'Nobody Has Endless Strength' Ai Weiwei's New Life in Europe

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was finally given his passport back and immediately left the country to join his family in Germany. But he is unsettled by his newfound freedom and he is searching for a new role. SPIEGEL caught up with him in Munich.
Ai Weiwei at the Bayerische Hof hotel in Munich in early August: "It seems surreal to me. Sometimes I feel like I could cry."

Ai Weiwei at the Bayerische Hof hotel in Munich in early August: "It seems surreal to me. Sometimes I feel like I could cry."

Foto: Dieter Mayr/ DER SPIEGEL

It's the middle of summer in Munich and the Chinese have arrived. They are lined up in front of the boutiques in Maximilianstrasse, they gather around the buskers on Odeonsplatz and younger couples kiss beneath the Chinese Tower in the English Garden in the evening. All have cameras with them and they take plenty of pictures.

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei also arrived in Munich a few days ago, and he too is taking huge numbers of pictures, which he then immediately posts to Instagram . Some are snapshots of the kind that his Chinese compatriots send home from Europe. And some are not. One shows him with his six-year-old son Lao during a visit to a Keith Haring exhibition, others were taken during a neurological examination at a Munich clinic. Still another shows the night sky above Allianz Arena, the stadium where Bayern Munich plays. And then there's the picture of the artist lying shirtless on the banks of the Isar River. Somebody has spelled out the word "FUCK" on his chest using small stones.

"For the first time in my life, I don't have a precise plan for what I'll do next," Ai Weiwei says. "I came to Munich for medical examinations. Then to Berlin and, at the end of the year, to Melbourne." But beyond that, he doesn't know what he'll be doing.

"Ai Lao has gone swimming," says filmmaker Wang Fen, Ai Weiwei's partner and mother of their son. She and Ai Weiwei always use his first and last name when referring to their son. "I know," Ai Weiwei answers. "I should go swimming too. The light is so beautiful and the air is so clear. It seems surreal to me. Sometimes I feel like I could cry."

Four years ago, Chinese officials arrested the country's most famous artist just as he was set to embark on a trip overseas. The move came after years of confrontation, and was followed by several years of difficulty. State security held him at an unknown site for almost three months and confiscated his passport. After he was released, Ai was initially placed under house arrest and then monitored around the clock. He often argued, and sometimes even fought, with his minders, particularly when they followed his family. One year ago, Wang Fen and their son moved to Berlin, partially to get Ai Lao out of the firing line.

'You Know What We Mean'

Western politicians and diplomats, the Germans first and foremost, sought to pressure China into giving Ai his passport back and in recent months, his relationship with the government has eased. His interviews became milder and his tone shifted from abrasive to ironic. He even showed a modicum of forbearance, even sympathy, for his monitors.

This spring, the authorities indicated to him that he would soon be able to show his works in China again and in early June, he opened the first of several exhibitions in Beijing. Three weeks ago, on July 22, he was given back his passport and officials promised him that, should he travel abroad, he would be allowed to return to China.

"They didn't put me under any special conditions," Ai Weiwei says. "I asked them about it. But they are Chinese, just as I am. We have many possibilities of communicating such things without actually saying them." He says it was a "very Chinese moment" when he was handed his passport. It was, he said, delivered with an attitude that can be translated as: "You know what we mean."

Ai Weiwei, his partner Wang Fen and their son Ai Lao arriving in Munich on July 30.

Ai Weiwei, his partner Wang Fen and their son Ai Lao arriving in Munich on July 30.

Foto: AP/dpa

Ten days later, Ai Weiwei is sitting in the seventh floor of the Bayerischer Hof hotel in the heart of Munich. His suite is painted a soft orange and his balcony has a view of the Frauenkirche, Munich's cathedral. His son is waiting in the swimming pool for his father to come play. Ai is free. The angry man from Beijing, the provocateur who photographed himself with an outstretched middle finger in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the fighter for freedom of the press and opinions has arrived in the comfort zone.

"As a human being, I feel like a cat that was finally released and is now traipsing across the rooftops," he says. "But as an artist, I have a big problem with this situation. I have only been here for a couple of days and I'm already asking myself: What should I do now?"

Sculptures, Videos and a Rock Album

The four years of permanent conflict and surveillance that began with his 2011 arrest were an extremely productive and creative phase in his life. Ai Weiwei, together with his studio employees, took part in more than a dozen exhibitions: in Europe and the United States. Without leaving China, Ai organized three large exhibitions in Berlin, in Washington and on the former prison island of Alcatraz, in San Francisco Bay. He designed spaces in cities that he wasn't able to visit, from the German Biennale pavilion in Venice to the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. He documented his isolation during the 81 days he was locked away, he protested against Beijing air pollution, he criticized the awarding of the Nobel Prize for literature to poet Mo Yan and he parodied the Korean musician Psy and his mega-hit "Gangnam Style." He made sculptures, produced videos and films, and he even recorded a rock album.

"For the entire time, I had a feeling of urgency and danger. With every sentence I began, I was in a hurry to bring it to an end. I didn't know how much time I had left," he says. He never wanted the situation to be like that, he says, but the pressure exerted by his oppressors forced him to concentrate, the danger "pushed" him forward.

Now that the immediate danger has passed and the many hurdles in his path would seem to have been removed, where should the resistance now come from that drove his creativity and anger for four years? "I've wondered the same thing," he says, grimly. "But then I applied for a visa for London." In September, his works will be shown at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Instead of the six-month visa he had been seeking, the British Embassy granted him just 20 days, arguing that he had failed to disclose a criminal conviction. Immediately, the pressure and the anger were back, immediately, the performance artist inside awakened. Ai posted the embassy letter on Instagram and the British authorities were immediately hit by a digital backlash.

