Ai of the tiger: Sam Phillips meets Ai Weiwei in his Beijing studio
By Sam Phillips
Published on 1 September 2015
Fearless and uncompromising, Ai Weiwei’s art challenges cultural values, confronts injustices and pushes materials to their limit. Sam Phillips talks to the artist about his show at the RA, which he was not expecting to be able to attend.
It’s spring in Ai Weiwei’s Beijing studio. Assistants are bringing plants out of hibernation, working as a group to manoeuvre large bamboos and ferns into a bright internal courtyard. Stepping inside, the artist leads Tim Marlow, the RA’s Artistic Director, and I through a deep studio space full of both flora and artworks.
Ceramic vases, some more than two millennia old, sit in grids on the floor, surrounded by white plastic containers filled with paint in every colour of the rainbow. Soon the pots will be covered in the bright yellows, reds, pinks and purples, and a selection sent to London, to form a work for the artist’s expansive RA retrospective this autumn (Coloured Vases, 2015). Opposite the vats of paint, overlooked by greenery and flanked by a bank of video screens, sits a metre-wide wooden cube, formed from honey-toned huali, from which luxury Chinese furniture has been made since the Ming period (Treasure Box, 2014, pictured below).
The cube’s sides are crafted from small parallelograms of wood in different shades, which create cube patterns across the surface: the cube appears to be wittily comprised of cubes. But some of the parallelograms are missing, hinting at internal spaces, and Ai asks an assistant to remove one of the sides. Intricate modular shelves are revealed, set in an irregular pattern traditional of Chinese cabinets, and the cube deconstructs further, the top half removed to disclose a cylindrical core. The work is three in one: a metric structure that echoes post-war American Minimalism; a giant Rubik’s Cube that plays with traditions of trompe-l’oeil; and a functional piece of furniture, its seamless joinery in highly polished hardwood emblematic of Chinese craft.
Such multiple identities characterise the artist as much as they do his artworks. Ai is a global superstar, but both as an artist and an activist. His ever-broadening output – which, as visitors to the RA will discover, ranges magnificently from small-scale ceramics to large-scale sculptures, from videos, photographs, books, wallpaper and furniture to performances, installations and architecture – has become indivisible from his politics, in particular his campaign for human rights, transparency and justice in his homeland. The most powerful manifestation of his activism was the ‘Citizens Investigation’ he led in 2009 to publish the names of more than 5,000 students who perished, due to shoddy school construction, in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
It’s my first visit to his studio, Marlow’s third – as one of the show’s curators, he has scheduled an in-depth interview with Ai for the exhibition catalogue. Co-curator Adrian Locke has made the journey from London twice to Caochangdi, this corner of the Chinese capital where Ai has lived and worked for 15 years. "This studio feels like a refuge," says Marlow. "I love the fact there’s an allotment here, tucked away, and then this open courtyard, the faint aroma of cats, the delicious aroma of food being cooked as lunchtime approaches, and the discrete sense of activity, as people catalogue and research materials, and make technical explorations, alongside the mass of administration that takes place, necessary for every successful artist."
When the artist designed this elegant, grey-brick studio in 1999, Caochangdi was a village on the outskirts of the city whose farmers leased land to companies and individuals. A new work for the Academy’s exhibition – a lawn of grass rendered in marble – relates tangentially to the area’s history (Cao, 2015, pictured below).
"Caochangdi means 'grass field'," Ai explains. "During the Qing Dynasty [1644-1912], this grass field was used to feed the emperors’ horses. In Chinese poetry and literature, cao, or grass, is a frequently used reference to the common people, the masses. Grass is a force of nature, wild and everlasting. I thought it would be interesting, and a bit ironic, to create a monument of this common thing." In 1755, the Qianlong emperor commissioned a boat to be made from marble, an imitation of which sits on the lake in the city’s Summer Palace. Ai sources marble today from the Fangshan imperial quarries, the material hand-carved not only into grass but objects such as sofas and surveillance cameras.
Ai was soon joined in Caochangdi by fellow artists as well as designers and galleries, many of whom commissioned the artist to create their buildings in the same understated fashion as his own. Today the area is a tranquil, low-rise cultural hub in the city’s expanding suburbs, or what a government mural nearby proclaims as ‘Caochangdi Art Zone’ (underneath this text run the words ‘Art, Harmony, Joy, Justice, Abundance, Peace’). In 2011, the year Ai’s studio in Shanghai was bulldozed by the authorities, a campaign had to be mobilised to prevent Caochangdi’s demolition. The artist fabricates his largest works – huge chandeliers, accumulations of chairs, reconstructions of trees – in other sites across Beijing, including an enormous former tractor factory, the location he chose for his photoshoot for the RA.
