Ai Weiwei – from criminal to art-world superstar

The Chinese artist talks about how his incarceration helped his career, and why he’s embarrassed about his early work – ahead of his first major UK exhibition

For a man who in 2011 spent 81 days incarcerated without charge at the pleasure of the government of the People’s Republic of China, Ai Weiwei’s choice of Berlin studio is a curious one. Rather than an airy white room full of light, he has gone for the opposite: an extraordinary maze of underground cellars that were once the cooling warehouses for the Pfefferberg brewery. This cavernous labyrinth of huge, bare, brick-vaulted spaces serves as studio, store rooms, refectory and creative hub for Ai and his team, and in its Carthusian calm resembles a subterranean monastery. The place exudes a feeling of security but not necessarily of freedom.

Berlin is Ai’s European base both for its geographical location and because his partner and six-year-old son live there. On his release from jail four years ago the authorities withheld his passport; it was returned to him only in July and Berlin was his first destination as a free man. On his arrival, the city greeted him as artist-activist royalty with a red-carpet welcome by the mayor and a teaching post at the University of the Arts.

Berlin is also the place where many of the works that will be appearing at the Royal Academy’s big autumn show, Ai’s first major exhibition in Britain, were made. Like many successful artists, he operates a version of the traditional atelier system, with a crowd of assistants and fabricators producing his work. In this instance, although many of the pieces were conceived in his studio in China they just happen to have emerged some 6,000 miles away in the middle of Europe, courtesy of email, Skype and Twitter (Ai is an addict: in one year and a half period he once posted 60,000 tweets).

There is nothing at ground level outside the studio to indicate that what lies beneath is the realm of such a celebrated figure – celebrated, it must be said, as much, if not more, for his human rights stance as for his art. One of the aims of the RA exhibition is to show what it is Ai actually makes. At the moment he is best known for his 2010-11 Sunflower Seeds installation at Tate Modern and the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, for which he was artistic consultant to the architectural team of Herzog & de Meuron. Beyond that, most people would, one suspects, struggle to name an Ai work.

After descending a series of staircases and traversing numerous echoing spaces, I find the artist in a long room lit by a light well, sitting like a Buddha and contemplating a cup of tea. For a man who has caused such a rumpus he appears a figure of immaculate calm; bearded and T-shirted, he is a media veteran who measures his words but nevertheless laughs easily.

I ask him first if the RA show would be very different had he been able to work in Berlin earlier. “I selected the works years ago,” he responds. “If I had a chance to choose them now I would still choose the same works.” Going to London, though, will give him the opportunity to oversee the final stages of the display and also, to his slight dismay, take part in the razzmatazz of the opening. “The handshaking and the champagne are not what I’m very good at, and if I have a chance to avoid them … because of the Chinese government I’ve had over 100 shows that I haven’t been able to attend over the past 10 years.”

The exhibition will focus on work from the past decade because, he says, “so many things have happened – artistic and social and political. I have made works relating to my own experience, they reflect the place I have in China. I am most identified with struggle – physical or internal.” In China he is an elephant in the room: his name is not supposed to be mentioned, he is under constant surveillance yet people know exactly who he is.

Tree installation from the Royal Academy exhibition.
Tree installation from the Royal Academy exhibition. Photograph: Jens Ziehe/Photographie/Royal Academy

Ai’s struggles with authority have a long provenance. His father, a poet, was exiled by Mao to the margins of the Gobi desert during the Cultural Revolution and the family grew up in extreme poverty. Ai’s father was made to clean the public lavatories, the family was ostracised and, at one point, lived in a hole dug in the ground where the young Ai learned to make bricks from the earth (a history that makes the Berlin cellars less surprising, perhaps). Although Ai senior was later rehabilitated, the experience left his son with deeply equivocal feelings about the Chinese state.

Although Ai had been a long-term critic of the authorities, his own problems escalated with the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 during which innumerable schools collapsed, killing thousands of students. The government tried to suppress the scale of the disaster, not least because so many of the schools were, as a result of widespread corruption, jerry-built (they were nicknamed “tofu-dregs schools”). Ai’s response was to create a frieze composed of 9,000 children’s backpacks (called, after one mother’s memorial words to her child, She lived happily in this world for seven years), and another piece, Straight, comprising hundreds of steel reinforcing bars collected from the rubble. He also published the names of 5,000 of the dead schoolchildren. In the succeeding train of events the government shut down his blog, he was beaten so severely that he was hospitalised for a head wound (a cerebral haemorrhage), his studio in Shanghai was demolished for supposedly being built without the necessary permits, and he was imprisoned and investigated on charges of pornography, bigamy, tax avoidance and foreign currency irregularities. He has not, however, been convicted of any crime.

