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Ai Weiwei on Art and Society

August 3, 2012

“Contemporary Art in China Is Just a Part of Fashion”*

An interview with Ai Weiwei, 2008

As the acclaimed 2012 documentary film “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry by Alison Klayman brings the story of Ai Weiwei’s activism to cinema audiences, HRIC presents an English translation of a 2008 Chinese magazine interview with Ai Weiwei in which he shared his insights and views on a wide range of topics.

 “Art is really nothing. There are things more important than art, or you can say that there are things with greater relevance to us,” Ai Weiwei told his interviewer.

Among the topics Ai spoke about are the 2008 Beijing Olympics, his love for cities, his anger, and the importance of freedom.“When a society doesn’t encourage the spirit or values of the humanities, then it is not a civil society. When it lacks a democratic consciousness and a space for free thought, it is just a barren land,” he said.


Interviewer: You’ve expressed a great deal of dissatisfaction with the Beijing Olympics, with the Olympic organizing committee, the opening and closing ceremonies, and how the relevant policy was actually implemented, etc. Aren’t you worried that mainstream society would resent you for that?

Ai Weiwei: Society should allow and encourage individual viewpoints. Mine is just one in 1.3 billion, and is unlikely to have much impact. A society that makes people lose their own points of view surely cannot be a healthy society.

Interviewer: The Olympics were highly successful and widely praised. But your attitude was different. You criticized Zhang Yimou[1] very bluntly, saying that he was a spokesperson for a “servile culture,” someone who had lost his soul.

Ai Weiwei: Let’s talk about the Olympics first then. Zhang Yimou isn’t even worth mentioning. First, why did China make a bid to host the Olympics? It did it because it wanted the world to recognize China’s new worth, and to make real contact with the world. This is something that the regime had wanted to do in the decades since Reform and Opening Up. The original intent of the bid and the end results were completely opposite. The Olympics turned into a farce staged for foreigners. The event might as well have been held on the moon – there wouldn’t have been any big difference – because there was no true democratic participation.

Beijing set up all kinds of restrictions, creating a really tense atmosphere. The migrant workers were forced to leave Beijing, which was just not fair. After all, it was the workers who built the “new Beijing” and the Bird’s Nest. The Olympics had only just begun and the newspapers were all saying, “The greatest support Beijingers can give to the Olympics is to stay home and watch TV.” This was very comical – what kind of Olympics would they be without public participation? Simply trying to please foreign countries and only wanting to avoid security breaches – these are antiquated ways of doing things. If something like this could win approval – that is, using government administrative measures to put up a performance just for show – then no country in the world other than North Korea could put on better Olympics than China. In refusing to let citizens participate, the government kept the Olympics far from real passion and joy. When the Olympics were over, the feeling in Beijing was odd. Oh, when hundreds of thousands of flower pots were removed, what was left? This was a meaningless event. Spending so much to create a tense mood and they called it a “success”?

Interviewer: The media reported….

Ai Weiwei: “The media reported.” The media always report that it has been a success. What media? How many media outlets tell the truth? The more unsuccessful things are, the more they are called successful. It’s like the launch of Shenzhou 7[2] – they reported two days before the launch that it had already been successfully launched. They do not tell the truth; they go against their consciences and deceive the public – we can call them media? No matter which Olympics, even at the most successful ones, there will be critical voices. There’s nothing in the world that cannot be criticized. The Chinese media, though, did not have the slightest criticism for the Beijing Olympics. Every day it was all “gold medals.” What use are those gold medals? Do those gold medals have any true relevance to the physical shape of our countrymen? What is relevant to the physical shape of our countrymen is the melamine-tainted Sanlu milk powder. It is laughable. The media are a group that goes against its conscience.

Interviewer: You just asked what the Olympics have left us. They have at least left us the Bird’s Nest.

Ai Weiwei: In a society that has turned away from democracy and its citizens, and has turned away from people’s participation, if the Bird’s Nest isn’t bullshit, then it’s just a heap of steel. The Bird’s Nest can be a part of the city only when this society is more free and democratic, when people are able to freely enjoy this type of architecture.

