He is the most famous Chinese artist living today, a political and artistic multi multi-hyphenate: political detainee, activist, philosopher, provocateur, a sculptor, architect, filmmaker, installation artist, and the only person I’ve ever met who has an asteroid named after him: 83598 Aiweiwei. I wasn’t sure what to expect as we sat down to talk earlier this month at New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel; the artist, who works in Beijing and Berlin, was fresh off a plane. I was anticipating someone fierce but instead found Ai to be deeply charming, curious, a playful bear of a man who is more interested in asking questions than answering them.
Our spirited conversation was illustrative of the shift in the artist’s work in recent years, away from events in China and the government’s response to his work—often a commentary within a commentary, such as putting surveillance cameras on his home/studio and broadcasting live 24 hours a day while already under state surveillance. Of late he has worked to broaden his international scope, creating work in response to the global disaster of the refugee crisis and encouraging us to live in the embrace of each others’ differences, an important note from a man who had grown up in a culture that allowed for no difference, no individualization.
At this point in Ai’s career, there is no separation between his artwork and his political activism. His recent work includes Soleil Levant, composed of 3,500 life jackets discarded by refugees who had landed on Lesbos that barricaded the windows of the Kunsthal Charlottenborg museum in Copenhagen. Human Flow, a film about the global refugee crisis shot in 23 countries that documents his desire to understand it, will be released this fall. His Hansel & Gretel, a collaboration with architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, is an immersive exploration of modern surveillance complete with selfies, and is on view at New York’s Park Avenue Armory through August 6.
And in October, as part of its 40th anniversary, the Public Art Fund will present Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, titled after the poem “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost. Good Fences will consist of interruptions in the urban landscape in various locations across New York’s five boroughs. Among the works under discussion, though not yet confirmed, are a large-scale sculpture in Central Park’s Doris C. Freedman Plaza, which would present as a kind of beautiful golden/gilded bird cage made of steel, a visual puzzle akin to a maximum-security visitation from another planet and would have a central portion where visitors can enter, surrounded by an inaccessible passageway containing turnstiles. Another possible location is the Washington Square Park which could host a polished mirror passageway featuring two united human silhouettes, reminiscent of an entrance that artist Marcel Duchamp (who was known to play chess in the park) designed for André Breton’s Gradiva gallery in 1937.
Throughout the city, using elements of the everyday, Ai will create variations on fencing that draw on both literal and metaphorical expressions of division, questioning notions of security, exclusion, privacy, and possession. The scale of Ai’s work and the scope of his imagination allow for a beautiful, often elegiac, synthesis of his intellect and the aesthetic—one that is both larger than life and poetic in its simplicity.
On the nature of these immersive experiences, at this point, I suspect Ai would likely say that life itself is the most significant immersive experience and we best pay attention to it.
Vanity Fair: Since you were detained, did your perspective on China change? Did your perspective on the world change?
Ai Weiwei: It’s supposed to change, but it doesn’t change that much, because in China I was fighting for democracy and human rights. Here, in the U.S., particularly, you still have to fight for democracy and this freedom of speech. . . I realized human rights and human conditions are something every generation has to fight for. You cannot take it for granted. It’s like milk; you cannot keep it fresh for very long.
I was reading a bit about your father, Aì Qīng, who was considered one of the top modern Chinese poets and was later exiled and forced to work cleaning toilets, and I was curious to know if as a child you ever questioned—is this how it’s supposed to be, or is this just my family. Did it all make sense?
In your society, people are always insisting on individualism. And people have very different beliefs, religious or non-religious. But in communist societies, it’s just one color, the color gray. So, it’s very hard for anybody even to question anything, because there is no reference. There is no such thing as difference. My family, if I think back, I’m very privileged because I know my father was a poet and studied in Paris. He talked about Lorca. And that is very different from what other people talk about. And very different from Chairman Mao’s language or party propaganda. But at the same time there is a disconnect from reality. The reality is he has to clean the public toilets, 13 or 14 of them. And it’s not really a toilet. It’s just a hole dug in the earth; there’s no paper, no water. And the people just have to pick up some cotton from the fields, or some mud or clay to clean their ass. And they’re fine; that’s life. Everybody’s doing that. It’s quite fair because everybody is doing it. So, you cannot really question anything. Because everything is given as is, almost like a fish doesn’t question that it needs to be in the water, polluted or clean, there is no choice.
And was there a moment for you, when you came to New York the first time, of a kind of awakening of . . .
Oh, no. All I know about the United States is from a few writers like Mark Twain—On the Mississippi. When I was 10, I was so in love with that book. I thought, this is a fantastic story, very American, very boasting kind of epic. I think the Chinese revolution spirit was also influenced by that kind of language. Because you think you’re creating a new world, a new land. So, I came to the United States. I land in New York—totally capitalism. (Laughs) It’s such a harsh time for me.