It was these legal proceedings that lay behind the UK Home Office’s initial refusal to grant Ai a British visa, on the grounds that he hadn’t declared his non-existent criminal convictions. The decision caused an uproar and was quickly overturned by Theresa May. Did Ai fear that the refusal stemmed from the British government’s desire not to upset the Chinese? “It was bureaucracy certainly,” he says, weighing his words, “but it reflects, perhaps, certain attitudes of the government … When I was refused, the feeling was quite sensational because I had just opened a door” – his Chinese passport had been returned – “and then there was another door. But it was solved so quickly. I admire the British public, the media and the government – that’s the benefit of a democratic society, a long-established civic society: everything can be solved.”

He laughs when I ask if his struggles have made him a better artist, but does acknowledge that they have changed him in a different way. “The police asked, very sincerely: ‘Do we make you very famous in the world?’ It is hard for them to ask this sort of question. I answered: ‘Yes. Five years ago when I did Sunflower Seeds, if I walk in a London street nobody knows who Ai Weiwei is. Today, every day, people jump off their bicycles, little kids ask are you Ai Weiwei? I have become some sort of myth.’ So I told the police: ‘Without you, I would never have become so noticeable as an artist.’ ”

The finishing touches are put to Ai Weiwei's 'Forever', by the Gherkin building, as part of the City of London's
The finishing touches are put to Ai Weiwei’s ‘Forever’, by the Gherkin building, as part of the City of London’s ‘Sculpture in the City 2015’ programme. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Fame, however, has been a shock: “For the past four and a half years, after my detention, I couldn’t see it, I only heard that it was a phenomenon.” Phenomenon is right: he was named the most powerful person in the art world by Art Review; when he was arrested Václav Havel signed a letter calling for his release and he even has an asteroid named after him.

Does he enjoy his celebrity? “Anybody would be touched by a real emotion which says ‘we support you, your effort’. I’m just an ordinary guy.” But, I point out, he is very far from an ordinary guy. “Well, I bear responsibility. I enjoy the recognition. It is not abstract. If you can use your power from art or freedom of expression to communicate with people, I think that is something beyond my imagination.” So does he want to change China? “Art is deeply rooted in every human being so certainly it can be used to change society. I think that is possible.”

Ai’s art, the agent of this putative change, is based around the “readymade”, the genre pioneered early in the 20th century by his hero, Marcel Duchamp, in which everyday objects are repurposed as art. Ai’s work is large scale and uses such items as wooden stools and bicycles which are joined together in great numbers to resemble giant structures, such as Crick and Watson’s model of DNA. There is a series of Neolithic Chinese vases that he has dipped in lividly bright commercial paint, so that the modern colours drip down the ancient shapes.

There is antique Chinese furniture that has been cut and rejointed with perfect craftsmanship at strange, unstable angles. Visitors to the RA will pass through a courtyard containing a forest of seven metre-tall trees, each constructed from the limbs of numerous other dead trees – a £100,000 project funded by crowdsourcing. Then there is his photography and architecture too.

Ai Weiwei and the Han vase.

“China itself is a sort of readymade,” Ai says; “Its history, its current struggle, its painful struggle – I make works relating to that.” Is he then a Chinese artist or a global one? “I am a global artist,” he responds, “but with Chinese characteristics – that’s what communists always say: we should build ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. The kind of ideology I identify with, though, is modernism.” Modernism for Ai is not the historical movement of Duchamp, the Cubists, Mondrian, Le Corbusier et al but an ongoing project. “We are the fortunate children of the past,” he says, but also “new humans, we are created by the new technology and the new possibilities. And a new language of form, sensitivity, emotions is needed to cope with our self-consciousness and identities.”

That new language will not involve, as it once did, being photographed dropping a 2,000 year-old Han vase or indeed the overpainting of Neolithic vases. Ai looks vaguely embarrassed when I mention this destructiveness, so surprising in someone who felt the full effect of the anti-historical Cultural Revolution. Those works, he says, reflected his early response to “human assumptions towards the value of the past”. “I did them as a joke, an act. In the early 1990s I never thought there was a chance of there being such a thing as a public artist again.” He didn’t think they would be seen. Would he do the same again? “I’m not interested in that sort of attitude any more.” They were, he agrees, a young man’s statement.

