over these past 18 days. The government cannot afford to lose this battle. But another factor is that the people who have strong beliefs for change have become ever more necessary.
The word ‘jasmine’ has been blocked on the internet. President’s Hu’s ‘jasmine song’ has disappeared. Foreign journalists have been kicked and punched for standing on the street. How severe has the police reaction been to what is essentially a
Firstly, on the Chinese internet you cannot type any sentence with the word ‘tomorrow’ in it – the word ‘tomorrow’ has become a sensitive word.
Because maybe people will say, ‘Tomorrow we will all walk in Wang Fu Jing.’ [The central area in Beijing for the recent jasmine protest activity]. At the same time you cannot type, ‘today’. The machine will just take anything with ‘today’ in it. [Laughs] It’s really amazing that you can’t use the words ‘tomorrow’ and ‘today’. So you can see how extremely nervous they have become. And there’s no discussion, no intellectual exchanges or argument. It’s so much like Chinese parents from the olden times, where the children just had to listen to them without showing any sign of disagreement, or questioning, or different attitudes. To try and challenge the economic and political situation today is not going to be OK. That is going to be devastating. This nation has had no creativity for the past 100 years.
I wonder. Usually, where there has been an economic boom, there is also a corresponding burst in creativity. But in Chinese culture there has been no advancement at all. Why is that?
Because the economic revolution has come from a military result, from violence. The group of people who control the power do not believe in spiritual freedom, individualism, or the freedom of speech. Those are all the bad words for any kind of military action. Every few years they re-establish the same power, with the same group of people, or their relatives. But they don’t know how to control it at all, I think.
But as Shelley said, “Ye are many, they are few.” Why do the masses not revolt?
Because the structure of our society after these 60 years of very brutal control, especially the first 40 years, has crushed all the intellectuals who have held a different opinion. They have been punished, or jailed, or killed. So there is almost no way to do it. The last performance was Tiananmen Square . So people have realised that this state can do anything to crush the concept of freedom.
But when the Chinese come together, they really do come together…
Yes, but that can be terrifying also. It’s just like the land in China. Every year there is either too much water or it’s a draught. There is no in-between. It’s either a few drops of rain or a flood. It’s been a hundred years like this, and it’s getting worse and worse because society has many levels of need. Now it’s creating interest through capitalism principals, but before you were either a worker or a leader, and that is very difficult.
Premier Wen Jiabao this month ordered government officials to “make people happy” by “being happy”. Do you find his comments insulting?
I think that person is a little bit worried, and perhaps unhappy himself. If you look at the period of time he has been there, all the problems have become worse since he first arrived. He wants to be remembered in history as a nice man.
And is he a nice man?
He won’t be remembered as a great man so he wants to be remembered as a nice man. But this is not possible, because the Chinese people will remember someone not by what he says but by what kind of change he made. There has been no change. There has been no benefit. In fact it has been collapsing.
A Chinese journalist warned me: “If you interview Ai Weiwei then you stand opposite my government.” This is an interesting phrase. Do you find it strange?
Yes. Anybody who carefully listens to what I am saying will come to the same conclusion. This is a society lacking in discussion, in frankness. That’s why we have such media control, because nobody can afford to discuss different viewpoints. ‘It’s not my problem,’ is the usual excuse, because otherwise it will cause you some trouble. But I am not opposite this government. Any government in any country which has problems must be examined by its citizens, or by individuals. Criticism is healthy.
Last month, a young Chinese person was arrested and detained in Beijing for placing a white flower on the ground. Do you find it ridiculous, three years after the Olympics, that someone in downtown Beijing can be arrested for placing a flower on the ground?
It’s absurd for you, but not so absurd for us, because you can be sentenced here for putting up Tweets. The internet is designed as a space for discussion, for different opinions, so how can a government after 60 years in control be unable to take even a small slight? They can’t take opinions. They can’t take different viewpoints. They are going further and further in the opposite direction of democracy. On the surface it looks fine, with glamorous meetings such as the Olympics or the Shanghai EXPO. But Shanghai destroyed my studio in just one night. They paid a lot of money to build it, but they also paid to destroy it.
Was that a painful experience, or did the bulldozing become a work of art in itself?
As an artist I can deal with my pain and my joy, so I saw this destruction as a new possibility. Of course, for anybody it would be a painful experience, but if you see art as a conclusion then you will only see destruction. Yet if you see art as a beginning then the action takes things one step further and becomes meaningful. I’m not saying it wasn’t extremely hard to handle, but the statement of bulldozing the studio by the government clearly showed people what kind of state we are in.
