TOi Weiwei is difficult to pin down. For the first few minutes of our Zoom call, teary-eyed at his computer, I think he is speaking to me from his new base in Portugal. My mistake, is Vienna, where he is planning a show for next March. A year and a half ago, Ai was giving interviews about her new life in Britain; Before that it was Germany, the country that offered him a safe haven when he finally left China in 2015, after years of harassment by authorities and a period of detention. So where do you 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 a bit settled there, but that’s only for the past year.”
A star of the Chinese art scene from the mid-1990s onwards, Ai became a household name in the west after he helped conceive the “bird’s nest” stadium in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, before turning down its use as “culture for the purpose”. of propaganda ”and refusing to attend the opening ceremony. Since then, his many projects have continued to affect the Chinese state, right up to Coronation, his 2020 documentary on the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.
Of course, you would expect a world famous artist like him to go on a lot of international travel. But there is something more to its lack of roots. He explains, a bit gnomically: “Once you don’t have a place to go, you can go anywhere.”
Do you mean that once you have left your homeland, you can make a home wherever you want? The word does not suit him. “I am still a Chinese citizen, a passport holder. But I don’t feel like it’s my homeland. I speak Chinese and I am a typical Chinese, but I never had a home there. The year I was born, my father went into exile. So my story started homeless, just being shoved into a very remote area as some kind of enemy of the state. “
It is true that Ai’s trajectory is impossible to understand without knowing her late father, Ai Qing. Regarded as one of China’s greatest poets, Ai Qing was a left-wing hero and was imprisoned in 1932 for his ties to communism. Later, he was a friend and intellectual partner of Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, before falling dramatically from grace in a purge of so-called “right-wing” intellectuals. This story is told in minute but often beautiful detail in Ai’s new autobiography, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows. It’s more like a dual biography, with Ai Qing’s story taking up the first 150 pages, a useful corrective for Westerners who know little about him.
What stands out from these passages is the sheer cruelty of Mao’s ideological imposition system and the abject conditions Ai experienced as a child. The darkest period was when Ai Qing and her two sons lived in a shelter in “Little Siberia”, part of the extreme northwest of China. His “bed” was a raised earthen platform covered with wheat stalks, with a square hole in the ceiling to let in light. The paraffin lamp they used inside blackened their nostrils with soot. Rats were a constant problem, as were lice. Ai Qing’s job for much of this time was cleaning common toilets, which consisted of holes above a cesspool. In winter, this involved “breaking the frozen feces into manageable pieces and removing them from the latrine one by one.” Eventually his father was rehabilitated and the family moved to Beijing.
When I ask Ai about this period, she takes her phone and turns it to face the camera. Your homescreen is a black and white photograph of the dugout, a reminder of how difficult life can be, or at least that’s what I suppose. “Well, it was a difficult time, but you also have a lot of joy.” How is that? “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. “And he goes further:” I think it is very positive to be poor and have an empty life as a child. I think you manage to understand how vulnerable our humanity can be. “
Ai is given to bold statements like this that don’t necessarily add up. The experience of extreme poverty can be helpful to remember, but perhaps only when wealth dampens it. I’m not sure he always thinks about the implications of what he says, but I’m not sure he cares too 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 the opinions that people have about you. But it also seems to have engendered a kind of nihilism.
I ask him what motivates him. “Good question,” he answers. “You know, without your interview, I wouldn’t know what to do today. I have so many shows, but I never started a show and never communicated with a curator in my life. “If it weren’t for the people who get in touch, he says,” I could be wandering the beach, trying to find some beautiful shells. ” .
It is an extraordinary comment for someone as prolific as Ai. Every year he produces several important solo exhibitions (in 2016 he had 17, from California to New York to Turin to Athens). His work spans photography, sculpture, film, and social experiments such as Fairytale, in which he organized the visit of 1,001 Chinese travelers to the German city of Kassel. At other points he has veered into something akin to journalism, attempting to document the names of the children who died in the Sichuan earthquake when authorities failed to register them. He is assisted by a small army of assistants: he says their number varies, but “if we do big projects it would be hundreds, sometimes thousands”.
