Dissident Artist

Ai Weiwei on China's Lost Generations

Ai Weiwei Prenzlauer Berg DPA
Ai Weiwei at his studio in Berlin.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has sought to draw attention to life in China, and has come to Germany after being barred from traveling since 2011.

  • Facts


    • Ai Weiwei, sculptor, curator and activist, is one of China’s most famous artists but has been persecuted for his research into corruption.
    • For his film “Never Sorry,” Mr. Ai won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival in 2012.
    • Mr. Ai was among the designers of the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing.
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China’s most famous artist and activist Ai Weiwei has arrived in Berlin – but he’s not planning to produce any art just yet.

An artist who investigated the Chinese government for corruption and drew attention to its human rights record, Mr. Ai had been accused of economic crimes and imprisoned for 81 days.

Mr. Ai was able to leave China in late July when the authorities returned his passport, which had been confiscated back in 2011. He flew to Germany on July 22 to join his partner and son who is attending school in Berlin.

In an interview with Berlin’s Tagesspiegel newspaper [in full below], he talked of his frustration and fear but also his sense of connection to China.

“The people in China, and my country, are close to my heart. It would be too easy to give up.”

Ai Weiwei

He said that although China was moving towards becoming a country with respect for the rule of law, limited progress had been made so far. “It is still very arbitrary, you never really know what you’re up against,” he said.

Mr. Ai was pessimistic about China’s system of education, saying that the ability to transmit humanist knowledge is lost. “Instead of enabling young people to think for themselves, they are being brainwashed,” he said. “The Chinese education system is sacrificing so many young minds, their imagination, their courage.”

After the 2008 earthquake in China’s province Sichuan, his research pointed out corruption in the government that had led schools to collapse, killing thousands of children.

Mr. Ai called this a disaster comparable to any natural catastrophe, and one likely to have consequences for several generations.

Asked about an invitation to become a guest professor in Berlin, he said a meeting was planned for next week.

Ai weiwei Stacked bicycles reuters
Mr. Ai’s work “Stacked.” Source: Reuters

When asked whether he was working on any art, Mr. Ai said he was initially enjoying his freedom – from enjoying a full German-style breakfast to watching his first live soccer game. He would also consider going to a rock concert, he said.

“Luckily I’m not one of those people who have art projects. My life is art enough,” he said.

Mr. Ai, the son of a poet, spent time in the United States during the 1980s and early nineties taking photographs and working with found objects as art.

He first came to international attention as one of the design consultants for Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium. Since then, his works have ranged from film and photography to sculpture, addressing media, history and human rights.

Reflecting on the reprisals he had experienced, Mr. Ai said: “The fear is always there.”

But he said he was committed to finding solutions and that he wanted his connection to China to remain open. “The people in China, and my country, are close to my heart. It would be too easy to give up.”

For now, though, Mr. Ai is relaxing. “My plan is not to have a plan,” he said. “I’m enjoying catching up with my friends. My curiosity is all about the here and now.”

Ai Weiwei: Evidence. Retrospective at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin.

The interview between Ai Weiwei and Tagesspiegel newspaper was conducted at the artist’s studio in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. The full version is below.

Ai Weiwei, we are at your Berlin studio at the Pfefferberg. What are you going to work on here?

My plan is not to have a plan. I always enjoy the moment; my joy, my curiosity is directed to the here and now.

No specific art project for this wonderful site here?

Luckily, I’m not one of those who need an art project. My life is art enough; I don’t need to think about other projects. (laughs)

On your photo blog, you can always see what you’re doing. On Wednesday, you landed in Berlin. Today, Thursday morning, there aren’t yet any Berlin pictures.

Oh, we had breakfast: scrambled eggs, cheese, apple juice, honey …

The last photo from Munich shows the Allianz Arena. Were you at the Audi-Cup game, Bayern Munich against AC Milan?

It was the first live soccer game I’ve ever seen. Pretty good-natured, not a rough competition. There’s something special about being together with so many people in a stadium. Such a huge number of people in one place — incredible. I wouldn’t have anything against going to the Berlin stadium as well. Or a rock concert; that would be amazing.

Aren’t there constantly gigantic gatherings of people in Beijing on official occasions?

But no free assemblies. There are rock concerts, but they are rare and highly regimented. The idea that people can of their own free will come together at a site belongs to a modern society: to celebrate together, share emotions, experience an open competition. For societies which aren’t modern, that always represents a danger.

After many years, you can travel again. What impact did the travel prohibition and the reprisals have on your art?

It’s too early to tell. My art is always dependent on the conditions in which it arises; at the same time, I’m an obstinate person. Some things never change with me: my understanding of the world, my mental outlook, my values,  my convictions regarding human rights and freedom of expression. And I do not cease to believe in communication and understanding.

The situation in China is quite contradictory. Your passport was returned to you; that sounds like liberalization. At the same time, recently more than 200 human-rights lawyers and activists were arrested; some of them are still behind bars.

The situation is quite complex. It isn’t that I was arrested four years ago and now lawyers are being taken into custody. That was already happening back then and will do so again. I know many people who have been accused or arrested, but who never committed a crime. Just like in my case,  some of them will never be convicted. So there is a reason to hope; on the other hand, they remain under suspicion or have been detained for questioning. This is a tactic for intimidating people and maintaining so-called stability.

Is China endeavoring to act more like a state governed by the rule of law, with genuine judicial proceedings?

At first glance, yes; but in fact, there can be no talk of that. Arbitrariness continues to have the upper hand; you never know what to expect.

What can we do here in Europe in order to support human rights activists in China?

Europe has always held these values in high esteem. Society  here is based on humanism and mutual understanding. Europe should take care to maintain this tradition, especially since its values have increased in importance in a globalized world. Europe will never be able to survive on its own. It must concern itself with the problems of globalization, even while keeping its principles in mind and expressing them at every possible occasion.

