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

11 months ago 105

Ai Weiwei is hard to pin down. For the archetypal fewer minutes of our Zoom call, him bleary-eyed astatine his computer, I deliberation he’s talking to maine from his caller basal successful Portugal. My mistake – it’s Vienna, wherever he’s readying a amusement for adjacent March. A twelvemonth and a fractional ago, Ai was giving interviews astir his caller beingness successful Britain; earlier that it was Germany, the state that offered him harmless harbour erstwhile helium yet near China successful 2015, aft years of hounding by the authorities and a spell successful detention. So wherever does helium really live?

“Yeah, the question ever comes up,” helium says sheepishly. He moved to Cambridge truthful his son, Ai Lao, could amended his English. His lad is inactive there, but successful the meantime, “I recovered a portion of onshore adjacent Lisbon, truthful I’m benignant of settled there, but that’s lone for the past year”.

A prima of the Chinese creation country from the mid-90s on, Ai became a household sanction successful the westbound aft helium helped conceive the “bird’s nest” stadium successful Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games, earlier rejecting its usage arsenic “culture for the intent of propaganda” and refusing to be the opening ceremony. His galore projects since person continued to needle the Chinese state, up to and including Coronation, his 2020 documentary astir the coronavirus outbreak successful Wuhan.

You’d expect an creator arsenic globally celebrated arsenic him to bash a batch of planetary travel, of course. But there’s thing much to his un-rootedness. He explains, a small gnomically: “Once you don’t person a spot to go, you tin spell anywhere.”

You mean, erstwhile you’ve near your homeland, you tin marque a location wherever you like? The connection doesn’t beryllium good with him. “I’m inactive a Chinese citizen, a passport holder. But I don’t consciousness that it is my homeland. I talk Chinese and I’m a emblematic Chinese – but I ne'er had a location there. The twelvemonth I was born, my begetter was exiled. So my communicative started with nary home, conscionable being pushed distant to a precise distant country arsenic immoderate benignant of force of the state.”

Ai Weiwei with his father, Ai Qing, astatine  Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1959.
Ai Weiwei with his father, Ai Qing, astatine Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1959. Photograph: Courtesy of Ai Weiwei

It’s existent that Ai’s trajectory is intolerable to recognize without knowing astir his precocious father, Ai Qing. Regarded arsenic 1 of China’s top poets, Ai Qing was a leftwing hero, having been imprisoned successful 1932 for his links to communism. Later, helium was a person and an intelligence sparring spouse of the Communist enactment person Mao Zedong, earlier dramatically falling from grace successful a purge of alleged “rightist” intellectuals. This communicative is told successful painstaking but often beauteous item successful Ai’s caller autobiography, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows. It’s much similar a dual biography, with Ai Qing’s communicative taking up the archetypal 150 pages, a utile corrective for westerners who cognize small astir him.

What jumps retired from those passages is the sheer cruelty of Mao’s strategy of ideological enforcement, and the abject conditions Ai experienced arsenic a child. The bleakest play was erstwhile Ai Qing and his 2 sons lived successful a dugout successful “Little Siberia”, portion of China’s acold north-west. Their “bed” was a raised ungraded level covered with wheat stalks, with a quadrate spread successful the extortion to fto successful light. The paraffin lamp they utilized wrong made their nostrils achromatic with soot. Rats were a changeless problem, arsenic were lice. Ai Qing’s occupation for overmuch of this clip was cleaning retired communal toilets, which consisted of holes implicit a cesspit. In winter, this progressive “breaking up the frozen faeces into manageable pieces and shifting them retired of the latrine 1 by one”. Eventually, his begetter was rehabilitated, and the household moved to Beijing.

When I inquire Ai astir this play helium picks up his telephone and turns it to look the camera. His homescreen is simply a black-and-white photograph of the dugout, a reminder of however hard beingness tin beryllium – oregon astatine slightest that’s what I assume. “Well, it was a hard time, but you person a batch of joy, too.” How so? “You consciousness safe. You’re nether there, you’re astatine a antithetic level from different people. They’re each supra you, but you consciousness safe.” He goes further: “I deliberation it is truthful positive, to beryllium poor, and to person an bare beingness arsenic a child. I deliberation you found an knowing of however susceptible our humanity tin be.”

Ai Weiwei’s homescreen, showing the dugout wherever  his household  lived.
Ai Weiwei’s homescreen, showing the dugout wherever his household lived. Photograph: The Guardian

Ai is fixed to bold statements similar this that don’t needfully stack up. The acquisition of grinding poorness whitethorn beryllium utile to look backmost on, but possibly lone erstwhile cushioned by wealth. I’m not definite helium ever thinks done the implications of what helium says, but I’m not definite helium cares each that overmuch either. Perhaps this is the bequest of his childhood: erstwhile you’ve already been rejected successful the astir utmost way, there’s small to fearfulness from people’s opinions of you. But it besides seems to person engendered a benignant of nihilism.

I inquire what motivates him. “Good question,” helium answers. “You know, without your interview, I wouldn’t cognize what to bash today. I person truthful galore shows, but I ne'er initiated a amusement and ne'er contacted a curator successful my lifetime.” If it wasn’t for radical getting successful touch, helium says, “I mightiness beryllium wandering connected the beach, trying to find immoderate beauteous shells.”