Curators, collectors, journalists, academics and students from across the world have been visiting Ai in Caochangdi for over a decade. However, since 2011 the number of visits has increased, after the Chinese government withheld Ai’s passport following his detention for 81 days in a secret prison. “I cannot travel and this is an undesirable condition for any individual,” Ai tells us. “The situation I am in is not unique to myself. In China, there is a large population that cannot travel, either for economic or political reasons. I feel privileged to share this condition with these others, whose rights have never fully been what they should be.”
"This is not a new condition for me. When I was growing up, my father, the poet Ai Qing, was in exile for almost 20 years. Our family never thought about travelling or leaving our small unit, and it made our lives unbearable. Today is very different. I still have the internet and I can still manage to organise exhibitions with established institutions. In today’s condition, I do not think that anybody can stop the exchange of ideas."
As Ai was not going to be able to fly to London, Locke sent him a short film last year that showed the spaces in the Academy in which he would be working. “The film did communicate the grandeur of the Main Galleries, but they were full of the Anselm Kiefer paintings that were on display at the time,” says Locke. “Nevertheless, Ai was able to use the footage and some architectural plans to figure out quickly and exactly where each work would go. Some artists are insecure about what to do and can’t make up their mind. Ai has an innate understanding of space: he could imagine the volume of each gallery and project a vision for each without hesitation.”
The challenge has been less geographical distance, more the need to do justice to the variety of work in his career, in what will be his first major survey show in a UK public institution. “Ai works on such a huge range of scales, from small pieces to spectacular works that have employed hundreds of artisans and labourers,” continues Locke. “The exhibition aims to represent his great ambition over the last 20 years, without losing a sense of the very fine detail of his works, their subtleties, and his amazingly close control of quality. Ai is misunderstood in Britain to some extent, because people who know his name do not always know his art. They know him as an activist, and rightly, of course – after his detention he had massive exposure here: magazine covers, newspapers, television. That coverage, though, was more about him than about what he makes, and this exhibition is a chance for us to understand him as an artist.”
But as our morning in Beijing turns to afternoon, we are given a grim reminder of Ai’s particular circumstances as a dissident. As we plan to head out to a restaurant, Ai is contacted by the local police force – he has to report to the police station. He explains that happens regularly, perhaps once a week without warning, “a kind of psychological torture” that sometimes involves going for a walk with one of the policemen, who will use the time to try to persuade Ai to stay off politics. For the years directly after his imprisonment, it was worse.
“I was then under tight surveillance by the secret police,” he says. “They tapped my phones, they followed my car, they followed me even when I went to dinner or when I took my son to the park. One day, I caught a person who was hiding behind a bush and taking photographs of me. I grabbed the memory card from his camera. When I returned home and plugged the memory card into my computer, I was shocked by what appeared on my screen. It not only contained images of the restaurants I was in during the previous days, but also images of my son’s stroller. That image has stayed in my mind and it is indicative of how authoritarian states try to manage their control of individuals. Even the details of a child’s stroller are in their records.”
Ai Lao, the artist’s six-year-old son, now lives in Berlin. In May, two months after our visit to Caochangdi, Lao accepted an Amnesty International award in the city on his father’s behalf. Marble Stroller (2015), a replica of Lao’s pushchair, hand-cut from marble, travels to the Academy.
If Marble Stroller has a connection to Ai’s son, it finds an echo in another new work, Bones (Remains) (2015), which concerns Ai’s father and, more broadly, the context into which Ai was born and raised.
Ai Qing was one of China’s pioneers of modern poetry, renowned for his powers of description and a social conscience that led him to the Maoist revolutionary cause; by the time the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, he was a cadre in the government, and consulted on literary matters by Mao. But by 1957, when his son Weiwei was born, Ai Qing had gone from literary celebrity to enemy of the state, as Mao’s early encouragement of free expression was replaced by a campaign against ‘Rightists’ – intellectuals whose work could be deemed critical of the government. Ai Qing and his young family were exiled from Beijing and, in 1960, sent to a remote settlement in Xinjiang, in the Gobi Desert of northwest China.
