Jailed artist Ai Weiwei embraced the internet in his art. In a prophetic chat with Hans Ulrich Obrist, he saw trouble ahead
I interviewed Ai Weiwei as part of The Interview Project, a collection of 2,000 hours of conversations with artists across the world. While I had known Ai since the 1990s as an artist, I was interested to find he was also becoming successful for his architecture. I was fascinated by this. How does an artist have the ability and capacity to work outside of art? When I started to see Ai more frequently, I realised it is almost impossible to grasp him in one interview, because he has different studios for different realities: art, architecture and design. This interview with Ai, one of many I conducted over a number of years about the many facets of his work, took place in September 2006 at his studio home in Beijing.
Obrist So you use this digital camera for your blog?
Ai Yes, the blog is really new territory. It’s such a wonderful thing. You can talk immediately to people you don’t know. It’s like going on the street and finding a lady on a corner. You talk directly to her. And then maybe you start fighting, or making love.
I didn’t have a computer and hadn’t done this before. In the beginning, I put up my old writing and my work, then I started to type. I was totally seduced. Yesterday, I put up maybe 12 blog posts after I came back.
Obrist Last night?
Ai Yes, 12 posts. You can put a hundred photos in one blog entry. People often tell me, “You have so many photos from one day!” Photos can be about anything. I think that’s really information, a free exchange — a careless, responsibility-free solution that reflects my condition very well.
Obrist How many people visit your blog?
Ai In one day, there are 100,000 visitors.
Obrist More than any exhibition ever.
Ai Yes, ever. I have my opening every minute if I want it. And this is very important to me. The moment I touch the keyboard, a girl, an old man or a farmer can read my post and say, “Look at all this, it’s very different, this guy is crazy.”
Obrist So you take photographs every day, wherever you are.
Ai Yes, whatever the situation. I guess I was overwhelmed because when we grew up, we had no chance for any form of freedom of expression. You could even report your father or your mother to the authorities if they said something wrong. Even to this day, people still say you should protect yourself, that you shouldn’t say so much in your blog. But I think everybody has to do things their own way. So far, it’s been okay. I often talk about human conditions and social problems in my blog. I think I’m the only one.
A lot of people have said to me, “Oh, you cannot stop blogging. You should be careful. If they arrest you, what are we going to do?” It’s so sentimental: “We need you; looking at your blog has become a part of our lives.” It’s very funny.
Obrist So people care.
Ai People will wait. If I don’t update my blog, they will wait the whole night so they can be the first one to see the new content. They call being the first to comment shafa [Chinese for sofa; on popular blogs, readers compete to leave the first comment on new content, usually an exclamation of “Shafa”, as if the commenter were the first in a room to sit down on a couch]. So, no matter how late I come home, I always put a few words up there.
I can’t tell now when it’ll be stopped. Maybe it’ll be stopped by the authorities. Once, they came and said, “Hey, we’re going to report your blog. It is sensitive. Why don’t you take down some pages?” They negotiated with me, but they were very polite. I said, “Come on, this is a game. I play my part, you play your part. You can block it if you must, because it’s very easy for you to block it. But I cannot self-censor, because that is the only reason I have the blog.” So they thought about it, and they called me back and said, “Because of the political situation, we really respect what you are doing.”
I think China is at a very interesting moment. The techniques of the internet have become a major way of liberating humans from old values and systems, something that has never been possible until today. I think technology created a new world because our brains, from the very beginning, were based on digesting information. That’s how we function, but, in fact, conditions start to change and we don’t even know it. Theory always comes later. But these really are fantastic times. This is the beginning. Maybe something crazier will happen. But, really, we see the sunshine coming in. It was clouded for maybe 100 years. Our whole condition was very sad, but we still feel warmth, and the life in our bodies can still tell that there is excitement in there, even though death is waiting. We had better not enjoy the moment but create the moment.
Obrist Maybe the blog doesn’t so much represent reality as produce it.
Ai It’s true. It’s like a monster, it grows. I’m sure, once somebody looks at my blog, they start looking at the world differently without even knowing it. This is why the Communists, from the beginning, really censored everything. They are the sole source of propaganda and have been very successful at it for the past 50 years. But, because of China’s opening, and because of the economy of the world, they won’t survive. They can’t survive, so they have to allow a certain amount of freedom. But this cannot be controlled once it is allowed.
Pearl before swine: Ai in his Beijing studio in 2009 (Philip Gostelow)
Obrist When you go to the main page of the blog, there is an image of an ox...
Ai I just changed it. The picture was up for one year, so I changed it to another one, of a cat. Because, in our architectural studio, my staff spend all day trying to make beautiful models, and then, at night, there are eight cats that destroy everything.