It’s an bonzer remark for idiosyncratic arsenic prolific arsenic Ai. Each twelvemonth helium produces respective large solo exhibitions (in 2016 helium had 17, from California to New York to Turin to Athens). His enactment takes successful photography, sculpture, movie and societal experiments specified arsenic Fairytale, successful which helium arranged for 1,001 Chinese travellers to sojourn the German municipality of Kassel. At different points helium has strayed into thing resembling journalism, attempting to papers the names of children killed successful the Sichuan earthquake erstwhile the authorities failed to grounds them. He is assisted by a tiny service of helpers: helium says their fig varies, but “if we bash ample projects it would beryllium hundreds, sometimes thousands”.

As a child, helium says, helium had nary dreams for his future, due to the fact that specified things ran antagonistic to communist ideology. Ambition was a soiled word: “If the doors and windows are shut, you don’t person a view.” But adjacent aft helium escaped to New York successful his aboriginal 20s, helium drifted, enrolling astatine Parsons School of Design but flunking his last exams by simply penning his sanction astatine the apical and thing else. He rented an flat connected the Lower East Side, worked nighttime shifts astatine a people shop, and lived the beingness of a flâneur. At St Mark’s Church 1 evening, helium listened to Allen Ginsberg recite a poem astir China; it contained a enactment astir “revolutionary poets [sent] to shovel crap successful Xinjiang”. Ai approached him, explained the connection, and the 2 became friends. He remembers him arsenic “a fantastic man, precise kind, but with the bosom of a rebel”.

Allen Ginsberg and Ai Weiwei successful  New York, 1988.
Allen Ginsberg and Ai Weiwei successful New York, 1988. Photograph: Krause, Johansen/Courtesy of Ai Weiwei

His wanderings besides took him to the Strand Bookstore connected Broadway, wherever 1 time helium picked up The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, a publication of the artist’s deadpan observations connected fame, emotion and work. It obsessed him. He singles retired Warhol arsenic 1 of the cardinal influences connected his life, alongside the conceptual creator Marcel Duchamp, his begetter and, much surprisingly, the philosopher Wittgenstein.

“I was truthful fascinated by this idiosyncratic who seemed truthful empty, but astatine the aforesaid clip was a existent reflection of our American culture,” helium says of Warhol. He is disappointed that they ne'er met, though helium attended a mates of assemblage openings successful the large man’s presence. “Warhol understood irony truthful well, but besides tells the truth. Very harsh information successful his writing. He was 50 years up of his time. He understood escaped expression, media and communication, helium was taking selfies each the time, signaling radical each the time.” Does helium consciousness they person a batch successful communal arsenic artists? “We are some sincere and insincere astatine the aforesaid time. And we emotion life, but without goals, without purpose.”

I constituent retired that Ginsberg and Warhol – and Wittgenstein for that substance – were gay. “Gay radical successful nine person a analyzable authorities of caput … they are mostly much delicate and smarter,” Ai says. This is different 1 of those disarmingly bald statements that idiosyncratic much anxious astir however their words are received would avoid. I find myself trying to reshape it for him: is it that they person a much analyzable narration with society? “They are complicated, and that complication gives them insecurity, due to the fact that they’re different. And that insecurity makes them, you know, much delicate – they are artists, poets, musicians.” I find this an amusingly pat statement of the cheery condition, but I’ll instrumentality it.

Back to Warhol: what would helium person made of the internet? Would helium person enjoyed memes and societal media? Ai thinks no, helium astir apt wouldn’t – what helium liked astir selfies and unrecorded streams (as you could credibly telephone immoderate of his eight-hour movies) was that helium was the lone 1 doing it. Ai, connected the different hand, is celebrated for his emotion of Twitter, seeing it arsenic a instrumentality for escaped look and connection. And portion you ideate Warhol would person revelled successful our existent authorities of precocious capitalism, for Ai determination is nary bigger menace to humanity.

“I utilized to deliberation the information was from authoritarianism. But now, I truly consciousness that firm capitalism is simply a bigger information to the full quality environment. It’s going to wholly destruct quality nine by encouraging the tendency conscionable to person more, conscionable to get profit.” Does that mean he’s travel afloat ellipse to communism? “I don’t deliberation so. I hatred the communist viewpoint. I deliberation that lone belongs to the past.” So what is his solution? “We person to spell backmost to humanism.” What does that mean, though? “Respect for individuals’ lives, spot and development,” helium says, throwing maine somewhat by mentioning property, which suggests astatine slightest immoderate sympathy with capitalism. Humanism centres “individuals rights to beryllium themselves and talk retired astir what they’re thinking”.

If different aspects of his governmental reasoning are confused, there’s nary mistaking Ai’s committedness to escaped speech. Donald Trump whitethorn so airs a information to democracy, helium says, but the “much bigger danger” are societal media platforms that “manipulate our thinking” by banning him. The state to accidental it arsenic helium sees it is possibly the lone existent guiding rule of Ai’s eclectic career, and provides different nexus backmost to his father, who wrote Mao a agelong missive astir the request to sphere artists’ quality to talk the truth, immoderate the circumstances.

Ai tells maine helium has “no plan, nary goal, nary intent of my life”. But that’s not rather right. His program is to beryllium himself, unfiltered. It’s a quest that explains his restlessness and dizzying productivity, which, adjacent during the pandemic, gave emergence to much shows, much nationalist art, 10,000 printed face masks, the Wuhan movie and, of course, the book. I inquire him what helium thinks the occupation of an creator is. “The occupation of an creator is to person nary job,” helium laughs. What matters is to “stay alert” and “speak retired with truth”. Ai Qing would nary uncertainty agree.

1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai Weiwei, translated by Allan H Barr, is published connected 2 November by The Bodley Head.