Did you come to study art ?
I started a semester at Parsons. For me, it’s like kindergarten for the rich kids. I was always very frustrated. I have come from a communist society, learned all the skills of the representative, representational art. Then to be with the kids, struggling with color or other things. . . . Then, I was out, and on my own hanging around. But I don’t really want to accept the so-called American dream, to gain the security, or social status. I feel not interested. But to be an artist . . . it is complete nonsense. You want to sell a lot of work? Why? To whom?
I can imagine that would both amuse you and drive you crazy, that there is this art world that is rich people are buying art, you know.
Today I still don’t understand the art world. The art world is like people taking drugs. It has its own reason, its own charming or high moment. But for people who don’t take drugs, it doesn’t seem real.
In terms of New York and this project that you’re doing, were there artists that were an influence, in terms of thinking about this kind of work?
Nah, not really. I purposely disassociate myself from the so called . . . art world. I think if you really wanna become a relevant artist, you should explore some kind of new boundary or possibility. It is nonsense to repeat anybody, it doesn’t matter who.
Your work both makes a political and cultural comment. At the same time, it’s also formally both beautiful and well-resolved. I feel like people don’t often talk about the formal aspects.
I realized that I’m a very passionate lover, but at the same time, I want to make a seduction beautiful. I cannot impose on anybody; you have to be very skillful. I really believe art comes out of a language that means you communicate well. The idea is very simple, but how to heighten the idea? Or have the question be double-faced? [That] is putting yourself in a vulnerable condition, and people can share that. . . . There is no elite in there; we are all the same. You cannot really teach art. It can only be discovered through yourself.
Is the word “beauty” of meaning to you?
It means . . . it means a lot. It means humanity. It means you have to understand the limit of our human perspective.
I find America and our political system to be absent of history or context, while I think of other countries as very invested in their history, where whatever you make you carry your history with you. Right now, we have a president who doesn’t even know history . . .
But that’s also an interesting characteristic, [and] that’s why America can go very far. It’s like a child lost in the woods; does he forget his way or where he came from? But it’s really testing how much strength you have if you can still find another mushroom or another strawberry. Or you get totally lost. We see a lot of cultures that carry history, but they can’t really go forward because the history is so heavy.
Your upcoming New York piece was a long time in the evolution. We sort of talked about the difference between inside and outside, being inside a fence held in versus being outside trying to get in. I’m curious about both the conception of the piece and the idea of doing it in multiple locations around the city.
There are different levels, because we all, we’re all migrants somehow . . . our parents . . . we all come from somewhere as outsiders and foreigners. And eventually we have only one planet, which is totally foreign in the cosmos—unique. And so we have to recognize how much of a miracle life as a human species is, what kind of joy is even possible . . .
Is that not enough to make us want to protect each other? Do we still have to have nuclear bombs? It’s ridiculous. To design a piece for a city that’s like a miracle in that it has people from all over the world, a mixed society, with the most powerful and crazy minds and the most desperate people trying to find their next bread and butter, all mixed in the same location. It’s like a stage for Shakespeare. It’s not easy.
I want to co-exist with the conditions of those characters. And so fences—like nets—you can look through and from both sides. It looks the same, and very often you can’t even tell what side you’re on because there’s no other references there. But it clearly divides the in and out and the left-right, east-west, bottom or top.
And how about the site up by Trump’s house?
Oh, that’s a very, very, unique location, because Central Park and 59th Street are two blocks away from our president, or your president, or, you know, president of the universe. And he loves gold stuff. He doesn’t hide intentions, but at the same time, he makes statements all the time. We never had a president like that; they’re all more uptight or . . . this guy doesn’t really care that much. But he is going to challenge the democratic system, which is quite established for, for a long time. And he is gonna challenge that and how far he can go.
I wonder what kind of system he wants. Just the Trump system?
It’s really a system of making a deal. It’s like he’s taken the space shuttle with all of us in it? (Laughs)
Do you feel like there’s an element of performance to your work?
No. I don’t enjoy that part. Performance means you’re, you’re not completely trusting what you’re doing. . . . I think about my father’s generation, a whole generation of intellectuals has been swept away. No words—completely silent. There were a lot of intelligent people, a lot of good writers who could never really speak up. My voice owes so much to them. Every time I speak up, I think of the millions of people disappeared, and their voices were silenced. My voice is nothing, you know.
Do you feel like you now have freedom?
No, I would never feel that way. The more freedom you gain, the more responsibility you have, and then you feel such a burden. I would never have been introduced to refugees. . . . The Chinese used to say, “If you’re made of iron, how many nails can you make?” A few thousand, or a hundred thousand?
Meaning how many nails you can make without using up your body?
There’s an absolute limit. There’s a time element. There’s a space element. If I talk to you, can I talk to other people?