Ai Weiwei, 64, must qualify by now as a grand old man of contemporary art except that as a sculptor, photographer and documentary film-maker, he is characterised by unflagging energy and youthful playfulness. As a child, he lived in a dugout in China’s “Little Siberia” where his poet father, Ai Qing, had been banished, condemned as a “rightist”. In 2011, he was “disappeared” for 81 days in a Chinese jail and then spent four years under house arrest. In 2015, he left China and has since lived in Berlin, Cambridge and Portugal. His latest show at Kettle’s Yard, The Liberty of Doubt, exhibits Chinese antiquities – bought in 2020 at a Cambridge auction sale – alongside his own work.
You seem always to have been interested in what constitutes a fake and even once described yourself as simultaneously “sincere and insincere”?
I talk about fakes all the time. My architecture company in China is called Fake. People joke and say: the only real company, producing real stuff, in China is “Fake”. I thought maybe I’d do a show about authenticity. I’ve been a collector of Chinese antiquities for 30 years, I used to look for them in thousands of shops in China. I enjoyed it because every piece is a mystery. The Cambridge auction happened when I was driving to Portugal. I told my partner to use her garage to store the works – they arrived badly wrapped in newspaper. I realised that many were not authentic but they were not badly made. They were super-good – perfect – except that they did not have the patina of 500 years ago. Then I showed them to friends, one of whom, a retired top US dealer, said: “Weiwei, it is all fake.” Another friend who sells antiques in China said: “Not only is this fake, I even know who made it.” And I thought: this is interesting.
There is a 2020 work in the show of a toilet roll made out of marble (2020). Do you like using valuable materials ironically?
Playfulness is so important – I think I am like a cat. Cats are always wondering. If you throw a paper ball to a cat, it can play for a whole day…. Life is a serious matter, but also ironic. When marble was used in the past, it had a monumental or memorialising status. Toilet paper disappeared from the shelves during the pandemic. This is a society in which we can send a shuttle into outer space yet cannot solve a humble problem – the moment deserved to be remembered.
In your autobiography, you write of your “wilful tendency to let the dice fall where they may” – does that streak of gambling and opportunism contribute to your art?
The first intention of life itself is to grab something. It is like a drunk person having to grab something to hold on to… grabbing reflects my mind: as an artist, if I don’t grab something, I might as well be dead. It is my inner need to do that.
To what extent have the years spent living in the dugout influenced your life? What did they teach you about survival? And what did being dirt-poor teach you about riches?
My father was a poet, and the word “money” never came out of his mouth. He was such a pure man. What mattered was imagination and the spiritual and the daily practice of language. This time was a training in understanding that nothing belongs to you except your mind and your health. The rest is illusion. If I look back, it was an extremely difficult time. If you look at my iPhone, I have this image of the dugout… it was in a vast, vast desert – the Gobi desert – with no sign of life. But we survived. We survived the lack of material things. We also had to protect our dignity from total insult and discrimination – but I didn’t really pay much very attention until much later. That time taught me how low humanity can go.
And at what point in your life did you start to feel a spirit of resistance in yourself?
When I started to research the students who died in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, right before the Olympics opened [the Chinese government censored and controlled all information about the earthquake]. Piece by piece, we found them – the names, schools and universities of 5,219 students. I felt desperate at that time. I felt I could collapse at any moment and I knew the authorities could make me disappear easily.
What would your father have made of your success had he lived to see it?
He died in 1996. I went back [to China] from New York in 1993. I was trying to stay calmly in China – doing nothing, sometimes playing poker with my brother, just to be there as his son. I knew the time was getting closer and one night we came to the hospital and he had passed away. We didn’t have very close relations, we were together all the time but didn’t have that much communication. He had been tragic in his life. His mind was always somewhere else. He never wanted me to become an artist. He was tolerant that I did art, but knew what art was like in China, that it could bring all kinds of trouble. He had been punished by doing poetry – so he did not encourage nor try to stop me. He would never have imagined that I would become a well-known artist.
Do you think your son, Ai Lao, has the artistic or poetic gene?
He is 13, and I think my son has better potential than me – I was very late in recognising I could do some art but he, I can see, is very creative and with a strong mind and good skill. But I am not sure he would want to become an artist. And I don’t give him any advice.
One of your films that will be part of the exhibition is Human Flow (2017), about the refugee crisis. I imagine you must have keen fellow feeling for the refugees…
To be a refugee, you have to give up everything: your language, first; your people, your culture, even your religion. It is never a clear choice. I can understand their courage to give up everything in exchange for their children’s future. And many courageous people lose their lives on the way to their destination. That’s a price they are paying… They need safety and to be helped and treated with compassion and to be told “here you can stay”, but we don’t even give that possibility, and that makes me really frustrated. They ask so little and are giving up so much.
Could you ever envisage living in China again?
I’d love to go back. My mum is almost 90 and thinks about me and my safety but tells me: do not come back. I take her words seriously. No mum tells her son: “do not come back”, but she is sincere because of what she experienced when I was disappeared. In the whole nation, no one could give her one sentence about where I was and that made her older by many years so that, when I came out, I could see all the worry and absence of sleep marked on her face.
This morning, knowing I was interviewing you, a headline leapt out at me: where is Chinese tennis champion Peng Shuai?
She is in the very safe hands of the Communist party. They will make sure she behaves exactly according to the party. She may already be thinking she made a mistake in exposing this very deep, dark relationship. She has put her family, friends, career at stake. There is no spirit for her any more. She has become another person, and whatever she tells you is not true.
I know your work involves many people – how many do you employ regularly in your team and is it really true, as you often modestly argue, that you are mostly the ideas man nowadays?
We have about 30 people – mostly, they find me. Many have been with me 10, 20 or even 30 years. Once we were together, we became like a family. We live together and have fun. I have survived a difficult life and I am a very handy person – my hands are always working. If your hands are not working, your brain is not going to function. I am very capable: carpentry, stone, iron. I have also become skilful on social media. Everything is about the continuity of learning, and learning comes from curiosity.
Does your energy ever flag?
I have much less energy, which is natural when you are getting older. My older dog always takes a nap while my younger dog runs round with more curiosity. But when you do something you believe in, it attracts you and you are part of it. You borrow your energy from others.