The Artist Who Can’t Leave China: An Interview with Ai Weiwei

One of the world's most-famous artists is having an important retrospective in the Smithsonian, but Ai Weiwei can't attend because the authorities in Beijing won't give him back his passport. He talks to TIME about his art, his activism and the pervasiveness of China's snooping on its own citizens

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Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei inside his compound in Beijing on June 25, 2012

Ai Weiwei is one of the world’s best-known living artists — and political activists. As such, he is constantly at odds with the government of his homeland, the People’s Republic of China. The contentiousness has been highlighted by Beijing’s refusal to return Ai’s passport to him, making it impossible for him to travel to the U.S. for the Oct. 7 opening of a major retrospective on his art at the Hirshhorn Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. It was confiscated — illegally, he says — after he was detained for more than 80 days last year during a crackdown on dissent. The government has also rejected his appeals against $2.4 million in back taxes and penalties levied on Ai’s company, Beijing Fake Design Cultural Development. After submitting a $1.33 million deposit, Ai says he won’t pay anything more. The artist spoke to TIME’s Austin Ramzy about his upcoming show, his political activism and how the closely the government is watching him.

(PHOTOS: The Ai Weiwei Retrospective in Washington, D.C.)

What things would you like to do when you get your passport?
If a person has any freedom, then freedom to travel is part of it. If you have nothing to charge me with, you have to give it back to me. The police also said we understand this is not legal.

If you were given your passport and allowed to travel, do you worry about being able to return?
There are so many cases of people being blocked from returning. I always prepare for the worst, but I also try to act according to what is possible. I always think: Why should [the government] do that? It is not good for them, it is not good for anybody. I think maybe they would change. Every decision I make, I always try to say the [government] has the possibility to change. Otherwise, why would you still fight? So that would bring me into many, many difficult circumstance. Because I’m always willing to test and to say: What could happen? Or say: just because it happened last time, does that mean it will happen again? So I can’t say what will or will not happen.

There are many cases where there are things that you fought for and that your side ended up having a victory of sorts. There were the Green Dam censorship software that the government wanted to install on Chinese computers and the research into the names of students who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Green Dam was blocked, and eventually, the government was forced to release a total of the student deaths. Looking at that, do you see any potential for, if not exactly change in the system, at least movement or response by the government to the interests of the public?
I think so. Gradually, under pressure from not just me but from different points. I think the pressure is getting stronger, you can see it every day. I always jump to the other side, to think about it from the view of the government. You can see the Internet discussion. So far, it is the strongest force to deliver the pressure to the government and make people’s voice be heard. It happens everywhere. Sometimes it doesn’t have an immediate effect. Like the Beijing flood this summer, to name those names [of the dead], it was quite difficult, but they had to do it. If they didn’t do it, people will start to research on their own. That will cause the government much more problems.

The government [knows] … many issues need to be faced and answered. And they know the sooner they answer, the less cost and less damage. But who is going to do it? I think the pressure still need to come from the civil movement. After 63 years, [the government] cut out all the possible interests groups or different kind of discussions. They don’t exist. The whole nation becomes very simple. The master gives the order ruthlessly. The civilians just have to obey it. There’s no space for discussion, no structure, etcetera. No way to even to evaluate the damage. There is no true communication.

Like my case, it is so politicized. They can just tell you’ve been arrested or you are released or you’re free now or you cannot have the passport. I said: Can I have any communication of what is going on? Can you ask me some questions or I ask you any questions? Most cases in China are handled this way, not just my case. If you look at the Bo Xilai case or his wife’s case or the case of Wang Lijun, there are so many holes in the whole procedure, but none of them will be answered. How can they maintain a society with no sense of trust or justice? This is the question, How come in such [a] large civilization and one-fifth of the human population, [there is] no sense of justice, … no clear measurement of right or wrong? It [is] a very primitive … level, nobody can give you a clear definite answer. Nobody can clearly say that they have to protect the constitution of China. According to constitution, these are violations by government, but can anybody openly discuss those?

