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.

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