“Bones (Remains) is a work in porcelain replicating a set of bones,” Ai explains. “A year ago, I was brought these remnants and told that they had belonged to a group accused of being so-called ‘Rightists’. My father and thousands of other intellectuals were severely punished during 1957’s Anti-Rightist campaign, the effects of which are still felt to this day. Thousands more lost their lives; the direct cause of death for many was hunger, as a result of famine. This was a part of the severe life conditions in the desert regions of north- west China, where they were exiled. It is a part of modern Chinese history and still has a direct impact on today’s political landscape. I had my craftsmen in Jingdezhen replicate the bones to memorialise this historic event. My father once wrote, “I do not believe archaeologists... After a thousand years, if they discovered a set of bones – my bones – how could they know my bones had burned in the flames of the 21st century?”
In Xinjiang, Ai’s father endured hard labour, forced to clean public toilets, and his family of five had to survive in a small subterranean shed, sharing a bed in a 12-square-metre-large space prone to rats. But in 1976, the year of Mao’s death, Ai Qing and his family were allowed to resettle in Beijing, and the poet was rehabilitated almost as quickly as he had been damned two decades earlier. Soon his verses were being taught in schools. In 1978 his son Weiwei enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy, the closest thing that the city had to an art school.
“Weiwei’s work has a very different aesthetic from his father’s, of course,” says Greg Hilty, the Curatorial Director of Lisson Gallery, which represents the artist in London. “But his father’s persecution and his own childhood have been a huge influence. It has helped him to act fearlessly. On one level he is cultural aristocracy – the son of a great man of letters and a friend of Mao’s – and on the other hand he has seen the depths, having grown up in a very compromised situation. So he has seen all sides and, in a sense, has nothing to prove and nothing to lose. He just does what he thinks is right. It’s not like a cliché of a naïve rock star or artist who meddles in politics. Because of his family history he knows how China works, and feels deeply about the issues he writes about, speaks about and makes art about.”
After Mao’s death, aspiring artists such as Ai Weiwei were finding their feet in a culture in which avant-garde art had been suppressed for decades, with Socialist Realism the only acceptable form. In 1979, Ai became a principle member of a bold group of painters known as the Stars, who set about testing the boundaries of post-Mao society. Their canvases were in the vein of European Post-Impressionist art, and privileged personal expression over Party ideals. Although the subject of official criticism, the group was able to stage influential exhibitions, drawing large crowds. But Ai – like his father, who studied painting in Paris as a young man – believed that he would have to leave China in order to develop further, and in 1981 he travelled to America.
From the few art books that could be found in China, Ai had soaked up Cézanne, Van Gogh and Munch. In New York, he fed on Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, artists of ideas rather than emotions. During the early 1980s, he replaced his sketchbook with a camera, taking thousands of photographs of himself, his friends and the streets of Manhattan, and then threw away his paintbrushes, working with found objects, producing Duchampian ‘readymade’ sculptures by combining everyday objects. The earliest work in the RA show is Ai’s fond portrait of Duchamp, a clothes hanger deftly bent to resemble the French artist’s profile (Hanging Man, 1985).
If this work declared that Ai’s hopes were hung on conceptual art, then Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo (1994, pictured above) – one of the first significant pieces he completed on his return to China after his father fell ill in 1993 – was the signpost for his singular direction of travel. Here the readymade is not a mass-produced modern item but a ceramic dating back to China’s first long-lasting imperial dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), and it has been painted by Ai with the serif script of one of the brand’s most closely associated with capitalism. “The Coca-Cola logo is a clear announcement of property, and of cultural and political identity,” Ai has commented, “but it’s also a clear sign to stop thinking. It’s full of ignorance, but it’s also a redefinition.”
Is this work telling us that authentic Chinese culture has been blighted by Western capitalism? Or does it suggest that tropes of that culture, such as ancient urns, are in many ways the same as Western brands? In Han China, ceramics were as commonplace as Coca-Cola bottles. Is it about vandalism, and if so, does it relate to the Cultural Revolution, when ancient artefacts were vandalised en masse? And is the urn still as valuable when painted by Ai, or is it now more valuable? A recent version of the work (Coca-Cola Vase, 2014, pictured above) is presented in the RA show alongside the paint-covered pots I saw in his studio. Why has Ai chosen continually to mark such ceramics with paint for the last 20 years? Is this series of artworks itself now mass-produced?