(MORE: To Help Dissident Artist Ai Weiwei Pay Tax Bill, His Supporters Try Microlending)

You recently posted some photographs of the anti-Japan demonstrations. You were also a photojournalist for a while in your U.S. days, photographing the Tompkins Square Park riots among other things. Are you becoming a photojournalist again?
I actually never stopped. So many things are worth recording. It’s worth it to see it twice. It’s worth paying attention and looking at something twice. It is an intelligent act. So I think that it is very important, just a simple few seconds. I turned on the video because there was a demonstration in front of the U.S. embassy, which surprised me.

The slogans [declared] that the U.S. is behind the Japanese [claim to disputed islands in the East China Sea]. And they said, “Return our money.” The U.S. never borrowed money, China bought the bonds from the U.S. But you can see this kind of hatred. That tells you about the kind of rationality of the [regime] old-timers, who are trying to integrate people’s anger into modern foreign affairs. It is a pity because we all know if [the] government wants, it will not allow you to take one step outside your door. There are so many people still living in detention. To have large demonstrations in 50 cities, you don’t have to say who it is organized by. Then I see the [U.S.] ambassador’s car; it was very obvious, it had the flag in front. I was very surprised because I had been to that area for a year and never seen the ambassador’s car at that gate. The people started to stop the car, [pulling] the flag. That was interesting, so I put it on the Internet.

When you say it is clear that the protests were organized, you mean by the government?
Oh, yeah. There is nobody in this whole society would question that. This is a society fully surveilled and regulated by the police. Our conversation, whoever comes in here, it will all be recorded. I mean I can’t step out without being noticed.

In the catalog for the Hirshhorn exhibition, there are things I had not seen before: the Sichuan rebar piece and also the crabs. Can you tell me a little bit about them?
Both works are being shown for the first time to the public. The rebar comes very obviously from [the 2008 Sichuan earthquake]. When I started, we had the investigation [into the number of students who died in collapsed schools], there was such frustration. It was such a tragedy and so many lives have disappeared. We never had a moment of explanation or just some regret from the official side. It is always very harsh, very bitter. I was beaten and almost lost my life. The names we found out, you can also see them in the show at the Hirshhorn. When you go up the elevator, the whole wall [is] covered by 5,200 names of students. We have [the] sound of those names pronounced by people [over the] Internet. Over 10,000 people participated in this sound piece.

I used that as the beginning of the show and the end of the piece is the Sichuan rebar. The rebar is from the ruins and took us a long time to take back. We bought it secretly, and then we didn’t know what to do with it. It really becomes so [emotionally] heavy because it was from those ruins and there are still so many people under the ruins. They didn’t touch Beichuan [a town buried in the 2008 earthquake]. And we didn’t touch it. I thought, How can I still [raise] the same questions [about the government’s refusal to acknowledge the earthquake victims] but not disturb the form [of the rebar], which reflects or continues the demand for the facts? So we gradually just spread it out and bent it. We made it like the ones [fresh] out of the factory, and it took a lot of people years to clean [the rebar] off because it was all so curved. To make it straight took hundreds of blows to straighten. Then at last it becomes a pile of rebar exactly like what comes out of factory. It has no history to it. You could never tell that it comes from the ruins. Everything has been cleaned up. The effort itself makes that a stronger question.

(MORE: Tax Trouble: China Orders Artist Ai Weiwei to Pay $2.4 Million)

Can you tell me a little bit about the pattern of the rebar?
I had a map, a Chinese map, the borderline, the pattern a little bit reflects that. Because the metal is of different thickness and lengths, so we have to put it in order, otherwise you will not have a pattern. So the pattern automatically come out from the arrangement of the order.

That is a last piece of exhibition. Over 40% of the works are new. Another new work is about river crabs. It is about how the Shanghai government destroyed the studio that they invited me to build [for the 2010 Expo]. At last I said it has to be destroyed. For China to destroy a house is not a big deal. You shouldn’t dramatize it, just [accept] it. But I said I would [throw] one party. So many people wanted to see the work; it is [a] beautiful architecture piece. We had over a thousand people register to come from different parts of China, about 20 different provinces. They brought their children or husband or wives or even parents. That was in the season you eat river crabs. And you know [the word for] river crabs is hexie. [NOTE: hexie is a pun on the word harmonious, which has become a synonym for censorship, part of the government’s goal of a “harmonious society.”] That party was forbidden, so I made the crabs for the show.