It was an extremely powerful symbol.
So what happened in February with the Ullens UCCA gallery in Beijing? [Ai’s first major exhibition in mainland China was suddenly cancelled at the last moment.] The official reason was that it was not completed in time.
We prepared that show for a year and a half. All the work was ready. I think from what they told me, it was something like, ‘Because Shanghai destroyed your studio there is now so much discussion [about you] and it makes us nervous.’ They thought the exhibition would bring them some sad effect. But they clearly did not tell me whether this was self-censorship or an order from higher up.
They never told you who gave the order?
They would never tell me this. So I can only guess it is either of these two reasons. It is very possible that an order came from a higher level, just like it did with my studio in Shanghai.
Is that what happened in Shanghai?
Yes. Shanghai City Government made the order, not the local government. The district told me, ‘You must surely know what happened – it was aimed at you because of your political activities.’ They clearly told me this. But of course, they wouldn’t say who or how it happened. The same situation happened with Ullens. Firstly, they would not let me show. Secondly, they tried to avoid some kind of complexities because they are trying to sell this large auction coming out [The Ullens Collection – The Nascence of Avant-Garde China, auction to be held on April 3, Sotheby’s Hong Kong; estimate value: US$16.7m], so they wanted to avoid any confrontation.
Do you think Mr. Ullens has also become frustrated with the authorities?
Yes, very much so, because he is working with the authorities trying to set up different deals with various groups who have had a very strong State profile for years. I think it’s very possible they just don’t want anything around that will give people an excuse. But I also think they are worrying too much, because all of the work had been censored anyway. They told me what cannot be shown, such as anything relating to the Sichuan earthquake, which I showed in Munich. I also agreed. I said, ‘it’s OK’. If I do a show here then I have to follow the law. But it turned out that even this wasn’t going to work. So my first show in China is still delayed by unknown forces.
Are you hopeful that you will still get a major exhibition on the Mainland one day?
I think that would be nice, but I would not show it for other artists. I am showing it for hundreds of thousands of young internet users. They really look up to me. They say, ‘This guy is established and has possibilities but he is standing for me in criticizing the current situation and wants it changed.’ So my position gives a lot of people hope through this impenetrable darkness. People have been sick of the situation, some for several generations, and have developed a total hopelessness. Yet if people say ‘this is not possible’, then that encourages me, because it is in my character.
You’re a world famous artist, and you’re very successful, but you run the risk of going to jail at any moment. Are you afraid of jail?
I am afraid of jail, but my father was a poet [Ai Qing, 1910-1996]. I don’t admire him much as a poet, but I do admire him when in his early twenties he was sentenced to six years, and then later exiled for 20 years in really the worst situation, cleaning the public toilets; and yet he survived. So if I think about my father I think, ‘this was really a strong soul, a poet, who accepted a kind of jail, a human condition.’ It’s a statement, you know? So this is how I try to make myself understand what would happen in jail. But nobody really knows what happens in the real jail.
Do you know what is happening with Liu Xiaobo? What is his condition like in jail?
[Visibly angered] Even his wife cannot see him! You do not sentence the one person, you sentence the whole family! He has totally disappeared. All the lawyers cannot see him. Nobody can see him. I mean, come on! If you are so right, if you think justice has been served then you have to do it correctly; you cannot do it secretly. This is not the time to do that. Sentence him, yes. In front of the people in open court, fine. But not secretly!
By locking him up they have made him ten times more powerful.
It is true. And by not letting people attend this kind of ceremony [The Nobel Peace Prize 2010] they had 400 or 500 people on the list not to let them out of the country. I was one of them. I was surprised.
May I ask you, when you were stopped from boarding a plane last year, were you going to the Nobel Ceremony to collect his award?
Not… really. I was going to the Ukraine. Not long before that I was named as judge for a prize called the Future Generations by Ukrainian collectors.
So to be clear then, that’s where you were going – the Ukraine?
I was going to four nations, but one is very close to Norway, which was Denmark [much laughter]... But I received an invite from the Nobel committee. I wrote back saying sorry I cannot come because of my schedule. But also the Chinese authorities came to ask me. I told them, ‘It is not my intention to go.’ But nevertheless they wanted to be certain I did not change my mind.
When you organized a party for the demolition of your Shanghai studio you were immediately placed under house arrest. What happens when a person is placed under house arrest?
