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.
'If I was a Western Politician, I Probably Would like Dictators, Too'
SPIEGEL: How does the fact that you can't travel affect your work?
Ai: Of course I feel restricted. Of course I want to see reactions and learn from them. No artist works like a genius creating only from his inner self. You want to try out things, you want to know if something works, you want to correct yourself. I don't have any of this at the moment. On the other hand, I live in a world which is full of other impulses that give structure to my work. Scientists often work in a similar way. They too have to predict the results of their work before they can actually see it.
SPIEGEL: Do you know Venice?
Ai: Yes, I took part in the Biennale of 1999.
SPIEGEL: How did you like it?
Ai: I left the day before the opening. Like many artists I don't particularly like these events -- all the hand-shaking, all the hellos. I am not really made for this.
SPIEGEL: And the city, the place itself?
Ai: I missed energy. Venice is an old beauty, no doubt. A precious old carpet. But where do you hang it? This time I convinced my mother to go there. She has suffered a lot during my detention; she is 80 years old now and has never seen my work abroad. My sister is going to accompany her.
SPIEGEL: In Germany, there are two rather extreme views on China. Some politicians, but mostly leaders from the business world, praise the Chinese model as efficient and forward-looking. Artists and human rights activists, on the other hand, portray China's leaders as criminals who oppress their own people.
Ai: I have never been visited by any of those German industry leaders. I am afraid they would be scared to death if they spent a few days with me. No, actually I do have one friend among them -- Hans-Olaf Henkel (the former president of the German Federation of Industries) who posed with a "Free Ai Weiwei" poster in Berlin and who is also in contact with the political leadership.
SPIEGEL: Next to Mao Zedong, you are probably China's best-known figure.
Ai: Well, Mao used to say: "Love and hate are never without reason." He may have been right there. If I was a Western politician, I probably would like dictators, too. After all, they are able to make decisions very quickly and they will sign any check as long as you have a smile for them. Who cares about the conditions in dictatorships? Everyone has to make ends meet and you can't take care of everything, right? I understand this attitude perfectly.
SPIEGEL: Doesn't it disturb you that both of these extreme views of China are grotesque simplifications?
Ai: Yes, but how did this critical view of China come about in the first place? It is because there is no free flow of information. You can't exchange arguments freely on issues like Tibet or the province of Xinjiang.
SPIEGEL: At the same time, there are also states where you could not speak out at all. Or countries where someone like you would perhaps not even live anymore.
Ai: I have never said that China is the most brutal of all systems. I don't even claim that I am being beaten routinely -- there was one such incident and I have repeatedly stated that this was an accident. What is not an accident, however, is that the powerful pretend that they have never touched me at all. Any state commits a serious mistake when it denies facts only to protect the system. But this is what happens here. And still it could be much worse. Maybe I should consider myself lucky: I am still alive -- and I can speak to SPIEGEL. What more do I want?
SPIEGEL: You have considerable influence on your country's image abroad. Isn't it difficult for an artist to depict reality without compromising its complexity?
Ai: I have a different view. A few days ago I saw a video about the sun. NASA had spent years producing the film, but it lasts for no more than three minutes. When I saw this I realized that truth will get much simpler the longer we think about something. Our existence as such is accidental, and we should appreciate it. I like the idiom we use in Chinese to express the brevity of life: "Bay ju guo xi" -- the moment a white foal takes to jump over a crevice. Life is a value in itself, and every dictatorial attempt to steal its surprises and cut its possibilities is a crime.
SPIEGEL: When the Chinese poet Liao Yiwu was awarded with the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers, he said about present-day China: "This empire must break apart." Do you agree with him?
Ai: I didn't read the speech. But I too have doubts about whether this system can hold up structure and order for a long time to come. The nature of this state is self-destructive. Whoever doesn't want to hear the voices of others, whoever doesn't let them speak freely, will not see danger coming. And he will be unable to adapt. Life, however, is nothing but permanent adaptation.
SPIEGEL: But hasn't this system adapted astonishingly? If someone visited China now, for the first time in 30 years, he or she would hardly recognize the place.
Ai: No! China has become prosperous, there is no denying this. And maybe the system is lucky for having abandoned any principle. But what have we paid to get so prosperous? How sustainable is this sort of change? We have exploited our resources, it will take decades to fill the holes we dug. And the powerful have neither the vision nor the passion nor the bravery they would need to do this. Take education, for example: There were a few dozen Chinese high school students studying in the United States a few years back. Now there are 170,000 at America's universities. Even my neighbors, my craftsmen ask me to recommend their daughters to foreign universities. This is a nation which lacks trust.
SPIEGEL: Trust in what?
Ai: When we drink water, we are suspicious. When we buy food, we hesitate. When we visit a doctor, we ask ourselves if we will be treated correctly. And when we are entering a legal dispute, we think about how we can find someone to bail us out. What kind of state is this? Can it get any worse?
SPIEGEL: New President Xi Jinping says he has a "dream for China": Greater prosperity, a better environment, a life of dignity. What is your dream for China?
Ai: Very simple: Give the powerless their voice, give them the right to vote. And if you think you cannot do this now, then give them a schedule: Tell them that you will give them the right to vote in 10 days, 10 months or 10 years. But don't tell them that they are living in the best of all worlds already. The Chinese are patient, but those in power have betrayed them. When the communists started out around 80 years ago, they got so much support from the people that they succeeded remarkably easily in founding a new state. Today you are not allowed to print an article they would have printed before 1949. Why? Because they themselves called for a democratic society, for the freedom of speech and human rights back then.
SPIEGEL: Will those who succeed the communists be any better?
Ai: There is no guarantee, and this is why this country needs its artists. People often ask me: So when China finally becomes democratic -- what will you do then? My answer is: I will fight for the democratic system to dissolve. This will be the only way to look for what other possibilities there are.
SPIEGEL: Can you move freely within China?
Ai: Yes, I can fly. I only need my identity card for that. When the air pollution became unbearable last winter, I took my children to Fujian. It isn't fair to expose them to such air for months. At the airport, of course, we were followed again. I kicked the guy in the ass, but he didn't even turn around. I recorded the scene, it is funny. They have a clear rule: If there is a camera running, never show your face.
SPIEGEL: What has happened since then?
Ai: Not much. Apart from being prevented from leaving the country, I don't feel any other restrictions. It seems they have completely given up on me. They don't even call to correct me. They used to do that when they didn't want me to comment on any particular matter. I had suggested this to them myself, but of course I couldn't help it anyway, because too many things came up. And then they found out, mostly two weeks later, when some Chinese exile newspaper or website had translated my tweets.