Signifiers of Chinese culture are, in Ai's hands, carefully recalibrated, their meanings made molten, fluid and open for interpretation
While other contemporary Chinese artists also use traditional materials for modern ends, none has been able to pose such complex questions so succinctly. “Ai has carved himself a place which is unique to him,” explains Uli Sigg, the world’s foremost collector of contemporary Chinese art and a long-time friend of Ai’s. “His work is very focused on the dramatic clash between tradition and consumerism, as well as tradition and the industrial culture that has recently so overpowered China.” Bikes, once so ubiquitous on the nation’s streets, are stacked in spectacular chandeliers (Very Yao, 2009-14); gymnastic parallel bars, seen in every Chinese school, are compacted with wood from dismantled Qing temples (Kippe, 2006); a ton of black tea leaves, sourced from the famous tea-growing province of Yunnan, is compressed into a tight cube (Ton of Tea, 2008). Signifiers of Chinese culture are, in Ai’s hands, carefully recalibrated, their meanings made molten, fluid and open for interpretation.
“There’s a lightness of touch to these works, even humour, as well as great knowledge and great clarity,” says Hilty. The knowledge comes from Ai’s experience as a collector of Chinese art and antiques, who works closely with artisans to fabricate works in relation to, and often from, his acquisitions, helping to preserve traditional forms of craft in the process. “Collecting and creating are probably the most related acts,” Ai claims, when I ask him about his two loves. “In some instances, there may be no separation at all. Both require reason, aesthetic judgement and choice. Those decisions reflect the attitude or character of a person who either collects or creates.”
While knowledge about antiquities can be acquired, the clarity Hilty mentions is something more ingrained, according to Sigg. “Ai is a brilliant individual who probably would succeed in many disciplines, not just in art, because he has a very clear and sharp mind, and he can express himself in a very precise way,” he says. “The way he is wired is very creative, allowing him to come up with things that we wouldn’t. He’s a kind of contrarian in my mind – he puts everything on its head in a very strange process that produces a surprising result.”
“And, of course, this contrarian side is seen in his activism, which is uncompromising and very much to do with his personality, which is authentic in its expression. He is the most daring and aggressive artist in the stand against official China. He is not the only artist who does political work, but other Chinese artists are subtle in their subversion, or avoid directly speaking out. In his directness and fearlessness he is set apart.”
Ai’s activism matured in 2008 in response to two events, the Sichuan earthquake and the Beijing Olympics. Although he had collaborated with the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron on the National Stadium, nicknamed the Bird’s Nest, the distance between the government’s proud rhetoric in the run-up to the Olympics and the continued lack of human rights led him to boycott the Games publicly.
Since 2005 he had been avidly blogging, sharing his life with thousands of readers through text and images and, increasingly, facilitating artworks through the internet; in 2007, for example, he used his blog to organise Fairytale, a performance work in which 1,001 Chinese citizens descended on the Documenta 12 art festival in Kassel, Germany. But by 2008 his blog turned its attention to condemning what he saw as the sham Olympic celebrations, and by 2009 the blog was shut down, after it mobilised volunteers to name the victims of the Sichuan earthquake. In August of that year, in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, Ai was beaten by police and then held in a hotel room to prevent him from attending the trial of Tan Zuoren, a fellow activist also investigating the collapse of school buildings during the earthquake. Four weeks later, while in Munich, the artist had to undergo surgery for a cerebral haemorrhage that can be linked to the beating.
The largest gallery in the RA exhibition focuses on Ai’s art in response to Sichuan. As well as displaying the names of the students who died, and photographs of the destruction the earthquake wrought, the artist has installed Straight (2008-12, pictured below), a monumental floor-based sculpture formed from 90 tons of steel rebars found at the site. The thousands of rods had once held up buildings, before being twisted and mangled in the force of the quake. Ai employed labourers to straighten them by hand by striking each one up to 200 times. These have been aligned across the gallery in a shape like a giant seismogram. He has said that the materials for this sculpture are “history, individual stories, blood, tears and labour”.
The thousands of rods had once held up buildings, before being twisted and mangled in the force of the quake... Ai has said the materials are history, stories, blood, tears and labour
Ai’s beating in Chengdu not only convinced him of the powerlessness of Chinese citizens. It emboldened him to make his own experiences the subject of his art. A smartphone snap of Ai and musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou in an elevator with Chengdu police quickly became one of the artist’s most widely reproduced photographs, while the brain scan that showed his haemorrhage was used as powerful pictorial material, painted on editions of porcelain plates. Before his Shanghai studio was demolished in January 2011, he threw a party where hundreds of guests fed on of river crabs (their name in Chinese being a homonym for ‘harmony’, a word often used by the government). Ai was put under house arrest in Beijing and prevented from attending, but a video was made and is shown in the RA show, alongside an accumulation of porcelain crustacea (He Xie, 2011, pictured above).