They are the only thing better than our government at tearing up the city. But our cats do it faster. It’s really a great metaphor for us, because we, as a people, love architecture and design. We try to change the world and try to build new models that, at night-time, are always torn up by these cats.
Obrist Cats are architects, urbanists?
Ai Yes, they are. Cat urbanists.
The conversation moves to another room, where Ai shows Obrist some new works of art.
Ai That’s what I did last night. I was up until three.
Obrist So this is a new ceramic series?
Ai Ceramics is kind of crazy. I hate ceramics... but I do it. I think, if you hate something too much, you have to do it. You have to use that. These are 3,000- to 5,000-year-old cultural art objects. Just dip them into this house paint, then they’re called Coloured Vases. [In this series, Ai dips neolithic urns into vats of industrial paint, at once destroying their antique and cultural value, and transforming them into works of contemporary art.]
Obrist I’ve heard a lot about the [New York] Museum of Modern Art’s visit to your home. Who were they, and can you describe what exactly happened?
Ai It was a big group of top collectors. On May 20, Moma’s international council sent about 70 people to China to do a survey of contemporary art. The day they came, this place became stuck on the cultural map.
Obrist Does everybody visiting Beijing’s art community come to your studio now?
Ai Yes, everybody comes, like a tourist shop. You have to go because it sells ginseng or something, it’s really good for your health or longevity. The groups come here on their way to the Great Wall. The Moma group came on the anniversary of the day in 1942 that the Communists held a meeting at which Chairman Mao gave a speech. Today, that speech is still the official bible for Communists. [This is Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Arts, in which Mao declared that art must exist in the service of the people, setting the aesthetic programme for the People’s Republic of China.]
Obrist Was that anniversary the exact same day the Moma group came?
Ai The same day. I said I should make this anniversary a topic of discussion because my father was part of the forum. He was the top literary figure at the time. But, basically, because of the Yan’an forum, art and literature were damaged, even becoming very brutal later. [Ai’s father, Ai Qing, is regarded as one of the finest modern Chinese poets; his poetry is widely taught throughout China today.
He was labelled a rightist in 1957 for criticising the Communist regime and was interned in labour camps.] So we decided to do the only thing we could that day — just record the whole thing, but without the group noticing.
Obrist So you used secret cameras?
Ai Yes, they were secret, because cameras are often used by a group when it wants to monitor another group’s activity. We filmed them when they went to Factory 798, then we followed their buses from far away when they went to see the artists. Nobody knew. We waited for so long for them to come back. We’ve even got the driver on tape, saying, “F***! It takes them so long just to go to an artist’s studio.” Then they drove to my house. The cameras were hidden in the grass so they couldn’t see them.
Obrist What do you think the reactions will be?
Ai About this? I don’t know. I can’t see the consequences. I just do things, without thinking about the before and after. I don’t imagine things. I have no imagination, no memory — I act on the moment.
Obrist Do you have an archive?
Ai Yes. I will show you some. [Pulls up document on computer.] This is an article about the 30-year anniversary of the death of Chairman Mao. I am probably going to write about what a criminal he is. It is such a historic situation. And a nation that will not search for its own past and not be critical of it is a shameless nation. We have to work on it. [Pulls up a new picture.] This one is very interesting. This is my mother’s home in downtown Beijing. Now, Beijing has all been renovated. My home used to have a real brick facade. One day, we went home to see everything had been repainted. So I wrote a blog entry.
Obrist To protest against it.
Ai Yes, because this is too much. In one night, the whole of Beijing was repainted. I wrote a long article. The propaganda slogan for the Olympics is “One world, one dream”. My article is about how we have lost our homeland, and a different world, a different dream. [Shows picture.] This is private property, and they don’t even announce the changes. The whole of Beijing does not have the same skin as before. This is an amazing photo. This is my home. It was real brick. They changed the real brick to concrete, and they repainted it. And it’s not just my home — the whole of Beijing is going to be like this. There is so much stupidity going on, and nobody writes about it.
Obrist So you write about things nobody else writes about?
Ai Yes. I mean, what’s wrong with this world? I wrote a blog post about all this, and took photos of how they did it. When I went home, I asked my mum, “Why did you allow them to do this?” She said, “Oh, they did it to everybody. What can we do? They said it’s good.” I said, it’s like putting a gold tooth on a mouse. The old town disappeared in one night.
© Ai Weiwei and Hans Ulrich Obrist 2011. Extracted from Ai Weiwei Speaks (Penguin £5).
Hans Ulrich Obrist is co-director of exhibitions and programmes and director of international projects at the Serpentine Gallery, London