He also once claimed that being an artist is like being a virus. The phrase makes him uncomfortable (“My mind is sometimes so awkward and I have this sense that I have to give some sort of explanation”) but he doesn’t disavow his virus status. “There is,” he says, “no way to stop me. It’s not possible. The only way to stop me is to put me away. They tried and that didn’t work that well.”

Although many people are involved in the construction of the works, Ai Weiwei's art is not collaborative.
Although many people are involved in the construction of the works, Ai Weiwei’s art is not collaborative. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

Are you then in a battle with the government, I ask. “For a moment I felt I’m like a chess player and I’m going to win the game. I no longer think that way. I haven’t lost the confidence but if the table is going to be overthrown and you’re going to be put in a dark basement, then you think again about the game.” He later likens the situation to a boxing match, with the return of his passport marking a break between rounds: “But it is not a boxing match for 12 rounds but for 120 rounds.”

Ai lives, he says, in a permanent state of anxiety and doubt. Partly because of the possibility of rearrest and because his acts have consequences for those around him: “With many of my close friends, my lawyers, my allies, my colleagues still in jail – not sentenced after a year and a half – that would make anybody hesitate.” Not that this changes his provocateur stance: “It doesn’t change my beliefs. My actions would only be changed if my own method of defence is shown not to work really well.”

He is anxious too because that is his artistic nature. Of his work, he notes that “You have to feel it’s a little bit impossible, you don’t want to know you’re going to win. If you do there’s not a challenge there.” He has responsibilities to his team too, a core of some 40 people rising to 100 when the various fabricators are added in. Ai’s art, however, is not collaborative. “I’m the one who makes all the decisions, covers every inch, every setting, material, paragraph, I try to do as much as I can. That’s why I never have a vacation. Weekends, I don’t go to church. I work seven days a week, I’m always the first one in the office, at seven, and the last one to leave, at midnight or one o’clock.”

'Coloured Vases', 2015.
‘Coloured Vases’, 2015. Photograph: PR/Royal Academy

Given the scale, labour intensiveness and sheer cost of making his art (he has a roster of dealers around the world: whatever Ai’s art is about it is also about money), he must be racked with doubts. Sunflower Seeds, for example, was no jeu d’esprit but was two and a half years in the making and involved 1,600 craftsmen and women to paint the 100m porcelain seeds, each of which represented 13 people (adding up to the entire population of China). In such a project there is no room for second thoughts halfway through.

“I question the whole time,” Ai says. “You have to defend your own position. So if you find a work is too weak or it won’t become what you originally thought … that’s the worst time. You really have to trust what you’re doing.” Or, in one of the many gnomic metaphors that pepper his conversation, “A baby isn’t born as a soldier or fighter, it has to go through a very long practice, that can be a very dark, very terrible period of time but it is so rewarding, every time you have that difficulty it becomes a work you feel better about … The child who likes to cry becomes the child you give more love to – a Chinese saying – well, art is like that” And, on a roll now: “The harvest doesn’t become a harvest unless you work on the fields the whole time.”

Given the stress inherent in both his activist life and in producing big-sweep art, I ask him if he ever makes small-scale, personal pieces, about his partner and child, perhaps, or about love and intimacy. In a convoluted metaphor he explains that “I tell people I’m just like a plumber, and people in my building call me up and say my pipe’s leaking, can you come up? The toilet won’t flush, will you come? But I’m also very good at biochemistry but no one in the whole building calls me for that. There’s no need for a biochemist but there is for plumbers. So I have become like a skilful, expert plumber.” A plumber, it seems, is the artist he is, a biochemist is the artist he could be. In the end Ai gives up on the metaphor too. “To answer your question, I’m sure I’d be pretty good at doing things about the people I care for but I’d rather leave that [sort of art] for others.” He describes his family as “part of me”.

What visitors to the RA exhibition will see is the work of someone who believes that art no longer works in “the old way, with a few masters, but of different fields full of discoveries” – made by a plumber who dreams of being a biochemist.

• ‘Ai Weiwei’ is at the Royal Academy, London W1, from 19 September to 13 December.


Michael Prodger

The GuardianTramp

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