Artist Ai Weiwei and journalist Ian Johnson met in Berlin for a wide-ranging interview after Ai was allowed to leave China again. Ai Weiwei talks about the role of politics in his life, in the New York Review of Books.
Ai Weiwei, journalists often ask you about politics. Are you fed up with these sorts of questions?
Ai: No, they help me consider issues, because these questions don’t normally occur to me. I am not someone who usually considers such questions. But if there are those questions, I try my to talk about my feelings, my personal feelings. I think contemporary art, or contemporary culture, the most useful part has a relation with considering the current situation.
Your family was tightly tied up with politics.
Ai: I grew up in the so-called Mao Zedong Era. Our era was known as one where “politics was the soul.”
And your father was a famous poet.
Ai: If you don’t understand politics you are a victim of politics. So he was baffled by everything. But those who participated in politics were even more miserable. For example Hu Feng [the Chinese writer and literary theorist who criticized Mao’s theory of art and was imprisoned for twenty-four years], or a lot of people like that, they basically were drowned and finished. Because this political party does not permit dissent to the extent that you can’t make a sound. It doesn’t allow you to exist.
[we switch to English]
When you’re interviewed, is there an expectation that you’ll say certain things?
Ai: Yes, there is a very very strong expectation. Sometimes they are more patient to what I’m saying and sometimes they just jump and say, “Oh, how could you do that?”
But I’m a person who’s been “in there.” I’ve been beaten, I’ve been locked up. I’ve been under high pressure. But still, I have to really think beyond that. I have to put my personal suffering separate from the larger picture of the nation, of one country with a billion people and even the existing system—what is possible, what is not so possible, all those kinds of issues. It requires a longer discussion on a deeper level.
What do you think of think of the modernization theory—that when people get to a certain standard of living, when people are no longer just concerned with food or shelter, they start to demand things. We could see that historically in South Korea, or Taiwan, say thirty years ago. Does that have any relevance to China today?
Ai: It does, very obviously. If you see those young kids, they’re better off than their parents. They’ve been sent to study abroad. They can travel more freely. They get on the internet. They get iPhones and iPads and video games.
Are the Chinese authorities aware of it?
Ai: They are aware of it, but I don’t know to what degree, and I don’t know if they have the right measures. To understand the crisis you need a philosophical mind and the system never really had that kind of discussion—like the one we’re having now, and to openly discuss it. To openly discuss it means first you have a balanced view and you get every mind involved, so the solution will be more democratic rather than some authoritarian solution, which will just create more problems. All they care about are results, but life is about more than results. It’s about our involvement, our passive involvement in each individual’s mind, and that’s why we can say we love it or we hate it.
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