Are you referring to policies regarding refugees?

Yes, for example. Humanism is the identity of European civilization. Whoever abandons or neglects his identity is headed for a humanitarian catastrophe. Europe has already experienced such catastrophes because of neglecting its tradition.

Before we help the Chinese, should we help the refugees here?

I only want to say that problems everywhere have the same cause: insufficient respect for human rights. Our planet can only survive if we recognize the necessity of this respect.

Why is it so important to you that the possibility of returning to China remain open to you?

If China has difficulties, I am a part of the problem and want to participate in solving it. I won’t take flight unless I am forced to do so. I’ve never thought of staying uninvolved. That’s where my challenges arise, because I am concerned about my country and its people. Giving up would be too simple.

You were subject to massive intimidation; how do you deal with fear?

The fear is always there. But I believe that 90 percent of fear comes from a lack of communication, a lack of knowledge, of trust. The more there is of that, the less fear there is. And it may be that those who are putting pressure on me and want to bring me under control have less fear of me now. Because they see that I am an open person who has nothing to hide, because they know of my mental outlook, my principles. Likewise, I understand the opposing side better; therefore I am a little less fearful myself.

What do you understand better?

(laughs) Okay, two things. First, that there will always remain something that is incomprehensible to me, but I keep trying. Secondly, I’ve realized that policemen and government officials also wish to understand me. So at least there is a basis for communication.

Your father, a famous poet, suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution. He kept silent afterward.

His entire generation had harrowing experiences and could not come to an understanding about them. During the Cold War, the country was like a huge prison, a sealed-off world. You could only wait for death. Today things are different, because of globalization and the Internet. There are many ways to express oneself. For instance, for a long time I couldn’t exhibit in China, but in other countries. My steadfast belief in the power of dialogue and reconciliation certainly has to do with the fact that I lived for a few years in New York; I speak English and am familiar with contemporary art. And I love the Internet, I have great faith in it. The Internet is my nation.

Your son will be going to school in Berlin. Don’t you trust the educational system in China?

The capacity for conveying humanistic knowledge has been fully lost there. They are incapable of structuring the flow of information for young persons. Instead of teaching how to make independent judgments, the teachers engage in brainwashing. Young people only learn practical talents. The Chinese educational system sacrifices so many young minds: their passion, their imaginative faculties, their courage — all of the foundations for human happiness. How could I subject him to that? It is just as awful a disaster as a humanitarian catastrophe, with consequences lasting for several generations. I have a bleak outlook in this regard.

Don’t young people in China at least have access to education through the Internet?

The Internet is a free country; it is splendid how information is permanently corrected there. But many schools are mere bureaucracies; they don’t teach how to handle that opportunity. And school is indispensable. It forms character, it sends people on their way in life.

Has your thinking changed since you became a father?

Yes. One looks further ahead, as in chess. Instead of thinking of the consequences of the next move, one has to calculate the next three moves. I am still practicing; I can only manage two moves.

At your first officially authorized solo exhibition in China, you recently displayed a split-up, ancient Chinese temple — at two places. How did the public and the media react?

The country needs to give thought to its culture, to its history. But that is lacking; there is no deeper understanding of aesthetics, morality, philosophy. On the one hand, an unbelievably large number of persons came to the exhibition; there was much hype. But on the other hand, there was absolutely no reaction, because there was no discussion about the works — neither among the visitors nor in the newspapers.

Your exhibition in 2014 at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau brought together explicitly political art: your detention cell, handcuffs, surveillance cameras…

I don’t call it political art, but personal. The works had to do with me, with my life, my feelings, my experiences. It was a necessity. I have to repeat the things that happen to me. It’s like when the teacher in school says: “Once again, please!”

In mid-September in London, you will open your biggest exhibition to date; what will you be showing there?

In the main, older works and a few pieces created specifically for the show.

A “best-of” show?

And a “worst-of” show. Just come and have a look.

England first issued you a visa for half a year, then the Interior Ministry issued an apology. Accepted?

Of course. I accept any communication where people take each other seriously. When I received the rejection notification, I was quite amused. After this long dark tunnel, I finally saw light and then, on the other side of the world, it was immediately turned off again. I get my passport in China, and at almost the same time, England refuses the visa application. I knew that one can have problems in the so-called free world, but not so quickly.

Did you immediately call the British Embassy?

I told the ambassador: either you people reconsider it, or I will publish the notification. Visa applications are not a private matter, but a public affair. For many applicants, great hopes and struggles are connected to a visa. I then posted the rejection notice on Instagram, and immediately the entire world was reporting about it. Just imagine that there were no Internet; then I wouldn’t have a visa. I owe the Internet so much.

What do you actually intend to teach as a guest professor at the University of the Arts, or Universität der Künste, here in Berlin?

There will be a preliminary discussion next week. Let’s see what they want; at the moment, everyone in Berlin seems to be on vacation. I would like to teach young persons how they can transform their personal expression into something to which others can relate. How do you make the private public, so that a discussion arises? Expression and communication: that’s what I would like to teach. That is often neglected at art academies. The focus there is too much on art as a product and not as a part of life, as a process, as an ongoing struggle.

The Chinese authorities have promised to let you back into the country. Do you know when you will travel back to China?

Perhaps tomorrow? I continue to be there in my mind, in my heart; but first of all, I am enjoying the days here. I haven’t had any time to say hello to my artist friends like Olafur Eliasson. Because first of all, I want to meet new people in Berlin and in Germany. That’s just the way I am.

Christiane Peitz writes for Tagesspiegel, a newspaper that is part of the Handelsblatt publishing group. To contact the author: redaktion@tagesspiegel.de

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