Art and activism: Ai Weiwei

China's most famous artist speaks to the Beijing press for the first time in years about his art

Gao Yuan
In the years he’s been ignored by his own city, Ai Weiwei has become the world’s most famous Beijinger. In an exclusive interview with Time Out, he speaks to the Beijing press for the first time in years about his art, how he doesn’t consider himself that important, and why he still has hope for the future

There are no police officers outside Ai Weiwei’s grey brick studio when we visit him on a chilly Saturday morning. This in and of itself is a noticeable change from the status quo. Until recently, the plainclothes officers continuously parked outside Ai’s Caochangdi studio were as constant a presence as the cats roaming his compound, or the flowers he places in the basket of a bicycle out front every day.

Those flowers are part of an ongoing art piece called ‘With flowers’, a subtle form of protest on Ai’s part (see an example in our gallery of selected Instagrams from Ai Weiwei). Every morning, fresh flowers are placed in the basket of a bike outside his studio. There may now be no police officers outside, but he continues to put flowers in the basket – he’s still waiting for his passport.

Despite a diminished profile in his home city, Ai remains a huge-name artist around the world. Through Western eyes, he’s arguably the world’s most famous living Chinese man.

Do you think certain attitudes towards you have changed?
Now they’re much more relaxed. They’re much more open towards me and they’ve shown a very friendly face. Nobody follows me if I go out – there’s no car outside. I can travel within China quite freely. They’ve given me maximum freedom, I should say, to do my work and even [the freedom to] talk to you. So I consider that a very friendly attitude towards me.

Why do you think this is?
Well, that’s something you can never understand. As the authorities are in such a superior position, they never have to tell you why. If they’re nice to you or not nice to you, either way you don’t really understand why. It’s frustrating. I think you can [publish this interview]. It’s shifting. Even the police gave me very clear signals that it’s shifting. Some sites on the Chinese internet even have my story and photos, which you could never see before. Now you can see a lot. But I’m very happy you’re the first ones to do this [run an interview].

Do you miss being able to travel when you exhibit abroad? You recently had a big exhibition at London’s Lisson Gallery…
I miss London. London is what we can really call a ‘civil society’. England and British culture today is very sophisticated. I enjoyed every minute when I was there and hopefully one day I can visit again. When I was released from detention, I was so touched and shocked to see people in London and in the art community give me such support: the Tate Modern, Anish Kapoor, and many others. I think sensing that made my personal condition feel acceptable because I knew the voice was out there.

How do you manage the installation of your work when you can’t be there?
I may not be the best artist, but I really am the best remote control artist. I use the internet, use Skype, and just use communication. I’ve been doing dozens of shows without being there and I still communicate with the organiser and the viewers. I really enjoy it and really save a lot of travelling time. I’m not good with shaking hands [anyway] and [not going to shows means] I can spend more time concentrating on making work. It has its good parts.

Has your art been interfered with since your detention?
No. They’ve been very clear in that sense and – I have to say something good about them – they’ve never tried to extend their power to my artwork. Although, however I explain it, I don’t think they’re really satisfied with the result. They think I must have some kind of [hidden] meaning there or some kind of conspiracy behind my art.


They don’t think you do art for art’s sake?
There were several different kinds of suspicions. Now I think they’re closer to the conclusion that I’m an artist, I’m just on my own, and this [politics] is really not an area I should touch.

Do you see your art and activism as separate?
No. My activism is actually only for my art, for my very essential rights. To protect those rights, I became a so-called activist. It’s inseparable from my art. Art needs protection. Through art I make the argument and through my argument I may make art.

Do you worry that by having such a high profile you might overshadow those who don’t have the kind of voice you do?
I think this is a world with competition. Even for freedom, there’s still competition. I don’t think you can really overshadow a voice if that voice has an idea behind it. Of course there are many voices and if [those voices] are really not original, they should be shouted down. I don’t see why there’s no voice overshadowing my voice. I would love to have that. I didn’t even know I was an international celebrity [for a long time], because in the years I became famous, I wasn’t out in the world – I was here in my studio. I told the authorities that they’ve made me much more popular in the past few years. Actually, I didn’t do much of that [political] work, but because there aren’t many people doing things like that, or because I’m an artist, my voice is always amplified to a degree.

Are you hopeful you’ll ever see a Beijing show?
Yes. I’m a naive person. I like to think during this interview someone will knock on the door and say ‘lets make a show here’. I’m not actively trying to make it happen, because my effort doesn’t count, but I’m always ready to have a show here. But I’m a little bit naive. everyday when I wake up, I become a new naive person. In the evening I become so desperate and disappointed, but in the morning I’m refreshed again.

How does your art get made?
I make works that relate to my condition. I’m not trying to romanticise or even to explore that condition, but I do feel that everything you touch has meaning. If there’s a meaning you don’t understand, you need to take another look and pay attention. A lot of times anger or frustration come from unfamiliarity. Often the condition is uneasy; you feel it’s awkward. But when you think of a work like the handcuffs made of jade with traditional craftsmanship, it becomes jewellery – then it’s not awkward. It’s also very Chinese because jade was always a material with a highly ritual aspect. Confucius always said a gentleman must have jade to accompany him in his life – Chinese culture worships this material. You can now buy Ai Weiwei magnets, umbrellas, and any number of trinkets.

How do you feel about this mass commercialisation of your image?
I think unfortunately, or, I don’t know, even fortunately, commercialisation is still the most powerful expression in our society – more so than any ideas. People simply use money to measure everything, even our deepest ideas. I have no problem with people using my image, whatever the way, as long as it carries symbolic meaning. Of course I hate the things that aren’t well done, that are trash or crap or whatever, but in my position I can’t really control that. even if I wanted to control it, it wouldn’t be possible.


How do you feel about the recent destruction of one of your repainted Han Dynasty urns by an artist in Miami?

I can understand any action that tries to change a form or change people’s concept of value. generations of artists have tried to under take actions which interfere with our understanding of value. But, of course, we all have to face the consequences of it, other wise the action is fake. Only you bear certain responsibility, otherwise your act can’t be justified. So what am I going to say about it? I have no complaint about my condition today, because I take the consequences [of my actions]. If an idea has any value, someone has to pay for it.

You run a very large studio and much of your artwork is outsourced to craftspeople. Do you worry about your work becoming less personal?
No. I hope my work can be as impersonal as possible because I don’t think I’m that important. I’m the one who initiates it, who guides it, and is controlling the idea, but I don’t care if it’s mine or not. People say, ‘Oh, you didn’t make your work.’ Van Gogh made the brush strokes, but he never made the colour. The canvasses were never made by him. The strokes are easy. I can produce many strokes if I like. People have too many fantasies about what art is about. Art is about ideas, about decisions, about expression, and about communication. I’m really good at expression and communication. Warhol is a perfect model for me, everybody benefits from Warhol’s model.

If your work’s about communication, do you see your perennial internet presence as an extension of your artwork?
Actually, the internet is not an extension of my artwork; my artwork’s an extension of the internet. If there’s no internet, there’s no Ai Weiwei of today. I’m a pure product of the internet.

Check out our gallery of selected Instagrams from Ai Weiwei (@aiww) for a glimpse at his daily life.