Many people in the Bay Area came to know Ai Weiwei’s visionary art in 2014, when he remained banned from traveling outside China and remotely created the large-scale “@Large,” an installation on San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island. The exhibit focused on privacy and included quotes from activist Edward Snowden. Other followers of his work met Weiwei through social media, especially Instagram, where he relentlessly exposes his life in a deliberate countermeasure to China’s and other countries’ restrictions on freedom.
He will appear Sept. 24 at Zellerbach Hall on the UC campus, courtesy of Cal Performances, in conversation with theater director Peter Sellars and Orville Schell, director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society.
“People often believe that art necessitates a free environment or that art without freedom is not art. Yet, I perceive this as a misconception,” he says. “At the heart of this lies an exploration into the very definitions of freedom and art. These are the queries I wish to delve into.”
Weiwei, born in Beijing in 1957, now lives and works in Berlin. He is the recipient of the 2015 Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International and the 2012 Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent from the Human Rights Foundation, among other honors. In April 2011 Chinese authorities arrested him and held him for three months. Upon his release, they prohibited him from traveling abroad or speaking publicly. He continues to experience government surveillance and interference.
(The following interview is edited for length.)
EBX: Having experienced exile and incarceration, what truths about your captors rise up as most urgent for exposure, public dialogue, preventative legislation or other attention?
AW: The jailer and the prisoner, as well as the exiled and those compelling them into exile, embody what I perceive as the entirety of contradictory forces. Can it truly be said that the jailers are not themselves dwelling within an invisible imprisonment? Similarly, can it be contended that those enforcing exile upon others are not in a form of exile concerning their thoughts and political intentions?
In our contemporary landscape, [it is evident] that within the framework of Western societies that praise themselves for democracy and the freedom of speech and the press, there persists a significant infringement upon human rights and limitations on freedom of expression and the press for those who do not align with the values championed. These instances often remain unnoticed by the majority or are cast aside by society at large, erasing the value systems of such dissident individuals.
Figures like Edward Snowden embody the epitome of conscientious American awareness. Transparency forms the bedrock of fairness and justice. Absent public visibility and transparency, fairness and justice become inexistent.
Yesterday, I visited Julian Assange at the HMP Belmarsh prison. Sitting before him, I sensed an aura of sanctity. Despite his prolonged incarceration, he remains optimistic and candid. He is an innocent man imprisoned for many years. The possibility looms that he might pay an even steeper cost—a potential extradition to the U.S., where he would face a sentence of 175 years in prison. All of this has unfolded before our collective gaze. No one can assert ignorance regarding these facts. No one can detach themselves from the rights we hold dear. No one can distance themselves from the society he advocates, a society relevant to the aspirations of our succeeding generations and our aspirations for a harmonious era of coexistence.
These two instances are invoked because I believe we put overly pronounced emphasis on abstract values, rather than engaging ourselves with the actualities of our reality. These instances, indeed, signify the fractures within our societal fabric, fractures that continue to widen until the once-perfect porcelain shatters and crumbles.
EBX: Please share some of your perspectives on China today.
AI: There is a lot of discussion surrounding China, and even China is engaged in self-reflection. However, more often than not—encompassing around 90% of cases or even more—such discourse is replete with bias, unfounded assertions and, at times, distortions. It’s akin to observing an object. China, a nation boasting a history of over 5,000 years, has cultivated a complex civilization through myriad epochs. Its trajectory has been marked by intermingling with diverse cultures, enduring dynastic shifts, contending with external influences, and showcasing unparalleled resilience, adaptability and intricacy.
In its entirety, today’s New China, established in 1949, barely accounts for a mere 70-year stretch in the extensive annals of its history. It occupies less than a solitary page—not even a chapter, perhaps just a paragraph—in the vast book that encapsulates China’s narrative. From today’s perspective, China has grappled with questions. First, its population is 1.4 billion. Over the preceding decades, it has transcended its status as an impoverished nation to emerge as a global economic contender. This transformation underpins its immense potential, existing alongside the populace’s capacity to endure hardship, seek happiness, foster creativity and share common wisdom.
Nevertheless, China remains entrenched in significant societal contradictions. Resolving these contradictions hinges on dual facets. Firstly, it demands that China deepens its self-evolution, steering away from its autocratic ethos towards an open, tolerant society that embraces creativity. There is still a long way to go. Secondly, resolving these contradictions is contingent upon the ebb and flow of international politics in the region. Should global politics perceive China solely as a threat, it underscores two underlying realities: China’s indomitable ascension and the insecurity, or feebleness, of its adversaries. A confident contender, like the United States, should, if truly self-assured in its value system and existential rationale, remain undeterred by China’s existence. The manner in which the West, including the United States, portrays China as a source of peril principally reveals the West’s own substantial dilemmas.
EBX: What do your answers indicate about China’s relationship with freedom and individual expression (through art or other means)?
AI: In various dimensions, when viewed holistically, the longstanding prevalence of China’s centralized form of governance—not intended as a criticism per se—prohibits any form of critique toward its political sphere and environment. Within this context, we can assert that it stands on fragile ground. Recognizing this fragility, the regime enforces stricter control, a method that has proven effective.
Amidst these circumstances, the emergence of art or literature is still possible, much like how grass can sprout from stones, appearing even more lush against this backdrop. Yet, in most cases, such growth from stone remains improbable; and where greenery does surface, it’s akin to the art of bonsai, where a specific form and pattern are contorted and forged through life’s adversities. The art that takes shape in China is, to a large extent, analogous to bonsai. It is crafted to meet the aesthetic preferences of its cultivator. Those unaware of this intricacy might perceive it as peculiar and remarkable, yet these traits stem from the constraints of existence.
