“It’s so positive to be poor as a child. You understand how vulnerable our humanity can be ‘| Ai Weiwei – .

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“It’s so positive to be poor as a child. You understand how vulnerable our humanity can be ‘| Ai Weiwei – .


Ai Weiwei is difficult to pin down. During the first few minutes of our Zoom call, his eyes teary at his computer, I think he’s talking to me from his new base in Portugal. My mistake – it’s Vienna, where he’s planning a show for next March. A year and a half ago, Ai was giving interviews about his new life in Britain; before that, it was Germany, the country that offered him refuge when he finally left China in 2015, after years of stalking by authorities and a period of detention. So where does he actually live?

“Yes, the question always comes up,” he said sheepishly. He moved to Cambridge so that his son, Ai Lao, could improve his English. Her son is still there, but in the meantime, “I found a piece of land near Lisbon, so I’m kinda settled there, but it’s only been a year”.

A star of the Chinese art scene from the mid-1990s, Ai became a household name in the West after helping to design the “bird’s nest” stadium in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, before rejecting its use. as “cultivation for propaganda purposes” and refusing to attend the opening ceremony. His many projects since have continued to guide the Chinese state, up to and including Coronation, its 2020 documentary on the coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan.

You’d expect an artist as famous as him to take a lot of international travel, of course. But there is something more to its uprooting. He explains, somewhat gnomically: “Once you have no place to go, you can go anywhere.

Do you mean that once you’ve left your homeland, you can settle wherever you want? The word does not suit him. “I am still a Chinese citizen, holder of a passport. But I don’t feel like it’s my homeland. I speak Chinese and I am a typical Chinese – but I have never had a house there. The year I was born, my father went into exile. So my story began without a house, just pushed back to a very remote region as a kind of enemy of the state. “

Ai Weiwei with his father, Ai Qing, in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1959. Photography: Courtesy of Ai Weiwei

It is true that Ai’s trajectory is impossible to understand without knowing his late father, Ai Qing. Considered one of the greatest Chinese poets, Ai Qing was a leftist hero, having been jailed in 1932 for his links to communism. He was later a friend and intellectual training partner of Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, before falling dramatically out of favor 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. Rather, it is a double biography, with Ai Qing’s story taking up the first 150 pages, a useful fix for Westerners who don’t know much about him.

What emerges from these passages is the outright cruelty of Mao’s ideological application system and the abject conditions that Ai experienced as a child. The darkest time was when Ai Qing and her two sons lived in a dugout canoe in “Little Siberia”, part of the far northwest of China. Their “bed” was a raised platform of earth covered with stalks of wheat, with a square hole in the roof to let in light. The kerosene lamp they used inside made their nostrils black with soot. Rats were a constant problem, as were lice. Ai Qing’s job for much of this time was to clean the communal toilet, which consisted of holes above a cesspool. In winter, this involved “breaking the frozen stools into manageable pieces and taking them out of the latrine one by one.” Eventually, her father was rehabilitated and the family moved to Beijing.

When I ask Ai about this period, he picks up his phone and turns it to face the camera. Its home screen is a black and white photograph of the canoe, a reminder of the hardship of life – or at least that’s what I’m guessing. “Well, it’s been a difficult time, but you also have a lot of joy. ” How? ‘Or’ What? “You feel safe. You are down there, you are on a different level from the others. They are all above you, but you feel safe. He goes further: “I think it’s so positive to be poor, and to have a life without childishness. I think you are establishing an understanding of the vulnerability of our humanity.

Ai Weiwei’s home screen, showing the canoe where his family lived. Photograph: The Guardian

Ai is given to bold statements like this that don’t necessarily stack up. The experience of overwhelming poverty can be helpful in turning back the clock, but perhaps only when it is cushioned by wealth. I’m not sure he’s still thinking about the implications of what he’s saying, but I’m not sure he cares much either. Perhaps this is the legacy of his childhood: When you’ve already been rejected in the most extreme way, there’s not much to fear from the opinion people have of you. But it also seems to have engendered a kind of nihilism.

I ask what motivates him. “Good question,” he replies. “You know, without your interview, I wouldn’t know what to do today. I have so many exhibitions, but I have never initiated an exhibition and I have never contacted a curator in my life. If it weren’t for the people who come in contact, he says, “I might be wandering the beach, trying to find some nice seashells.

