China Change, July 6, 2023
China, the World, and Freedom of Expression
YC: Throughout your work, what really astonishes me, and what seems to me incomprehensible, is the scale: one hundred million sunflower seeds, 1001 Chinese people going to Germany, 90 tons of rebar…
AWW: Nearly 200 tons, only a portion was exhibited, because the museum floor couldn’t bear the load.
YC: The news report described it as 90 tons anyway. 650,000 Lego pieces. Also your documentary “Human Flow,” for which you went to more than twenty countries and regions. This kind of scale, from a phenomenological perspective…
AWW: I can answer you from a phenomenological perspective: it’s like a dog trying to lick eight piles of shit, but can’t lick any clean.
YC: That’s funny. What do you mean?
AWW: Life gives us a lot, and I have a lot of curiosity and interests. But in reality, I have not gone as deep as I’d like. That said,I’ve gone a little deeper than most people.
YC: I didn’t expect you to be so unsparing with yourself.
AWW: That’s just the way it is. Our time is very short.
YC: In other words, you have to be on such a scale in order to realize your artistic ideas.
AWW: Not necessarily. Look, there are already 100 million refugees today, out of 7 billion human beings on earth. You’ve watched the film we shot. When you see the state of these refugees and the refugee camps, there are so many children and women in there, day and night, without even lighting, without the next meal, no education for the children, no jobs for the adults. This waste of human beings does unimaginable damage to individual dignity and civilization. Meanwhile, the “white left” (白左) in today’s world likes to performatively shout slogans, but in reality, they don’t know what to do in the face of these problems. They are extremely hypocritical, and they are in fact part of the crime. Everyone wants to evade it. My scale that you speak of is nothing, it’s too small. Seventy thousand people died in the earthquake in Sichuan; it’s said that 200,000 died in the Tangshan earthquake [in 1976]. Has anybody been held to account? Has anyone come out to take some responsibility? So, the scale of my work is nothing.
YC: If you put it in such a context, well, okay. But from the perspective of a single piece of art exhibited in a museum, those hundred million sunflower seeds…
AWW: In fact, my goal is very simple, I just want to make a work of art that neither museums nor private collectors can collect, and if in the end it just rots in the ground, that would make me the happiest.
YC: Is that so? Hahaha.
AWW: Yes, because I think they don’t have the necessary qualifications to collect the works of an artist like me.
YC: You said the other day that creating a work is like creating a problem for yourself. Once you have a problem, you need to find a solution for it. I really like this statement of yours. You enjoy this problem-solving process, don’t you?
AWW: What I enjoy is a sense of realness in life, whether it’s joy or pain. But only when you push yourself to an extreme, does this pleasure manifest itself.
YC: You spent 10 years in New York in your twenties and early thirties. Then you went back to China for over 20 years, but during those 20-plus years, you had always been connected with the outside world, and your art was always on the international stage. Then you left China again, and it’s been almost 8 years. How do you see your relationship with China?
AWW: I would say this relationship is predetermined. My forebears were Chinese rooted in that land. As for me, right from birth, I was rejected as one of the “five black categories.” Then I left the country on my own in my early twenties for the United States, and didn’t return to China until I was 36 years old. At that point, China had actually become a rather strange place for me, unrecognizable and undefinable. It had turned from an autocratic society to an authoritarian capitalist one, until I was eventually forced to leave again. So, I’m a person who has no particular no sense of national identity, because in China, I’ve always been treated as an alien. Also in China, I haven’t had a place to call home, because my family was exiled to the northeast, then to Xinjiang in the northwest, then we moved back to Beijing. Soon after that I left for New York City. There is not a plot, a corner, a street, or a street lamp that I’m familiar with. I have no story, no narrative there; everything is torn apart. That’s how I see my existence in China.
Today, we’ve settled down in Portugal, a place I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. But here, I’m starting to grow some plants, do a little something, to give myself a sense of belonging.
YC: On my first day here, you took me for a tour of the construction site where you are building a “house” on the premises. I had read that it was a wood-framed structure using traditional Chinese mortise-tenon connection. You told me the design was similar to your Shanghai studio that was demolished. I asked what the building was for, and you said it was for no particular use, which surprised me. Then you said that building a house is a way for you to engage with the locals meaningfully. You jokingly referred to the structure as “one country, two systems,” meaning that it’s a modern architecture with traditional Chinese methods. I must say that what you said about the “house,” the different aspects of designing and building it gave me much food for thought.
AWW: I think you’ve touched on the essential things. At this stage of life, my understanding is that we have this life only once, it comes as a coincidence, and will disappear without exception. We can regard it as a mythology, or part of a mystery, which we can’t understand.
As such, all our actions are part of it. Within its scope, everything that happens between birth and death, what’s in our control and what’s beyond, what we think is meaningful, what we strive for and what we have to do, what we inexplicably do or subconsciously do, all has a meaning that is beyond our limited scope, right? Because in the larger scheme of things and its long cycle, our existence is too small, too short, and it mounts to almost nothing, like a twitch, or even not so much as a twitch before it stops.