Interviewer: The numbers show that more people visited the Bird’s Nest than the Forbidden City during Golden Week[3]. As its general advisor, how do you feel about this excitement?

Ai Weiwei: I have no feeling. This city itself should be progressing. I feel only that the Chinese society is progressing too slowly. We should have had “Pig’s Nest” and “Dog’s Nest” and “Cat’s Nest” long ago. There should have been even better architecture after the Bird’s Nest. It is this [creating architecture for the people] that is the common goal and value of human development.

Interviewer: It’s been reported that you refuse to be photographed with the Bird’s Nest. Is this true? Why?

Ai Weiwei: A lot of foreign media want to take pictures of me with the Bird’s Nest, but I’m not interested. Why would I want to go all the way there to take a photo? How boring. 

Interviewer: Is that your way of showing your dissatisfaction with the Olympics?

Ai Weiwei: That’s part of it. I feel that if you are going to have this kind of Olympics, then it would have been better not to have them. This is a systemic problem.

Interviewer: You have spoken so many truths. You’re taking great risks!

Ai Weiwei: You take great risks even if you don’t speak the truth. The children who drank the tainted milk – who did they offend? They couldn’t even talk and there were stones in their kidneys. In China, everything you do comes with risks. It is because others don’t tell the truth that you have to take risks. It was because we didn’t speak the truth for so long that these children took risks. No one can even conceive of a way to escape this responsibility.

Interviewer: You were recently ranked by Art Review as the 47th among the “world’s100 most influential people in contemporary art” – the highest ranking Chinese person on the list. But you said that you should have been ranked first.

Ai Weiwei: Everyone has his or her own standards for judging. And theirs was “overall influence.” Everyone believes that he or she should be number one. I happen to be number 47, not on top and not on the bottom.

Interviewer: Don’t you worry that people will criticize you as being “arrogant”?

Ai Weiwei: Why arrogant? I am first a person, and then I am Ai Weiwei. If I’m arrogant, then I’m arrogant for the sake of people.

Interviewer: We find that you – an important contemporary artist – don’t seem to take art seriously.

Ai Weiwei: Art is really nothing. There are things more important than art, or you can say that there are things with greater relevance to us.

Interviewer: You’ve said that you like being an artist because artists don’t have to do anything. But in fact, you do everything – you paint, take photographs, design buildings, plan exhibits, and you’re even an active blogger.

Ai Weiwei: Art is an escape from society. You can regard everything that I do as a living thing. Since I’m alive, I must prove that I am alive by respecting my own interests. There is no need to avoid certain things because of what you are. You still must face them. When you see things that are unreasonable, you can form your own opinions and try to make some changes that are within your capability, and if you believe that it can be changed. You will have many disappointments, there will be strife, and then there could be even more disappointments.

Interviewer: Even now, when contemporary art is flourishing, do you still believe that making art is a way to escape society?

Ai Weiwei: Contemporary art is not at all flourishing. The contemporary art that we see today is little more than a quasi-art phenomenon that looks like art. For contemporary art to truly flourish, it should be directly involved in the transformation of the society, and it should have an impact on the aesthetics and ethics of the society. Contemporary art in China is obviously just a part of fashion. There have been no real efforts made in this regard, to produce real impact.

Interviewer: But it’s the third biggest type of investment following stocks and real estate.

Ai Weiwei: That has nothing to do with art flourishing. One can only say that it can become the third largest bubble after stocks and real estate.

Interviewer: Why do you blog? Do you have that much free time?

Ai Weiwei: The Internet is the greatest thing that has happened to China. It has changed the traditional sense of how to get and present information. It makes it possible for citizens to directly obtain information and voice their aspirations. Even though the right to have one’s say is limited, it is already completely different. The traditional media don’t tell the truth or reveal the real situation, so the spirit of the media is completely obliterated. They have completely lost the public trust, and are heading toward decline, step by step. The Internet provides a more direct and forthright way of doing things.

Interviewer: We’re curious: You dabble in so many things. In the end, what do you want to do?

Ai Weiwei: In the end, what I most want to do is kill time. Having arrived, you have to walk, however you do it. So just ramble.