It is a strange feeling. Firstly, I feel bad that I was going to have a party which I could not attend. Over 1,000 people registered to attend, so that means a few more thousand would have attended. I told the police and they said, ‘Oh, then just don’t go, it’s getting to too big.’ But how can I invite people and then not show up? The police said, ‘Easy, tell them you are under house arrest.’ No, no, I said, I cannot do that unless I really am under house arrest. ‘OK,’ said the police, ‘but you still can’t go.’ Well nothing can stop me unless you put me in an extreme condition, I said. So right before I left for the plane a large group of police came right into this room saying, ‘Now we announce you are under house arrest.’ I asked them exactly what did that mean. They said, ‘You cannot leave this house. We will stay outside until the midnight of the day of the party.’ I told them it was ridiculous. If you put me under house arrest that means the party is over, because I am the host. They said, ‘This is an order.’ So I stayed at home, under house arrest, by law.
And how did that feel?
Well, I realised it was not so much different from my normal life. I stay here every day anyway. People come to interview me, or I Twitter; it’s just the same. In fact I did about 20 interviews while I was under house arrest and the whole world knew about the situation. It even triggered the British Prime Minister to write a letter asking to pay more attention to human rights. Yet still you are being watched, your bank account is being checked, your emails are being checked, your phone is being tapped, you are being followed and monitored, and there are people outside your office. But this always shows the weakness of their power. It’s such a pitiful thing that you don’t even want to say it: their lacking of confidence, their lacking of skill of communication, their refusal to discuss intellectually any matter. They [the Communist Party] have to have an enemy. They have to create you as their enemy in order for them to continue their existence. It’s very ironic.
Do you feel the Communist Party are using you as a cultural measuring stick, globally?
They must be. First they told me that they don’t know how to handle me, because in their logic, they cannot understand why I am doing this. Very frankly, they ask me, ‘Can you tell us, what is in your mind? If you had all the power, what things would you change?’ I always have very detailed conversations with them, you see. And now the secret police tell me: ‘Your existence is very important.’
They said, ‘Because you are so influential and because you are doing something which nobody else wants to do. You are different.’ But I don’t know why they are separating me from other people.
Some would say the government has become infatuated with you.
It’s very possible.
Why were you forced to post an image of your Chinese passport online?
When you start criticizing online, people will think you are just trying to get attention. Then they find out you are serious, so why can this guy be so open? He must be an American Chinese; the law doesn’t apply to him. It became too much. I had to post my passport to show I am under the same kind of problems. This is really my problem. This also made the authorities look at me differently. The first thing most Chinese celebrities do is to make themselves and their families get protection. I also had those possibilities but the authorities saw that I did not use them, so maybe they had to think why.
You made a very controversial documentary about Yang Jia [who was convicted and executed in 2008 for murdering six Shanghai police officers]. Why was this subject matter so important for you?
He was an ordinary person, like anyone in the street, yet he was treated by this big judicial machine which gave him no chance. I always like to ask questions about difficult cases. Why did this boy kill six police in a Communist Party state, July 1, 2008, just before the Olympics? And what happened to him? What’s wrong there? Everybody believed he should be killed, because he killed police officers. It’s Chinese revenge thinking. But I had to argue that he should be treated as a suspect before he is a criminal. If that system is not established beforehand, then everyone is vulnerable. So this was the perfect case. There were no moral discussions. I wrote over 60 articles on my blog, making a strong argument for this case. And it was noticed. Of course he was killed, but the argument will never really end there.
How can someone in mainland China view this documentary?
We have given out, freely, over 100,000 copies through the mail. But they are made and edited purely for the internet, so it gives us a larger audience for people who are waiting for these kinds of journalistic documentaries.
Your ‘Citizen’s Investigation’ into poorly-constructed buildings and schools in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 has been accused of ‘disturbing the social order.’ How do you respond to such an accusation?
That’s exactly what my father had 80 years ago under the Nationalist Party. Many Communist Party members were sentenced and killed under that order. It’s become exactly the same 80 years later. Many people today have been placed in jail [by the Communist Party] for creating public disorder. It’s ridiculous.
But your investigation is in the interest of the people.
Yes, but orders do not come from the people. The order comes from those who control the people. China spends more money on stability than on food or the military. So that means the enemy is really on the inside.
How many children do you estimate died in the Sichuan earthquake?
We have 5,197 names from schools and family records. The official number is 5,335. I think it is close to the reality, because they know everything. There is not much difference.
What happened to you in Chengdu? [Ai was allegedly beaten over the head by the police in the Sichuan capital in late 2009; he later suffered severe concussion and was operated on in Germany.]
