He is a man who rubs his hands over his face, big fingers, big hands, rubbing hard all over the big round head, squashing his nose, his cheeks, his lips. He does it many times. He drinks water from a big glass mug. He squints into the screen. We are on Zoom and Ai Weiwei is waking up. He is in Portugal, where it is 10am.
He is a man who talks. I ask him something about being an artist and he talks for 15 minutes, quietly and gently and very insistently, about refugees. Even when I interrupt with a question, as gently as he is being gentle, he continues the narrative. It is not for me to ask and he will say what he wants to say.
He is Ai Weiwei, possibly the most famous artist in the world. I too would say what I wanted to say, if I was him. Sitting there, I too want to rub my hands over my face, but that would probably be a bad idea.
Ai Weiwei is appearing in the Auckland Writers’ Festival this month, in conversation with the film-maker Chelsea Winstanley. He’s promoting his new book Conversations, which is a series of conversations, mostly at writers’ festivals.
He is a man who does not look away. When 5219 schoolchildren in Sichuan were killed in an earthquake because of the shoddy construction of their schools, something the Chinese Government tried to pretend never happened, Ai Weiwei raised a team of activists online and sent them to knock on doors. Thousands of doors.
They found every name and published them. What had not happened, happened.
He’s made many artworks about the tragedy. He covered the front of a museum with 9000 children’s backpacks, their colours spelling out a mother’s plea. For “Straight”, his assistants gathered up the bent and twisted reinforcing steel – the rebar – from the earthquake rubble and began to straighten it.
It was too much for the regime. Ai was arrested for subverting state power and told he would be in prison for 13 years. They released him after 81 days.
When he got out, his team was still straightening the rebar. Eventually, the sculpture contained 68 tonnes of straightened steel rods lying on each other in a wavelike pattern, with the children’s names posted on the wall behind. People cried when they saw it.
In prison, he says in the book, after being interrogated 50 times, “A very high-level secret police officer sitting in front of me said, ‘Ai Weiwei, you have been watching too many Hollywood movies.’ He couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of my mouth. He thought that maybe I was brainwashed.”
What were the words?
“I talked about freedom of speech, individual rights, liberty and all those things. The police thought it was ridiculous for a guy like me to be talking about such things.”
He is a man who makes life, and politics, and horror, and everything, into art. Including prison.
“S.A.C.R.E.D.” is a series of large boxes with little windows inviting the observer to bend down, a bit uncomfortably, to see what’s inside. They’re dioramas, showing Ai Weiwei and his guards, in prison, everything correctly detailed and exactly half size.
Ai says his interrogators came to see the work and could not believe it. “We looked at your piece and we examined the real room and it is exactly the same,” they said. How did he do it?
Ai Weiwei told them, “You are dealing with an artist.”
People cried when they saw that show too.
He is a man who has been trapped in the bureaucracy of tyranny, like the Czech novelist Franz Kafka.
One interviewer, comparing him to Kafka, quoted the German political theorist Hannah Arendt. “She says that when tyranny reaches a certain point, there is no longer an actual tyrant; there is just a heartless/headless bureaucracy. I feel as though you are writing to that bureaucracy in these blogs. There is no one there. You know there is no one there, and that’s why it feels like Kafka.”
“It’s true,” Ai told her. “Nobody ever talked about my writing as you have. It’s very beautiful. Thank you.”
He is the son of the famous poet and revolutionary Ai Qing. But in 1959 Ai Qing was denounced and exiled to an isolated village.
Weiwei, not much more than a toddler, helped him burn his books. He followed his father to his daily task, cleaning the public latrines.
In 2015, after his imprisonment and years of house arrest, Ai Weiwei was allowed to leave China. He doesn’t know why. He went to Germany, but it wasn’t great.
“Germans,” he said to me, “the way they shake your hand, it’s like getting it caught in the door of a Volkswagen. I am not exaggerating.”
In the book he tells another story. “I’m teaching art in Berlin now. I have to be very courteous to my students because … if you push too hard they start to cry. What is happening to students today?”
But it was the racism, he says, that forced him out. Casual, everyday: taxi drivers who objected to Chinese spoken in the car, all those things. It was bad for him and worse for his son.
He went to Britain. That seems odd: was he expecting better there? He didn’t answer that. He didn’t stay much longer than a year and now he’s in Portugal.
“I’ve bought a piece of land,” he said. “I have chickens and flowers. This is the first place I have ever lived where it feels like I can relax. I think I will stay living here.” Springtime in the Lisbon countryside.
The furniture behind him was venerably wooden. The walls were plastered white.