You lived in U.S. for 12 years before returning in 1993. How did the U.S. change you and how did it affect your art?
It is very strange. When I was there, I desperately trying just to survive, and of course, I experienced and learned so much through art on the Lower East Side or demonstrations or even the Iran Contra scandal. All those things I watched. I never [thought] there was an influence … until I was in detention and the police asked me the same question. Because they had have to find out why this man relentlessly criticized the government. He’s psycho, why is he doing this? What is the fundamental change? … At the beginning, when I talked with them, they said, ‘Ha ha, you must watch too many Hollywood movies.’ I said, ‘Yes, I love Hollywood movies.’ I still can be touched if I watch movies. I started to realize I have changed. The American experience quite influenced my understanding of individuality, about basic human rights, about the rights of freedom of expression and the rights and responsibility of citizens.

Then later I learned everything from the Internet. I learned to discuss, to communicate, to make a point through modern technology. So maybe there are three parts in my life — earlier background living in exile in Xinjiang in a very political circumstance, then later the United States from 24 to 36 years old. I was quite equipped with liberal thinking. Then the Internet. If there is no Internet, of course, I cannot really exercise my opinion or my ideas.

You said that after you arrived in New York, you began to understand the work of Jasper Johns. What did you take from him?
When I just started to study art, a very well-known Chinese translator Yang Xianyi, who translated almost every top piece of Chinese literature for the West, gave me a book of Jasper Johns’ paintings and I could not understand it. The painting is about red, yellow and blue and some brushes and some containers. So I threw it away. I gave it to friends and they also [didn’t] want it. Then after I went to Parsons [School of Design], I looked at Andy Warhol, because he is so easy to understand. And then I realized Andy Warhol made some points about Johns and [Robert] Rauschenberg, because he always wanted to be accepted by Johns. He would always pop up and Johns [would be] very cool to him. And he didn’t recognize Warhol that much.

So I looked at Johns and realized he is really an artist for the artist. He is really concerned about very essential language and the meaning of interpretation and the way really to look at [Ludwig] Wittgenstein and [Marcel] Duchamp. So Johns allowed me to take another step to look at what Duchamp did, which is the intellectual part of art, concept and language. That is why I do feel quite grateful for what Jasper Johns did, and that is why the title [of the Hirshhorn retrospective] uses one of his one of his works, “According to What.”

In the Hirshhorn show, there is a quote: “This so-called contemporary art is not a form but a philosophy of society.” What do you mean by that?
I think very often we see art as artwork or art objects but [do not] emphasize the mind of the people or the movement behind it. I think that can very much lead to misunderstanding and it can be misdirected to the commercial side of art. Today we see changes at all levels, politics and economics and culture. We can see a new definition and new possibilities to give a new look to art and a new understanding of why we need art in today’s society.

MORE: The Activist Artist of China

MORE: Ai Weiwei’s Photographs

19 comments
rory2012
rory2012

What a pity, things Time and CNN try to drum up against China getting less response from the readers.So editor of Time and CNN have to come up with something quick and new idea.

angelo feng
angelo feng

Ai Weiwei is one of the world’s living artists — and best-known political activists

99Pcent
99Pcent

So much for a peace loving soft power pushing china. The more the CCP does the worse things get. Hope you escape soon Ai, they are out to get you. 

zj90
zj90

Hi Ai Weiwei, I'm a supporter of your cause but I have to disagree with that bit you said about all the anti-Japan movements being organized by the government. I think it's the same mentality that certain western media view Chinese athletes as "medal-earning automata of the state", stripped of any trace of personality and emotion.

Yes, government censorship and the temporary suspension thereof have turned public emotions into at them same time a domesticated animal and a ferocious weapon. But we cannot deny that the Chinese people have innate motivations to do certain things (e.g. to prove themselves in Olympics, or to protest against Japanese nationalization of Diaoyu Islets). The government's ulterior motive exists, yes, but that shouldn't taint our action.

At the same time, it is interesting to note that if you say the government (or a small cabel of powerful people) is behind everything in a western democracy, you'll be immediately alienated as a loony conspiracy theorist. But in China, totalitarian as it is, it becomes perfectly okay to make the same statement. Come on Ai Weiwei, you can't possibly believe we are all slaves doing only what the government wills us to do?! You said you always hope the government would change. Have hope for the people too.

obbop
obbop

Mess with the USA IRS and you may wish you were contending with the Chinese bureaucracy.

