Ai Weiwei
Photo by Mike Marsland

Ai Weiwei: “The power designs itself to crush you”

Short Profile

Name: 艾未未 Ai Weiwei
DOB: 28 August 1957
Place of birth: Beijing, China
Occupation: Artist, activist

Mr. Ai Weiwei, what does rebellion mean to you as an artist?

Rebellion to me means that you cannot settle down. You are always ill at ease, ready to go in the opposite direction or to be a failure. For many people rebellion is some kind of privileged condition and some even think that it puts them in a position of superiority when it comes to taking action. I think rebellion is the minimum state of mind a human can have.

So would you call yourself a rebel?

I am. I think everybody is.

True, but not everyone’s sense of rebellion has landed them under house arrest.

I’m a free person now, I can decide what to do. When you’re in detention every second, the authorities are trying to tell you that you are not free. They are clearly telling you that, so actually you are under physical surveillance, people follow you everywhere and they try to present themselves to you to make you believe you’re never far from their control. That is very bad psychologically. You are victimized by this kind of power that they have over your life. They can do anything to you. You constantly feel that you are vulnerable, that you can be hurt and your family and your friends can also be hurt.

“I wouldn’t say that I have survived, rather that I’m surviving. I do everything I can to speak out and make sure that I keep my humanity.”

Is there something about being an artist that makes you feel like these vulnerable feelings are worth it?

Being an artist means you are dealing with situations which can include very harsh human conditions. I’m fortunate enough to be in the kind of position that I can overcome by successfully developing my own language or skills or even a certain kind of wisdom. But I would say in 99 percent of the cases, humans aren’t so fortunate, the power designs itself to crush you. They make sure that they will succeed and almost no one can survive under those conditions — because we are human. This inhumanity is so intelligently designed to destroy humanity.

Would you say you’ve survived?

I wouldn’t say that I have survived, rather that I’m surviving. I do everything I can to speak out and make sure that I keep my humanity. I reach out and try to build up some language to build up communication, and as long as I can do that, I am surviving.

Has art helped in that journey of survival?

Clearly, my art has this element of psychological therapy. It’s a game for me to recognize who I am. We often say that we know who we are but I don’t think so. We only know by discovering it, so there is always something that we don’t know and that becomes the property of ourselves. I believe human consciousness and awareness can only be discovered through struggle. Without that struggle we are giving up the possibility of life being a miracle.

But for the average viewer looking in, they see you as a world famous artist who puts on exhibitions all over the world — it could be that they don’t recognize your struggle.

Hmmm, well, a struggle can be an inner struggle, too. Nobody can really know what is deeply in someone’s heart or mind firsthand. How do we measure the deep pain in someone’s heart? That is very hard to measure. Every struggle is a struggle for yourself, you are not responsible for other people’s understanding of that.

Sam Rockwell said that life is all about struggle, that we are not supposed to be happy all the time. Would you say you have a similarly frustrated outlook?

No, I’m extremely grateful for life. I think it’s a miracle, every second. You know the second before you sat down here, I didn’t know who I was going to talk to and what kind of questions there was going to be… I don’t know the answers beforehand; everything really comes from the conversation. I am so grateful for this kind of pure human contact.

Do you think that things like technology and social media have made people forget how to actually be with each other in that pure way?

I think so. I started on Instagram from zero. I started from nothing. I had never touched a computer, and I didn’t know how to type. I learned how to communicate through certain servers in China, and I found out it’s important to be online. But I also don’t know why we have given up our reality. I think to have a conversation is more important. I think that’s when we really recognize the strongest quality of our human condition. And I like that, to have dinner with friends, and also with enemies — we all eat, after all.

“I never really decided to be an artist myself. I have simply been called an artist by some people and it’s easier to say that that is art.”

How are you helping to foster this kind of communication?

I like giving culture talks. I like to show works in galleries and when people talk to me about film or politics or culture. But as an artist sometimes I’m asked about this line, this abstract texture, this lighting or how it’s related to another painting and I really don’t know the answer! I don’t like feeling that way.

It can be difficult to find the right words to explain your art.

I never really decided to be an artist myself. I have simply been called an artist by some people and it’s easier to say that that is art. Of course I’m glad when people call me an artist or an activist — or now they are giving even more names to me. I have made two films about the refugee crisis, and we will be releasing a third one soon. A few years ago, I even tried out making music in order to see how bad I can be. I found out that I was truly bad! But I wanted to also prove to other people that if I can do music, anyone can do music. And probably better!

Is it important to try those things that you might not be very good at?

I think it’s important just to do anything. You think you know but you don’t, so by making these little gestures, you find out who you are.