Interviewer: Ramble away your whole life?

Ai Weiwei: Yes.

Interviewer: Didn’t you say that Chinese design is even worse than Chinese soccer?

Ai Weiwei: Chinese design is worse than Chinese soccer, and Chinese education is far worse than Chinese soccer. I think that in China as soon as you get near the system, you’ll find it filled with mistakes, rotten, and decrepit. This is the reality of China.

Interviewer: So, we don’t have any masters in China then?

Ai Weiwei: “Masters” have to be people who change human kind’s aesthetic criteria, who expand our horizon. Do we have people like that? When a society doesn’t encourage the spirit or values of the humanities, then it is not a civil society. When it lacks a democratic consciousness and a space for free thought, it is just a barren land.

Interviewer: At this moment, do you feel it is barren here?

Ai Weiwei: This is an extremely barren land.

Interviewer: Some people joke that your luck began with this big building that is your office. Is this true?

Ai Weiwei: It did indeed. In 1999, I built this building. That was the sixth year after I had returned to China, and I hadn’t done anything at all. I published some underground art publications, and created a repository for Chinese art documents, but I didn’t really do much. After I built the building, I took up architecture, then all sorts of other things.

Interviewer: You’ve lived here almost ten years, what do you think of it now?

Ai Weiwei: It’s wonderful, very extravagant. There’s plenty of sunlight, there are more than ten cats who share the space and sunlight with me, and there are many friends who come to visit from all corners of the world.

Interviewer: This property has a lease of 20 years, with 11 years left. What will you do when the lease is up? 

Ai Weiwei: My time will be up too; it may well be that my time will be up before the property’s.

Interviewer: Oh, don’t be so pessimistic. 

Ai Weiwei: I’m not being pessimistic but objective. I have no future, I have only today. 

Interviewer: After building this big house, do you feel that architecture is an easy thing to do?

Ai Weiwei: When the house was built, they said that this was very good architecture. Ah, so architecture is this simple. I must be a born architect. When I was young and living in Xinjiang, I built stoves and hot walls. After that, I built bookshelves and a bed by myself. I must have been born to do this.

Interviewer: This might make many students and professors of architecture sad. 

Ai Weiwei: Those professors are born idiots, and furthermore, they lead their students astray. The students they produce are even more stupid. School is the place where stupid people go. They will inevitably get the same result.

Interviewer: And after the Bird’s Nest? Do you still find architecture simple?

Ai Weiwei: Very simple. With the Bird’s Nest, we had it planned out within a few hours. The plans went through a number of revisions, but the initial concept took shape in just a few hours. Good architecture should be very simple.

Interviewer: What do you find very difficult?

Ai Weiwei: There are certain things that are too difficult. Take, for example, Chinese culture. I feel that China can be compared to a group of people living together in an old house who have formed very ingrained habits and ways of doing things. Even though you know obviously that these habits and ways of doing things have caused these people to live unusually sad lives, it is too difficult to try to change them. It’s hard to alter people’s habits and instincts.

Interviewer: Did you choose to live in this remote place because you don’t much care for the city?

Ai Weiwei: That, in fact, is not true. It’s because I have no other place to stay. To the contrary, I love the city. When I was growing up in the Gobi Desert in Xinjiang, I came to fully understand the hardships of farm life. City is passion, power, efficiency — all the things I like are related to cities. But the city I’m talking about is not Beijing. Beijing doesn’t count as a city. Beijing is a place farthest from humanity.

Interviewer: You’ve been to so many countries, lived in all kinds of cities. Which one fits your idea of a city most?

Ai Weiwei: Cities all have different characteristics. Talking about them one by one isn’t very interesting. I can only say that Beijing is the worst of cities.

Interviewer: What do you appreciate in a city?

Ai Weiwei: First of all, a city should be more highly efficient and should have a higher degree of freedom [than Beijing]. It should satisfy our different desires and possibilities – these are the reasons why cities are formed. Their intensity and density are what make them different from farms or villages. It is only when people can share enjoyment and get support that a city is healthy. Obviously, Beijing does not have these characteristics.