As a child, he says, he had no dreams for his future, because those things went against communist ideology. Ambition was a dirty word: “If the doors and windows are closed, you have no sight.” But even after escaping to New York in his early 20s, he wandered off and enrolled at the Parsons School of Design, but failed his final exams simply by writing his name at the top and nothing else. He rented an apartment on the Lower East Side, worked night shifts in a print shop, and lived the life of a flâneur. One night at St. Mark’s Church, he heard Allen Ginsberg recite a poem about China; contained a line on “revolutionary poets [sent] shoveling shit in Xinjiang. ” Ai approached him, explained the connection, and the two became friends. She remembers him as “a wonderful man, very kind, but with a rebellious heart.”
His wanderings also led him to the Strand Bookstore on Broadway, where one day he picked up The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, a book of the artist’s deadpan observations on fame, love, and work. It haunted him. He points to Warhol as one of the main influences in his life, alongside the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, his father and, most surprisingly, the philosopher Wittgenstein.
“I was so fascinated by this individual that he seemed so empty, but at the same time he was a true reflection of our American culture,” says de Warhol. He’s disappointed that they never met, even though he did attend a couple of gallery openings in the presence of the great man. “Warhol understood irony very well, but he also speaks the truth. Very hard truth in your writing. He was 50 years ahead of his time. He understood freedom of speech, the media and communication, he took selfies all the time, he recorded people all the time. “Do you feel that you have a lot in common as artists?” We are sincere and insincere at the same time. And we love life, but without goals, without purpose ”.
I point out that Ginsberg and Warhol, and Wittgenstein for that matter, were homosexuals. “Gay people in society have a complicated state of mind … they are generally more sensitive and intelligent,” Ai says. This is another one of those disarming claims that no one more anxious about how his words are received would avoid. I find myself trying to reshape it for him: do they have a more complicated relationship with society? “They are complicated and that complication makes them insecure, because they are different. And that insecurity makes them, you know, more sensitive – they’re artists, poets, musicians. ”I find this to be a fun and enjoyable description of the gay condition, but I’ll accept it.
Returning to Warhol: what would he have done with the Internet? Would you have enjoyed the memes and social media? Ai thinks no, he probably wouldn’t; what he liked about selfies and live broadcasts (as some of his eight-hour movies might be credibly called) was that he was the only one doing it. Ai, on the other hand, is famous for his love of Twitter, seeing 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 greater threat to humanity.
“I used to think that the danger was authoritarianism. But now, I really feel that corporate capitalism is a greater danger to the entire human environment. You are going to totally destroy human society by fostering the desire just to have more, just to make a profit. “Does that mean you have completed the circle towards communism?” I don’t think so. I hate the communist point of view. I think it just belongs to the past. “So what is your solution?” We have to go back to humanism. “But what does that mean?” Respect for life, property and people’s development, “he says, throwing myself at a bit by mentioning property, suggesting at least some sympathy for capitalism Humanism focuses on “the rights of individuals to be themselves and speak about what they are thinking.”
If other aspects of his political thinking are confused, there is no doubt that Ai’s commitment to freedom of expression. Donald Trump may pose a danger to democracy, he says, but the “far greater danger” is social media platforms that “manipulate our thinking” by banning it. The freedom to say it as he sees it is perhaps the only real guiding principle in Ai’s eclectic career, and provides another link to his father, who wrote Mao a lengthy letter about the need to preserve artists’ ability to say. the truth, whatever it is. the circumstances.
Ai tells me that she has “no plan, no goal, no purpose in my life.” But that is not entirely correct. His plan is to be himself, without filters. It’s a quest that explains their restlessness and dizzying productivity, which, even during the pandemic, resulted in more shows, more public art, 10,000 printed face masks, the Wuhan movie, and of course the book. I ask him what he thinks an artist’s work is. “An artist’s job is not to have a job,” he laughs. What matters is “being alert” and “speaking the truth.” Ai Qing would certainly agree.
1000 years of joys and sorrows by Ai Weiwei, translated by Allan H Barr, is published on November 2 by The Bodley Head.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism