Truth, No Matter the Power: Controversial Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei’s only fear is silence

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To view a slide show of art by Ai Weiwei, visit the image gallery.
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Chinese artist and blogger Ai Weiwei has a knack for audaciously bold statements, whether he’s helping to design the iconic “bird’s nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics, dropping a Han dynasty urn in an act of performance art, or writing a fiery post for his blog, which circumvents Chinese state media to grapple openly with his government’s policies.

Widely interviewed by both Chinese and international journalists, Ai has emerged as a digital-age dissident who–for the time being–is allowed to speak his mind in a country often known precisely for its absence of free speech.

In this interview with Index onCensorship‘s Simon Kirby, conducted at the artist’s studio in Beijing, Ai holds forth on art, politics, censorship, and the new China.

–The Editors

After your work on the Beijing Olympic stadium, you withdrew your support for the project and have been critical of the way the Olympic Games were used for political purposes in China. How were the games misused?

The controversy concerning my attitude toward the Olympic Games arose from an interview one year before the opening of the games. I was asked if I would be participating in the celebrations. We were already witnessing the triumphant public mood and the nationalistic public message that was being sent out by the government, but I had the very strong impression that politically nothing has changed in this country. I have lived as an individual and an artist through the past 30 years of Reform and Opening Up in China [Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms], so this realization was a huge disappointment to me.

China is facing tremendous problems that are part of opening this new path. In fact, it is not only China that is facing these new kinds of difficulties–the whole world is facing them. But the difference here is that the old political structure remains fully intact. I believe that the primary concern and main struggle within that structure is to stay in control, and everything done within that structure is related to this mission. This is absolutely ridiculous to me. Even in a democratic structure it is very difficult to maintain power–and the pursuit of maintaining control generates more problems than can be solved.

Of course all this relates to democracy, to freedom of speech, to individual responsibility, and to censorship. The fundamental problem is not that there are limits on voicing different opinions here. The problem is that the whole society is dying through lack of responsibility or involvement. The government should be leading in generating this sense of active responsibility. It should be elected by the people and act according to the will of the people. But this is impossible because the government has not been selected by the people.

Your criticisms of the Olympic Games are not reported in the official media, but your blog remains online. What is the purpose of your blog?

I do my blog because this is the only possible channel through which a person can express a personal opinion in China. No newspaper, magazine, or television channel would ever present your argument or ideas. I am the most interviewed person in China, even domestically, and yet even if I say something it cannot be published here. So I am talking to myself–it is ridiculous. I felt that a blog might be a good way to create one forum in which to open one’s mind. Yet every time I sit to write I still hesitate: Should I do it? What will the consequences be?

I retain a simple premise in mind: My blog is an extension of my thinking–why should I deform my thinking simply because I live under a government that espouses an ideology I believe to be totally against humanity? And this so-called communist ideology is totally against humanity. Over decades, many generations of people in this nation have been hurt by this: Many are dead, many have disappeared, and many have been damaged, whether they are conscious of this reality or not. So my position is not just one person’s strange idea–these are our lives and we live in this part of the world. People [elsewhere] are not going to take a position–they have other concerns. So for me this is not a responsibility: It is part of life. If you live in self-punishment or self-imposed ignorance or lack of self-awareness, it genuinely diminishes your existence. Self-censorship is insulting to the self. Timidity is a hopeless way forward.

What kinds of political reform do you think China needs?

We need a very simple solution. Everything is so complicated and tangled together, so entrenched in history, so deep, heavy, and difficult to understand; we just need to cut though the Gordian knot. We live in modern times and we possess possibilities that were unavailable to others before. We no longer have the same East-West, communist-capitalist conflicts–these foundations are no longer in place.

The basic value of contemporary thought has to be established in China. We need to create a sense of right and wrong; to learn to face ourselves and our history; to discuss what kind of nation and what kind of government we should create. These are essential questions and they need to be addressed. Without this, no solution can ever really reach the real root problem.

Totalitarian society creates a huge space that, as we know, is a wasteland. The great success of this system is that it makes the general public afraid of taking responsibility; afraid of taking a position or giving a definite answer; or even afraid of making mistakes. There is no revolution like the communist revolution. You simply burn all the books, kill all of the thinking people, and use the poor proletariat to create a very simple benchmark to gauge social change. This has continued for generations–after just two or three generations deprived of continuity in education we inevitably become completely cut off from our own past.

For example, children in this society don’t even know their parents. I have had young people tell me that their grandparents have died, and when I ask who their grandparents were and what happened to them, they just say, “Oh I don’t really know, my father never said much about it.” And if I say, “Are you sad?” they simply shrug it off. In a real society, people would say, “Oh, I love my grandfather and grandmother.” These may just be ordinary people, yet ordinary people still transmit the emotion of who they are and where they have come from. A child receives this sense of self through the process of growing up. Personally I don’t know any of my grandparents. My family never talked about them because they themselves were in a critical condition. My parents did not talk about what the party did to them.

There is no continuity of experience through the generations. We talk about crimes against humanity: Is this not a crime against humanity? It’s not necessarily a question of killing people, but of torturing or mutating basic human emotions.

In this process, we dramatically found ourselves with this one-child policy and as a result no one knows where he or she has come from. And then suddenly we live through this radical, new, urban development: Everyone has had to move from their old neighborhoods and no one knows anyone else in their own apartment buildings. The population is in a constant state of enforced dislocation. And so let us hope that a totally new culture will come out of this.

Your father, Ai Qing, was an important poet and no stranger to political repression. He was first imprisoned by the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang in the 1930s. After liberation, he was targeted in the “anti-rightist” campaign of the late 1950s. Later, in the Cultural Revolution, he underwent “re-education through labor” in the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, where you were brought up. In spite of these experiences, you remain an outspoken critic of the government. What gives you this confidence?

I have considered what I have to lose. My close friends say, “Weiwei, you are stupid. Someday they will get you.” But I am not naive. I grew up in this system and my father was a victim of this system and this history. If we do not access our rights it only makes their power stronger.

Chinese artists of talent, even quite young and relatively inexperienced ones, have been in constant demand for gallery and museum shows, by public and private collections, and for residencies and commissions. What effect does this demand have on the creative work that is produced?

In the West you don’t have a situation where the ideas and concepts of the entire older generation are dead. Or a situation in which nothing of value is passed on to the young. The young here think that the world starts with them. There is no other place on earth like this: Elsewhere a sense of continuity links people with previous experiences, but in China we have been totally cut off from the past for many years. And now in China we have performed that same rupture with the past yet again.

You mention the audience for artistic work being in the West. Can Chinese contemporary art have an impact on Chinese society?

Somehow it still does, willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously. It is so far from the mainstream, but it can reach people very slowly: through young people and perhaps through fashion. We must challenge our human intelligence. We have to be positive.

Excerpted from Index on Censorship(Dec. 23, 2008), which covers news and issues related to freedom of expression throughout the world;

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