It’s an amazing comment for someone as prolific as Ai. Each year, he realizes several major personal exhibitions (in 2016, he had 17, from California to New York via Turin and Athens). His work includes photography, sculpture, film, and social experiences such as Fairytale, in which he arranged 1001 Chinese travelers to visit the German city of Kassel. At other times, he has strayed into something resembling journalism, attempting to document the names of children killed 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 make big plans it would be hundreds, sometimes thousands”.

As a child, he said, he had no dreams for his future, because such 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 City in his early 20s, he drifted off, enrolling in Parsons School of Design but failing his final exams by simply writing his name on top and nothing else. He rented an apartment on the Lower East Side, worked nights at a printing house, and led a loitering life. At St. Mark’s Church one evening he listened to Allen Ginsberg recite a poem about China; it contained a line on “revolutionary poets [sent] shoveling shit in Xinjiang ”. Ai approached him, explained the connection to him, and the two became friends. He remembers him as “a wonderful man, very kind, but with a rebellious heart”.

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

His wanderings also took him to the Strand Bookstore on Broadway, where he once picked up The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, a book about the artist’s unmoved observations on fame, love, and work. It obsessed him. He points to Warhol as one of the major influences in his life, alongside conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, his father and, more surprisingly, the philosopher Wittgenstein.

“I was so fascinated by this individual who seemed so empty, but at the same time was a true reflection of our American culture,” he says of Warhol. He is disappointed that they have never met, although he has attended a few vernissages in the presence of the great man. “Warhol understood the irony so well, but also told the truth. Very harsh truth in his writing. He was 50 years ahead of his time. He understood freedom of speech, media and communication, he took selfies all the time, recorded people all the time. Does he feel they have a lot in common as artists? “We are both sincere and insincere. And we love life, but without goals, without a goal.

I would point out that Ginsberg and Warhol – and Wittgenstein for that matter – were homosexuals. “Gay people in society have a complicated mindset… they’re generally more sensitive and smarter,” says Ai. It’s another one of those disarming statements that someone more anxious about how their 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 this complication gives them insecurity, because they are different. And that insecurity makes them, you know, more sensitive – they’re artists, poets, musicians. I think it’s a funny description of the gay condition, but I’ll take it.

Back to Warhol: what would he have done with the Internet? Would he have enjoyed memes and social media? Ai thinks no, he probably wouldn’t. Ai, meanwhile, is famous for his love of Twitter, seeing it as a tool for self-expression and connection. And while you imagine Warhol would have reveled in our current state of advanced capitalism, for Ai there is no greater threat to humanity.

“Before, I thought the danger came from authoritarianism. But now I really feel that corporate capitalism is a greater danger to the entire human environment. It will totally destroy human society by encouraging the desire for more, just for the sake of profit. Does that mean he has come full circle in communism? ” I do not think so. I hate the communist point of view. I think it only belongs to the past. So what is his solution? “We have to come back to humanism. What does this mean, however? “Respect for life, property and the development of individuals,” he says, slightly baffling me by mentioning property, which suggests at least some sympathy for capitalism. Humanism centers “the right of individuals to be themselves and to express themselves on what they think”.

While other aspects of his political thinking are confused, there is no doubt about Ai’s commitment to free speech. Donald Trump may indeed pose a danger to democracy, he says, but the “far greater danger” are social media platforms that “manipulate our thinking” by banning it. The freedom to say it as he sees it is perhaps the only true guiding principle of Ai’s eclectic career, and provides another link to his father, who wrote Mao a long letter about the need to preserve the ability. artists to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances.

Ai tells me that he has “no plan, no goal, no goal in my life.” But this is not entirely correct. His plan is to be himself, unfiltered. It’s a quest that explains its hustle and bustle and dizzying productivity, which, even during the pandemic, resulted in more shows, more public art, 10,000 printed masks, the Wuhan film and, of course, the delivered. I ask him what he thinks of the profession of artist. “The work of an artist is not to have a job,” he laughs. What matters is to “remain vigilant” and “speak truthfully”. Ai Qing would definitely agree.

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

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