After he was arrested in April, 2011, the Chinese authorities said that Ai Weiwei's production company had committed tax evasion. But his wife, the artist Lu Qing (with whom he is still married), was listed as the company's director. A verdict was never handed down and the state still hasn't received the money it claims to be owed. Last Friday, British Home Secretary Theresa May rescinded the embassy's decision and apologized.

'Danger Will Never Completely Disappear'

Ai Weiwei doesn't want to compare Great Britain to China, he says. "Under similar circumstances, I would likely have been forced to wait four years for a six-month visa from China." But fundamentally, he says, bureaucratic systems often behave similarly. They define their rules independent from reality and focus on self-preservation more than anything else.

He believes that self-preservation is also the primary focus of the political system that has stamped him and, in the last four years, made him into its most recognizable critic. "That's why the danger will never disappear completely from my life, no matter where I am," he says. Thomas Mann's famous dictum from exile, "Where I am, there is Germany," is true of artists like himself as well, Ai Weiwei says. But he doesn't just carry Chinese culture with him, as Mann did the German culture. The Chinese state is also there, and it won't let him out of its sight for as long as it exists.

Ai says he doesn't know why he got his passport back now. He doesn't believe there is a connection to the awarding of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games to Beijing, which happened the day after he left the country. "I think my file was in a different department," he says.

But what about the files of the more than 200 civil and human rights activists who were interrogated or arrested in the days immediately prior to his departure? Some two dozen of them are still in prison, including Pu Zhiqiang, the attorney who defended Ai Weiwei in the tax evasion proceedings. Ai believes that obsession with survival is so core to the regime that the government sometimes overreacts, particularly now, at the peak of a broad anti-corruption campaign.

But can a country-wide campaign against practically all Chinese human rights lawyers really be just an "overreaction?" Just a few months ago, Ai Wewei would likely have found more pointed words to describe such an operation. Today, he notes that the majority of those taken into custody have since been released. And in most of the other cases, the courts have at least become involved. He says that situations such as his, when he disappeared without a trace for almost three months, are less likely to happen now.

'Nobody Has Endless Strength'

Berlin gallery owner Alexander Ochs, who has been a supporter of Ai's since his imprisonment, has called on the media, in the name of the Ai Weiwei's backers in Germany, to stop pressuring the artist with such questions. "We appeal to the German public to see him in the future as an outstanding artist and not as a political activist," Ochs told German news agency DPA. "Otherwise, he could be put into a situation that leads the Chinese government to no longer allow him to return. We are convinced that he will be able to have a greater influence in the world as an artist than as a commentator on Chinese foreign and domestic policy."

That appeal, however, does not appear to have first been cleared with the artist. "That's crazy," says Ai Weiwei. "My art has always been political. And it will remain that way."

What about the psychological toll of having been a political artist for several years in China? Ai Weiwei breathes out slowly before answering. Then he says: "Nobody has endless strength. Nobody can be that strong."

Although political pressure is still ratcheted up from time to time, the artist says that China has changed "dramatically" in recent years. "The man who was directly responsible for my case four years ago, China's top security chief Zhou Yangkang, is now in prison along with hundreds of other high-ranking functionaries," Ai says. "Back then, I didn't dare even dream of such a thing. Zhou was the engineer of this system. His influence was enormous."

But a different contradiction has developed in the last four years, as Ai Weiwei repeatedly mentions. China's version of Twitter, called Weibo, fundamentally changed public life in China a few years ago and also helped increase Ai's fame as a blogger. More recently, though, the short-message service has been almost completely silenced by the censors. "Weibo is dead," Ai says. "Because Weibo was a marketplace and the government hates marketplaces where someone can roll out a banner and people can gather around." Even the state-controlled media reported on the return of Ai's passport, but if you do a search for Ai's name on Weibo today, all you get is the message: "Search results for Ai Weiwei may not be displayed due to related laws and legal provisions."

At the same time, chat platforms like Weixin (WeChat), where small networks and informal news channels are established, are continuing to rapidly expand. "The large arteries may be continually blocked," says Ai. "But an increasing amount of information is being pumped through the smaller veins. The flow is not decreasing."

Stories of the Past

After his partner Wang Fen and his son moved to Germany last year, Ai Weiwei moved out of the house next to his studio in the artist quarter of Caochangdi into a hotel and immersed himself under a pile of files and manuscripts. He began writing a book about himself and his father, the late poet Ai Qing, who died in 1996. It will appear in Chinese next year, with a German version to follow soon thereafter.

Like Weiwei, Ai's father spent some years abroad as a young man and had an ambivalent relationship to the Chinese state for the rest of his life. In 1942, he joined the Communist Party and ultimately became one of China's leading cultural officials. Among the men he knew well was Xi Zhongxun, the father of the current Chinese president, Xi Jinping. Just like Xi's father, Ai's father fell victim to a purge and, again like Xi's father, was deported to the countryside, where he was responsible for keeping a village toilet clean for a period of five years during the Cultural Revolution.

"The two men fought a very similar battle," says Ai Weiwei. "I owe it to my son to write down these stories."

Ai spent Saturday on the banks of the Isar River with his son, on Sunday they went to the zoo and on Tuesday, they watched Bayern Munich beat AC Milan 3:0 at Allianz Arena. He also went in for his medical check-ups and then, a trip to Berlin to discuss taking up a visiting professorship at the University of the Arts there. Ai is documenting everything about his new life in pictures and updates appear constantly in Instagram and Twitter.

He is particularly excited, he says, about Melbourne, where in December, his works will be exhibited for the first time alongside works by Andy Warhol. "Of all modern artists, I feel most closely bound to him," he says. "Just like me, he had this desperate urge to constantly communicate about everything." But, Ai says, he has one advantage over Warhol. "Warhol didn't have the Internet."

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