Jose Estrella Hazim
Jose Estrella Hazim

El arte de si cogen fuerza, aprietalos escrito en el dialecto mas Chino.

Elijah Muto
Elijah Muto

China doesn't seem to know what a passport is for :)

Meng Ran Zhang
Meng Ran Zhang

I used to follow Mr. Ai on Twitter. But later I un-followed him, because I felt that despite his position as a dissident, he really doesn't show a lot of respect for people with different views. For example, he has been calling Mr. Liu Xiaobo and Mr. Liu's supporters "retarded stupid cunts" online because of Mr. Liu's statement, "I have no enemies." Here is one such tweet of Mr. Ai:

"民主控伪君子们的嘴脸:无敌论、非暴论、博爱论、精英论、神圣论,勾画出一幅幅自卑懦弱的而自命不凡的低智傻逼嘴脸,他们可以吓唬自己和女友,却远不是极权暴政的对手。"

6:52 PM - 2 May 10

https://twitter.com/aiww/statu...

It can be roughly translated as following:

"The faces of 'democracy-loving' hypocrites: no-enemy theory, non-violence theory, universal-love theory, elite theory, sacredness theory, which paint retarded, stupid cunt faces that are self-abased, cowardly, yet pretentious and self-admiring, they can scare themselves and their girlfriends, but are far from a match for the totalitarian tyranny."

I mean, you can disagree with people, but what he said were plain

insults. It is rather ironic that a democracy advocate does not even

know to respect different opinions.

I followed a lot of Chinese so-called "democracy-advocates" in April. Now I've pretty much un-followed all of them. I just don't see how they are supporters of democracy through their talks on Twitter. Some guys were pretty much waging war against Ms. Pearl He, who helped Chen Guangcheng when he escaped house arrest. One of them, tufuwugan, said that Ms. He searched everywhere for famous democrats to sleep with. When she asked him to give names, he said that he would not talk about her immoral conducts. Apart from this disgusting Twitter war, there were people talking about all sorts of extremist things, and not just ordinary people like you and me. I had expected people with bigger names to be more civil, but many of them disappointed me. One of them, Mr. Wen Yunchao, actually talked about killing the children of the National Security officers. Since when is killing innocent children a right thing to do?! Basically, a lot of them talk like Communists during the Cultural Revolution--violent and full of extremist views. Thankfully, though, the old saying 'barking dogs don't bite' seems to be holding true here. Otherwise, it would be truly terrifying.

bryanwen
bryanwen

there is no vote right and no freedom for us in China ,one party contral everything around us.me, a chinese

Karen Shing
Karen Shing

It's terrible truth, I agreed with you Ekkehard

Maria Rosell
Maria Rosell

Why is this surprising?! This is what it's like to live in a Communist state. Take note because if things here in US continue as they are going this might be us in the not far off future.

mmmmer
mmmmer

Times.  always about muslim terrists and chinese government. 

he cannot go to Amercia, so what?  

there is no need to tie everything with the government and the communist party.

Xira
Xira

Oh yeah. There is nobody in this whole society would question that. This is a society fully surveilled and regulated by the police. Our conversation, whoever comes in here, it will all be recorded. I mean I can’t step out without being noticed"

And ours is not?

Garo Ungaro
Garo Ungaro

his environmental upbringing influences his political views...his american experience give him the balance of both world...at this stage..maybe its better express it on arts as his medium ...he maybe gone but the medium he used will bring much understanding in his fight for what he believes is right...freedom of expression...in a place that this word alone means death...i salute u my friend...an artist..can be physically eliminated..but his works will survive...stay cool...one life, one message...FREEDOM...

99Pcent
99Pcent

 I disagree with you too, even though you are a supporter. despite your logic, it is flawed.

Xuhrat
Xuhrat

Okay, then leave China, along with your dogs(family). Or you'd better not label yourself a Chinese. You are just a creature from place nobody knows.

Dlo Burns
Dlo Burns

Our is stockpiled and then will be left to rot in an archive unless there's an explosion. Or one of us is brown.