Ai Weiwei’s first blog post in 2005 was just one sentence: “To express yourself needs a reason; expressing yourself is the reason.” In spite of arrest, persecution, censorship, and even hospitalization due to the political nature of his work, Ai has remained deeply committed to this belief. In almost every aspect of his life—be it inside a museum or on Instagram—Ai relentlessly and thoroughly engages with his surroundings. His work and his passion has inspired a huge following around the world.
I wanted to understand Ai Weiwei’s work from inside of China. All too often in the West we are told only one story about China: a story about persecution and censorship, where free and creative expression is treated as toxic. Ai has become a testament to the limitations of that “single story,” to borrow a term from writer Chimamanda Adichie. He has been beaten for expressing his beliefs, and yet he continues to do so. His home is heavily surveilled, yet he continues to speak out.
With the recent arrests of 14 artists for holding a poetry reading in support of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Ai Weiwei’s ongoing dissidence is no small feat. He’s walking on the edge of a dangerous line and I wanted to know just how he balances there. How has the web been both a tool to capture a wider audience but also a tool of oppression? How has Ai used the limitations of his setting to make incredibly powerful artworks? With these dichotomies swirling in mind I sat down with him in his Beijing studio to get a better understanding.
First, I’d like to know more about what relationship you see between your art and activism, especially within the context of China.
Well, my life is here. I have my studio, my colleagues, and people working for me. Why I got into this so-called activism is only because as a person and as an artist I have to freely express my thinking and my thoughts. That becomes a real problem in China because from 2009 on, our voice has been shut down.
Since then our work cannot really be searched on the Internet, most of the time you cannot find any information that relates to me. This pushed me onto Twitter, which is very difficult to get on because it is blocked. Recently they even shut off Instagram because Hong Kong is occupying the central area down there and they are so afraid. It’s funny because basically on Instagram there are not so many people posting anything on social issues, it’s just selfies and food.
Still, you can see that these kinds of states, they have this frustration with the Internet because it reflects the idea of freedom and of individuality. Those are really dangerous to a totalitarian society like China. Tremendous money, hardware, and effort has been spent to try and stop the information. We as artists were pushed into this situation that greatly affected our lives, daily, even by the second.
My favorite two pieces by you are the heart-wrenching field of hand-straightened steel rebar which made Straight (2008–2012) and the accompanying wall documenting the names of those killed in the devastating aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China. What I love is how you documented the tragedy, which went largely unreported by state media both in a very journalistic manner-of-fact checking and investigation, and the other in a completely artistic gesture. Talk about that work.
As a person I’m just dealing with the problem of how to get my messages through. Firstly, we searched for the students’ names only when the state refused to tell us who had died. Instead of just asking the question and getting the same answer, we thought: why don’t we just go do our own research? It was a very natural act. As a person—if you care—go do it, why only keep nagging about it? It was very naive.
We organized on the Internet, and people really supported the project. We got a hundred people involved, and we went to the location and in many cases they got arrested and the information got deleted and was missing again. In the end, we got 5,219 names, which was really an achievement because the real death toll count was around 5,335 officially. They later announced this when we almost reached that number.
Again that is just our responsibility to what is happening here. To me this is very normal. We are still posting about it online everyday for six years now. We have never missed a day. Later, I felt that this was not enough, and because I’m an artist I wanted this to have a physical or a metaphysical impression. The issue is not just about facts but our understanding of what kind of world we are in.
How do you and everyday Chinese citizens know what is and is not allowed, and how do you go about pushing those limits?
Well, if we go by what is written in the Constitution, then there are many things you can and cannot do, and it’s not so different than in the United States. In reality you cannot even post one sentence without worrying that the authorities might be at your door. It’s difficult to know exactly what, except that you learn from others. This is how the state teaches people; they arrest a few people. Then they charge them with these strange reasons like prostitution or tax evasion, and the other people get scared. The state purposefully lets other people know that they are ruthless. Who else does this? The mafia uses the same kind of tactics.
The Chinese government has been heavily clamping down on social media the past few years, leading some critics to feel that the commitment to engendering change through online activism to be a misguided one. How important has social media been to your practice, and do you still believe it has the same potential for social change as it did early on?
I try to not separate my daily activity from my work. Everything is my work. The Internet changed things even before I noticed, and now we are facing very different matters and situations in every respect. You can never know what is and what is not powerful, but you can always find out what the powerful people are scared of. A state like China looks so powerful, but they are so scared of the Internet, so the Internet is more powerful than them.
What have Edward Snowden and his revelations meant to you, especially in light of your experience with surveillance?
That this person, this young guy from the United States working in a secret manner was willing to give information kept from people. And that, from his own conscience, this information relates to public security, that people should know it. He risked his life to tell the truth to the public. I think that this is admirable and courageous and what he did for the world was make it more conscious that there are certain threats to public security.