[Long pause] Our volunteers were arrested and harassed about 30 times during our investigation. Finally they accused one person, who was a writer also doing an investigation into the deaths of the children. We didn’t even know each other. He was accused by the government and his lawyer asked me if I wanted to appear on the stand. I said yes. I had a lot of material. So we went there, and at 3am the police broke into our hotel room. We made a big argument with them because I was very bitter. Then after the court they released us without explanation. Of course, they were trying to stop us from going to the trial. So we made a lot of complaints and court appeals, but nobody accepted our case. ‘Nobody beat you up,’ they said. ‘It must have been an illusion.’ This was a different approach to the argument! I said to them calmly, ‘Listen, the police beat up somebody. I’m not asking for much, just say sorry, but you cannot say nothing happened because then the whole system becomes my problem.’ This shows a system that will never really face the facts. By covering up a small spot of a problem they have made a big hole. That’s happening in China everywhere, because nobody wants to bear any responsibility, because all the glories belong to the Party… yet all the mistakes also belong to the Party.
Are you angry or disappointed that the generation which followed the Tiananmen Square protests helped make China boom but also neglected its social conscious?
I think they were victimized by the system. It’s like covering up people’s eyes and ears to what the world really looks like. This is a typical product of our society. To be successful they have to maintain this order. It’s ugly and disgusting and stupid and the ‘incapable society’ has to just vanish like the water under the sunshine.
Can Tiananmen Square happen again?
You cannot imagine another demonstration like what happened in 1989. Looking back at that time, I was very disappointed because I never really had any political perspective. I had a lot of experience growing up with my father’s generation, and with living in a democratic society in New York, but only after 1999 when I got involved with architecture did I see more of the inside structure of this government. How every deal has been made. How land has been sold. How these people became rich. How they made their money. I saw who benefits and who suffers. I saw how people never had a chance to ask for their rights. Architecture is something you build within society, and you have to deal with the government. Architecture is very political, just like the Bird’s Nest stadium.
Do you regret your involvement with the Beijing Olympic stadium?
Not regret, but with the Olympics, China was trying to become part of a much larger international family. So I still think the building is an important landmark, even though the Chinese government handled it very disappointingly. There is no real true
joy from the citizens. Rather it is an exercise of state propaganda – a very successful one. Because of my political sensitivity, I disassociated myself a year before the opening ceremony, so I became a puppet. It’s kind of strange. One journalist asked me if I was going to attend the ceremony and I said, ‘No, it looks ridiculous!’ But it was reported as: “Olympic designer boycotts Games.”
That’s a strong headline.
Yes, but of course the media here is so hungry to find someone to speak out that I became very noticeable. I have never had even the slightest regret after I saw the opening ceremony. I realised as soon as I saw it that I was right. China has become orchestrated more and more as a police state. It is a totalitarian society that creates many, many economic miracles but the only thing they cannot create is the simple joy of the people.
Your art is very subtle, very ambiguous. But ambiguity can be ripe for propaganda. May I read you something from the China Daily newspaper regarding your Sunflower Seeds exhibition at the Tate Modern?
Really? They reviewed it? I didn’t know this. It says: “The engaging nature of this work … encourages us to consider a pertinent question: are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together?” [Bursts out laughing] That’s a funny piece!
Is that what you intended?
People are entitled to view my work in any way they want, and it’s important for people to have interpretations. Maybe that writer washed that piece in order to pass it through the editors. For them, to put my name on a story is important. I see many young writers in the state media trying to find any chance, any excuse, to mention my name in print somewhere. If it can’t appear in the headline then they will bury it somewhere in the article. They want the reference, and I see their effort. It’s a pitiful effort, but I still see effort.
And you have to admit, it’s quite brave of them to do this…
I ask the young writers, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you mentioning my name? You could lose your job.’ They say, ‘We’ll find another job, don’t worry.’ Some have taken photographs of our demonstrations and got them into print.
The Global Times.Really? That’s a state newspaper. It still went through. I thought it was kind of a signal. People who came of age in the 1980s are now in important positions. But are they ready? Can they solve the problems? Or are they going to avoid the problems? I think this is a moment.
You have a lot of hope placed on your shoulders. Can you handle it?
There is a lot of pressure but it makes you feel so much stronger because you are now related to a large number of people’s hope and you can do something to benefit that. It’s worthwhile to say something to change the conditions of other people.
What do you want to say?
I want to say that young people should have equal opportunity, commit to a challenge, and be free to enjoy their life rather than sacrifice themselves for other people’s excuses. I want people to have a spirited life, truly independent, maybe poorly but still strong in mind. That’s not too much to ask.