Ai Weiwei Interview: 'I Want To Put Up a Fight'

Photo Gallery: 'It Seems They Have Given Up on Me' Photos
AFP/ Courtesy of Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei of China is one of four artists who will represent Germany at the Venice Biennale in June. In a SPIEGEL interview, the artist discusses how he will participate in the event despite a travel ban imposed on him by the Chinese government.

Every year, as soon as spring arrives, China's leading contemporary artist Ai Weiwei shaves his cats. Freeing them from their thick winter fur is both a tradition and a gesture of compassion -- winter in northeastern China is cold and dry, summer hot and muggy, and the Beijing spring brief but intense. Ai is allergic to the white fuzz produced by weeping willows that floats these days through the city's streets like snow, and has to keep wiping his eyes as he sits in the garden of his workshop.

Indoors, his assistants are preparing for four exhibitions taking place in Germany and Italy this year. In June, Ai Weiwei will be joining Romuald Karmakar from France, Santu Mofokeng from South Africa and Delhi-born Dayanita Singh in representing Germany at the Venice Biennale, although he will be unable to attend.

The artist has been barred from leaving China since April 2011, when he was detained for three months by the Chinese authorities. He was released on bail but stripped of his passport. Now 55, Ai is China's best-known artist and activist. He's also a thorn in the side of the Chinese government.


SPIEGEL: Ai Weiwei, an Italian art gallery has just announced an exhibition of your work saying it will show you at "the height" of your "artistic and polemic powers." How do you feel being at the pinnacle of your career?

Ai: I'm not at the summit yet. I am still warming up.

SPIEGEL: The London-based magazine ArtReview rated you one of the most influential figures in international art. What do such awards mean to you?

Ai: This award was not about me personally but about what I stand for -- which are two essential functions of modern art: expression and communication. For me, art always has to ask for new possibilities and to try to extend existing boundaries. An artist must maintain his specific sensitivity, react to life and change it.

SPIEGEL: Can you still do this being as famous as you are?

Ai: I am 55 years old and have been working publicly for eight or nine years. But for three years, the craziest of my career, I have not been able to leave China. Therefore, my so-called fame does not affect me that much. My father, Ai Qing, was a well-known artist himself. I saw how his fame was used against him. So I have no illusions.

SPIEGEL: This summer you and three other artists will represent Germany at the Venice Biennale. Udo Kittelmann, director of the Berlin Nationalgalerie modern art museum, criticized this. He says you will overshadow the others, photographers Dayanita Singh, Santu Mofokeng and filmmaker Romuald Karmakar.

Ai: I think this is half true. But I won't be there personally and the project is not about advertisement. This is about content. I have gone through a difficult time, through a life or death situation really. I have been injured and detained, my studio was destroyed and they fabricated a sky-high tax bill for me. So I am not representing myself but a certain cause. This is about justice. It is about people who have no voice or are too shy to use it. I have become a symbolic figure for this anti-authoritarian attitude -- not just in China, but in any country that is dominated by such a political or economic power, also in the so-called free world.

SPIEGEL: Do you know the other artists who will exhibit at the German Pavilion?

Ai: I met Santu Mofokeng in 2002 when I curated the Guangzhou Triennial. We talked at length because I liked his work. I look forward to sharing the experience with all of them. And I don't really think that any artist can overshadow any other artist -- in today's world we don't see somebody's art because he is more famous or his art is bigger than anybody else's. I think the director of the Nationalgalerie underestimates the people's power of judgement and intelligence. He seems to be used to the perspective of the internal circles of art and their way of measuring things.

SPIEGEL: How have you been lately?

Ai: In general I am fine; my situation is as good as anybody else's. It is still difficult but that's because I want to put up a fight. I could have a more comfortable life if I gave up on this, and so could my relatives, my friends and state security.

SPIEGEL: Why don't you want this?

Ai: Because I can't feel comfortable if I have to give up my -- and other people's --rights for that. If I have to ignore injustice that I simply cannot ignore. My world is so connected to the world of others, how can I pretend I don't know about those things? On the face of it I am taking the essential right of speaking only for myself: I am not powerful, I haven't organized a party, I don't roam the streets with protesters. And I have to climb across the Great Firewall every day to post a few sentences on Twitter. If this alone is enough to make the powerful feel uncomfortable, then they really should check what will happen to them.

SPIEGEL: Outside of China you are not only known for your art and your tweets, but also because you frequently speak to foreign journalists. How would you describe your relationship with the Western media?

Ai: Journalists are professionals. They look at the truth the way doctors look at it -- not like a patient. As an artist I try to maintain the truth on a level where it can be more easily shared and accepted. Art has to be innocent. Journalists have to make judgements. That's why they covered the tragic Boston attacks widely, but didn't cover the 122 Tibetans who have immolated themselves over the past months. And that's why many of you write about my struggle but not about the struggle of others.

SPIEGEL: Do you think you are getting too much media attention?

Ai: It certainly raises my responsibility. I have been working on a video about my detention lately. The government understood this and police warned me: "You can't do this." I told them: "Sorry, but if you are embarrassed about this now, why did you arrest me in the first place?" Two hours later a cinematographer who worked with me on the project was detained. They accused him for having met with prostitutes in a massage salon and kept him arrested for 10 days. When he finally came out he told us that two men had invited him for a cup of tea …

SPIEGEL: … which is a Chinese euphemism for being summoned by State Security.

Ai: Anyway, he hid at the neighboring house to check out who exactly was going to meet him. Then however, he said, police raided the house and forced him to undress. He resisted, they beat him and then asked for the secret code of his cell phone and his computer. Such stories are scary; they rob you of any sense of security. But then again, they are very powerful if they are told in all plain truth to the media.

SPIEGEL: Will your exhibitions in Venice deal with your three "crazy years"? Are they connected to your experience with State Security?

Ai: I will show three projects in Venice. At the German Pavilion I'll exhibit an abstract work which has not been shown before. The two other projects are not being shown within the Biennale. Both of them relate to my recent experience. One is part of a project about the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan which was shown last year at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. The other is a work about my detention. It will reveal certain truths about what happened to me in this period. It is a classical form of display, similar to those museums that simulate the age of dinosaurs.

SPIEGEL: What will your contribution for Germany be?

Ai: It is an installation, different from what the three other participants will do. It will occupy the center room and it will be large, filling the whole space. This is what I can tell you at this point in time.

SPIEGEL: How do you fill a room which you have never seen before? And how have you been able to work on international shows at all in the time since you have been unable to travel?

Ai: I have worked in architecture for a long time, so I am experienced with space and light. And as I've said before: My art is about communication. When I work, it is like using a remote control, with assistants and workers who understand me well, but whom I also encourage to trust their own judgement and skills.

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