He is a man consumed by the story of refugees. This was the story he told me. On the Greek island of Lesbos, he went for a walk on the beach. “The water was so beautiful, I’ve never been in a place with that much beauty by the sea, and then I saw there were all these orange dots out there.”
Refugees in small boats, wearing life jackets.
“I saw two, three, 10, 20 boats. Hundreds upon hundreds of people. And when they arrived they were totally neglected. They had to sleep on the road, like animals. I don’t know how it’s possible to treat people like that.”
Around the world, he says in the book, “There are about 70 million people being forced out of their homes. They all had a home before. Nobody wants to go to another place; it’s almost impossible for people, even escaping, to have a real life in a new location.”
At Lesbos, he decided to make a film about it. “I sent people to Syria, to Iraq, Afghanistan.” He is a man who uses numbers to explain things. “I knew it would be a big film. They went to 23 countries and 40 refugee camps and did 600 interviews.”
The result is “Human Flow”, a shocking and impassioned plea on behalf of humanity.
He is a man who does not believe in fences.
In New York in 2017, he made a work with different parts spread all over the city, called “Good Fences Make Good Neighbours”. The phrase is from the American poet Robert Frost, whose poem “Mending the Wall” tells of an encounter with a neighbour who believes having a wall between you is the best way to keep the peace.
“There are no good fences,” Ai Weiwei says. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, he says, the number of countries with border walls and fences has grown from 11 to 70.
It is the horror of migration, caused by the climate crisis, blocked by the countries that caused the crisis.
Much of Ai Weiwei’s work is banned in China. He made a video of himself dancing Gangnam-style, but the regime thought he was making fun of them so they banned that too.
They weren’t wrong. Ai’s Gangnam dance is called Grass Mud Horse Style, which refers to an alpaca-like animal invented as a protest against internet censorship. In Chinese, the name (cao ni ma) sounds like an insult.
His own name, Weiwei, means “not yet”, or “the future”. Ai means complete, with the ancient character for ai showing a hand or knife cutting grass. The field has been harvested. In classical Chinese, wei ai means not yet complete.
Ai Weiwei is a man who represents the not yet not yet complete.
He was once a man who spent eight hours a day on the internet, with hundreds of thousands of followers.
“That really shocked me,” he says in the book, “because this was a nation where nobody had ever experienced freedom of speech. There was no such platform. The internet gave me power.”
Until 2009, when they shut him down.
“I got into a real confrontation with authority,” he told me. “It was violent, it almost finished my life.”
Ai Weiwei is a man who has been badly beaten by the police.
He is a sculptor and a painter, an online activist, a film-maker, an architect, a writer, a public intellectual, a man who used to fill his house with cats and now there are chickens. How does he do so much?
“I think I’m a weak person,” he said. “I’m like a soldier carrying what he has to carry.”
How should an artist deal with the conflict between art and activism?
“They should work for themselves. They should work to question what their life will be like if they don’t fight for the very basic dignity of life, or they will forget about the very essential feelings of happiness or sadness and what kind of human being they will be.”
Now he is on Clubhouse, an invitation-only social media platform that enjoyed a brief flowering in China before the same old happened.
Ai Weiwei is using Clubhouse as he has always used the internet, to highlight the corruption of the Chinese regime. From April 3, the date of his arrest, until May 12, the date of the earthquake, the names of the 5219 are being read out. One every four seconds.
He held his phone to his computer’s camera and shows me the screen: faces, names, a woman’s voice reading them.
He said, “It’s the biggest online project I ever did. But the Western media hasn’t touched it.”
He said, “We all have to examine our behaviour morally.”
Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist in Portugal. His new project is to build a monument to Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who led the Soviet Union away from tyranny. The man who refused to send in the tanks against the democracy activists.
There is no Gorbachev in China, he says. And it’s hard to see that anything will change until there is.
Ai Weiwei is a man who is writing his autobiography. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party and the new book will cover that same 100 years.
Ai Weiwei’s autobiography, he says, will be about “100 years of China’s intellectual struggle”.
He is a man who rubs his hands over his face. He is a man who likes to make jokes that may or may not be something else.
From the current book: Do you believe in some kind of god?
“I definitely believe in some kind of god, but I still don’t know what kind.”
How many languages do you speak?
“I am speechless.”
Also in the book, he asks, “You think this person, this Ai Weiwei sitting here, is the real one?”
The interviewer says he suspects so, but he knows he might be wrong. “Do you think you are different?”
Ai Weiwei says, “I wouldn’t tell you.”
Conversations: Ai Weiwei, at the Auckland Writers Festival, May 14. writersfestival.co.nz
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