So I think discussing the meaning of things is really not important and not worth the effort. But that said, every morning, I go to the construction site to see what has changed, what progress the group of workers have made. I don’t need a studio at all, and I don’t really have to become an artist. Other than that, I might need to drink water when I’m thirsty, I need to go to the bathroom now and then, or chat with people. I eat something when I’m hungry, I cook, and try to make something different. That’s about it. These are the necessities, everything else, if you ask me, really is not too necessary, but they exist. It’s just an awkward situation.
YC: Freedom of speech has always been a topic you care about the most, and you believe it’s the most fundamental freedom of all. In China, you’re a canceled person. Today, in the West, there’s also the cancel culture, and it seems that you’re deeply worried about it. Could you elaborate on this?
AWW: I wouldn’t say I’m deeply concerned, but I really don’t like what I see. For me, freedom of speech is the manifestation and validation of life. Without it, life ceases to be life. It’s not just an activity in life where you struggle, for example, to make a voice heard. Like temperature and heart beat, freedom of expression is a vital sign of life. On this point, my understanding of freedom of speech may be more fundamental than most people’s.
Back to what you’ve brought up today, the West boasts of having freedom of speech, especially the United States, and of course Europe as well, but in fact, this is nonsense. As long as there is despotism, as long as power exists, as long as there are interest groups, this freedom is limited. The West is essentially under despotic capitalism, a centralized corporatist society. It’s different from China’s despotism, but they share many commonalities, that is, to dismantle or abolish freedom of speech.
We don’t have to go too far: Assange is still in a British prison today, facing extradition to the United States, for WikiLeaks, while what he did is what a dedicated journalist should do.
Another one is Snowden. He is now a refugee in Russia. There are many such people. On the one hand, the West boasts freedom of speech in confronting authoritarian states, using freedom of speech as a bargaining chip; on the other hand, it using double standards, practicing censorship and even sanctions in its own society. In universities, on social media, or in public opinion, many issues are not allowed to be discussed, many issues are erased, even the speeches of an incumbent president can be blocked, and he himself deplatformed from social media. I find it ludicrous and shocking that this sort of thing can happen in the United States. Of course, America is indeed such a society, and it can’t really hide its cruelty, just like a wolf can’t hide its fangs.
YC: You mentioned the other day — I didn’t remember your exact words — that you only consider two of your works valuable, one is the investigation into student deaths in 2008, the other is your refugee film. Why do you think so, given that you have such a large body of work?
AWW: Personally, I spent a lot of energy on these two works. One was in China where I strived to value lives and preserve memories. Doing so, as I found out, was so befuddling and difficult that I almost died.
The other was abroad. After 2015, I put myself through some catch-up lessons and hoped to have a more comprehensive understanding of international politics, a certain understanding of the Western social system and human history. So I set out to investigate the refugee situation, traveling to Asia, the Middle East, South America, and many other places for field studies.
Both experiences have made a profound impact on me, and I may say that they helped me construct my understanding of the world. That’s that.
YC: You wrote about your arrest in 2011 and how you often suffered from insomnia during detention. You said you had doubts about yourself, about how all these would end, and about the past that led you there in those sleepless nights. What were your doubts?
AWW: In fact, looking back now, I’m very grateful that they arrested me, because it interrupted the normal course of my life, putting me in an unnatural situation. Although it wasn’t that long, 81 days, it was long enough for me to think through a few things. One was that I began to imagine the path that my father and his generation had walked. I had, to a certain degree, followed in his footsteps and done something to take on the conflict between personal expression and power, even radicalizing it. In the end, the Chinese authorities were not going to tolerate someone like me, and had to arrest me, right? So in a way, I had brought this onto myself.
At the same time, I had a child who had just been born. He was born in 2009, and I was arrested in 2011, when he was two years old. I felt that my arrest disrupted this continuity of life because it was a real possibility that I could have still been in jail today. It was 2011 then, and they said they would sentence me to 13 years in prison. Now it’s 2023, so I could have still remained behind bars for another two or three years [had the full sentence been given]. So at that time, I was deeply tormented by guilt: my actions had brought another person, another life, great misfortune, and I had completely failed in my duty.
That’s why, after I was released, I felt compelled to write a book to sum up my story for my son so that, in the future, in case he wants to know what happened, he would have a source. He wouldn’t necessarily have to believe me, but he would know how I’ve recounted the events. For me, it was a matter of fulfilling my duty.
In addition, I’ve also been thinking that my conflict with authoritarianism and society is a deeper one. It’s not about a certain political party or a certain incident; it’s about how humanity maintains individual dignity and life, and how a life perfects itself. Under any circumstances, the first condition is that there must be guarantees for freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Without this condition, we cannot consummate ourselves in any society. I’m not talking about the perfection of self, not society. I’ve never believed that society must or should be in one particular form or another, but life should only have one form, which is self-perfection.
An Interview With Ai Weiwei, Part One: The Year 2008, June 29, 2023.