Interviewer: You’ve said that only when cities develop naturally, even to the point of disorder can they be called good.

Ai Weiwei: Correct. The reason for cities is precisely to enable them to have greater liberalization and diversity, and these characteristics are not found in any other man-made environments. A city planned by force is inhuman and unfit to live in. But this isn’t the fault of the city, but, rather, the fault of some kind of mechanism. Obviously they are squandering natural resources and destroying the possibilities for cities.

Interviewer: Have you ever dreamed of having a kind of harmonious life?

Ai Weiwei: One cannot avoid conflicts in life; conflicts and clashes are the main characteristics of life. Harmony can only be an aspiration, it is definitely not reality.

Interviewer: I feel that you’re very baffling. You say “I’m not anything. I’m a jack of all trades, but master of none.” But without a doubt you are the most important artist in our era.

Ai Weiwei: Existence itself is a paradox. All of us are conflicted and divided inside, in a predicament from which we cannot extricate ourselves. This condition may be more clearly reflected in some people.

Interviewer: Have you thought about what factors play a crucial role?

Ai Weiwei: It may have something to do with the errors in gene sequencing, but this isn’t something that I’d know, nor do I have an interest to know. I think it is very hard to find someone more mediocre than I. Honestly, I am indeed an extremely boring person.

Interviewer: Many people appraise you as being “a born rebel and saboteur, outrageous, uninhibited, and indifferent to fame or fortune.” Is this correct?

Ai Weiwei: Everyone tries to use a crude value system to appraise the world around them. These appraisals themselves have no color, smell, or temperature. Life itself is much more cruel and violent [than measurable by this kind of value system], and even more incomprehensible. I don’t pay much attention to these sorts of appraisals

Interviewer: Why are you always so angry? Why are you so disdainful about so many things? There’s a poem that goes, “Why are my eyes always full of tears? It’s because I love this land so deeply.” [A slight misquote from a poem by Ai Qing, Ai Weiwei’s father.] Does this describe how you feel?

Ai Weiwei: We belong to different generations, so our issues are completely different. If there are tears in my eyes, it must be because something dirty has fallen in them. My anger may have to do with all the humiliation suffered by individuals and humanity as a whole, as well as the human condition.

Interviewer: Is this pity?

Ai Weiwei: It’s self pity. I’m part of it. 

Interviewer: It is said that you have achieved great fame and honor here. If it were someone else, even if you were not deeply grateful, you would have been “pacified.”

Ai Weiwei: I feel that one has already received the greatest honor possible from the moment one is born, no matter what one’s circumstances are. Any other honor would only diminish this honor. I’m fighting for that highest honor of man.

Interviewer: You once said: If words were to be etched onto my tombstone, it should read “a classic split personality, representing all the flaws of his time.”

Ai Weiwei: I can’t live up to my words and my thinking is fragmented. “Split personality” is a more figurative description. As for “classic,” I can only say that in me, the split personality is comparatively more obvious.

Interviewer: Live as a free man – have you attained it?

Ai Weiwei: No one can attain freedom. Freedom is an attitude, it’s an orientation toward a value; it doesn’t really exist. You can continuously move toward freedom; the ultimate freedom is death.



*The Chinese original of this text, published in 2009 on ArtsBj.com, http://www.artsbj.com/Html/observe/zhpl/wypl/meishu/6265089765722.html, is adapted from a 2008 interview conducted by and published in the monthly magazine, Du Zhe: Yuanchuangban [读者: 原创版, unofficial translation: “Readers: Original Edition”].

Translator’s notes

[1] Zhang Yimou, a Fifth Generation filmmaker, directed the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

[2] The Shenzhou 7 mission was China’s third manned spaceflight, and took place on September 25, 2008. On that day, before the launch, Xinhua News Agency published an in-depth article dated September 27, 2008, about the successful launch and the mission. The reporting was called a “technical error” by Xinhua. See “China fakes news from space,” The Telegraph, September 26, 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/3082804/China-fakes-reports-from-space.html.

[3] Refers to any of the three annual weeklong major national holidays – Chinese New Year, Labor Day (May 1), and National Day (October 1).

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