In realms where growth is unrestricted, does the soil necessarily yield superior flora and blossoms? Not invariably. It forms an ecosystem where weeds sprout indiscriminately. Their growth is indiscriminate and haphazard, never maturing into towering, resolute trees.
EBX: Might your perspectives, if extrapolated, help Americans or people in the Western world to understand modern-day China?
AI: To assist anyone, including oneself, in comprehending something, the simplest approach is direct engagement. The foremost prerequisite for such direct interaction is to avoid heeding propaganda, particularly that which appears reasonable and readily acceptable. All knowledge that’s effortlessly embraced and all propaganda that sounds unquestionable act as toxins. Genuine insights into humanity stem from authentic emotions, perceptions and tangible experiences on location. Without immersing ourselves in these physical experiences, our understanding often remains shallow and any preaching can indeed become a form of poison, fostering shortsightedness, arrogance, self-importance and a dismissive attitude towards others.
Across all societal frameworks, individuals strive to survive. The intrinsic essence of the drive for survival transcends national borders and religious convictions. Our collective aspiration revolves around seeking happiness and a healthy existence. It’s crucial to recognize that this aspiration is shared by others as well.
EBX: What are the primary threats to freedom in America?
AI: The U.S. excessively amplifies the scope of its freedom and its resilience to withstand it. While I have utilized Snowden and Assange as illustrations, these cases are not comprehensive, as they pertain to individual instances. On a broader scale, both the left and right political currents in America significantly reveal the disparities and limitations present within American politics. The United States, despite its continual emphasis on freedom, often lacks a genuine understanding of what freedom truly entails. Freedom inherently belongs to individuals, and its existence naturally stands in contrast to public political slogans and propaganda. When a society fails to champion individual perspectives and “dissident views,” and when a university stifles the presence of diverse expressions, that society is on a trajectory toward becoming impaired. Such a society cannot effectively address the intricate challenges faced by humanity.
EBX: People often separate or, alternatively, mash into a monolith, an artist’s identity or life and the art created. Knowing that your life/activism/identity/art are integrated, is there space between—or features distinguishing—each component from the others?
AI: This question is intricate and widespread in its nature. In the marketplace we encounter commodities such as tomatoes and bananas, evaluating them primarily for their nutritional content, appearance or the pleasing scent they emit. Yet, few of us genuinely seek to uncover the essence that defines a banana as a banana, or to fathom the intricate processes through which tomatoes grow, or to examine the enigmatic coexistence of bananas and tomatoes in proximity. These queries possess profound religious implications which transcend the grasp of science itself. While science can elucidate specific phenomena, it often carries an inherent arrogance of ours that blinds us from comprehending our own existence.
We could assert that I navigate an extreme turmoil in terms of value systems, spanning from an early stage characterized by intensely politicized education to a subsequent immersion in the realm of capitalism. My worldview and aesthetic sensibilities have been called into question from every angle. Maybe I am overly sensitive. Alternatively, maybe I am not sensitive enough and that’s why I still exist. It’s hard to say.
EBX: Is art the best vehicle to raise awareness of social injustice, protesting freedom denied or telling underreported, hard-to-hear stories?
AI: As an artist or a thinker, even when endowed with considerable experience and residing in politically or culturally charged contexts, the imperative of individualized expression remains paramount. It is through this individuation that the essence of our shared humanity and inherent nature finds reflection. This essence stands apart from the influences of our educational conditioning, propaganda, prevailing political or societal values, economics and even science.
Art’s existence stems from its capacity to address problems that lie beyond the reach of science and philosophy. Philosophy has perennially grappled with the most fundamental inquiries, while science continually expands the horizons of our perception, elucidating certain queries. The realm of science is confined to the objective realm of existence. For us, as humans, the enigma inherent in this form of objective existence aligns with the universe itself, rendering it inscrutable. Ultimately, science falls short in unraveling the enigmas of the entire cosmos. As a component of the universe, humanity shares in this unsolvability, experiencing emotions such as anxiety, fear, happiness and trust, struggling with the pursuit of life’s extension and the relinquishing of life—all of which remain beyond the purview of philosophy or science.
Art, I believe, stands as a response to countless enigmas and queries, encompassing the myriad incomplete potentials of humankind. This response is infused with warmth, aesthetics, ethics, history and cultural heritage. In doing so, it counterbalances the tedium of life and the unrelenting search for the so-called truth, bringing us tranquility and guiding our survival. This is what renders art irreplaceable. It nurtures its own holistic ecosystem.
EBX: The interactive components of your work are signature elements. In what ways has the community involvement you seek been altered or affirmed during the last five years, a time that includes the pandemic and a worldwide social justice movement?
AI: Often, people perceive that I am seeking a certain form of interaction. There is a Chinese proverb that states, “When the tree desires calm, the wind does not cease.” When we observe the swaying tip of a tree, it is not the tip of the tree in motion, but rather the wind that is causing the movement. In Zen philosophy, there is a saying that neither the trees nor the wind are truly in motion; instead, it is our minds that are in motion.
My life is akin to blindness, devoid of any specific methods. I resemble a shattered mirror that reflects all the phenomena around me, or perhaps I am comparable to a blade of grass in the wind, determined to maintain its position. Until the point at which I cease to exist, my disposition will likely persist in this manner.
Cal Performances presents Ai Weiwei with Peter Sellars and Orville Schell — ‘Ai Weiwei’s World of Art Lost and Found: A Conversation About Life, Art, and Politics’ Sept. 24 at 2pm at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley. 510.642.9988. www.calperformances.org