And it was later in 2011, while his installation Sunflower Seeds was still drawing crowds to Tate Modern, when Ai disappeared. There was no explanation for his detention that April, and no explanation for his release on bail in June. While he was detained, the RA elected Ai an Honorary Royal Academician, in solidarity. In November, after a closed hearing, the company that Ai was associated with – Fake Design – was imposed with a bill of RMB 12m for unsubstantiated tax evasion charges. His many supporters donated cash of RMB 9m, leaving notes at his door in Caochangdi, allowing him to appeal. The appeal went ahead, but Ai was not allowed to attend, and Fake Design was closed down by the authorities.
His experiences while being detained are the subject of S.A.C.R.E.D (2011-13, pictured below). This work appears as six shoulder-height iron cuboids, as if a paean to austere Minimalism. But through apertures, one can see dioramas inside each cuboid that stage different situations that Ai had to endure. The artist and his guards are replicated in fibreglass, in miniature. “One reason why the outsides of these boxes are minimal is that Ai never saw the place outside the room in which he was imprisoned – he only saw the inside,” explains Hilty. “He saw the room in hyper-detail and remembered it, as the room was the nature of his existence during those 81 days. Recreating that detail six times, but to have the outside empty, is a powerful psychological statement.”
“People think maybe he’s placing himself here as Jesus, or some other martyr. He isn’t. He’s an everyman and he’s been in this situation. However well known and important an artist he may seem, at that moment he was hugely vulnerable. He has conveyed that, and he has turned it into an existential study.”
Although detention was intended to clip Ai’s wings, the publicity it brought boosted his reputation further. To mimic the surveillance cameras outside his Caochangdi studio, he set up four of his own in his Beijing home after his release, broadcasting live online – the site received 5 million hits in two days before the government shut it down (WeiweiCam, 2012). He became the world’s most active artist on social media, his Instagram and Twitter posts vaulting over the ‘Great Firewall of China’, the country’s sophisticated online censorship structure.
Most significantly, he continued to make art at an increasing rate, to show abroad but also this year for several summer exhibitions in Beijing, his first solo shows in China. “He lives to make art,” says Hilty. “He has a strong moral compass, and he is very sure that he is able to represent people who don’t have a voice, but he is an artist above all – and his drive is to make art. Some people have seen his art as calculating, but it’s not – it’s driven by a real compulsion to make new things, new forms that take culture forward, and get them out into the world.”
The Chinese public, just like the British public, needs to see his works in person if they are to go beyond their preconceptions. “The internet community in China has some understanding about what Ai is doing because of social media,” says Sigg. “But they lack knowledge about the art he makes, as in China it hasn’t been easy for him to show work in public. The majority in China are badly informed about who he is and his role. The government and the state-controlled media have succeeded in discrediting his image – their accusations of tax fraud did have an effect, although those claims were never substantiated.”
“Some young people in China are willing to sacrifice freedoms for prosperity,” suggests Locke. “The country’s boom has given access to jobs, apartments, restaurants, holidays and so on, and they see censorship and other injustices as a quid pro quo. In that context, Ai might seem a bit of a maverick. They might think, ‘We’re living so much better than our parents did.’ But then there are many others who see him as someone who can represent them when they can’t represent themselves, someone who has the audacity, confidence and international profile to challenge the status quo on their behalf.”
In the run-up to the Beijing exhibitions, I email Ai from London with questions about his hopes for the future. “I hope my effort will be a part of making young people’s lives better, to give them hope and to support the activities of future generations,” replies Ai, adding that he remains “full of optimism” for both himself and China. “The young people in China are, more than ever, experiencing a life in the new, globalized world. They have experienced much better life conditions and have more freedom than ever before. I think that will grow rapidly.”
In June, Marlow travels back to Beijing to see Ai’s exhibitions. "They do feel like a step forward," he tells me on his return. "When I first visited Ai, we went to see the Bird’s Nest Stadium, and his name wasn’t mentioned in connection with it – it was like he had been written out of history. Now his name is all over the 798 Art District, where he has an exhibition across Galleria Continua and Tang Contemporary Art Center, and there are articles about the shows published in China’s media. You think, 'There’s a change here.' "
At the show’s centre was Ai’s largest readymade so far: a 400-year-old Ming temple that he disassembled and then rebuilt across the two adjacent galleries. Each gallery contains half the temple, with the two halves connected through the party wall – the viewer can only comprehend one section at a time. While not as explicitly political as Straight and S.A.C.R.E.D, the temple, in Marlow’s words, “makes very strong points about the decimation of the cultural fabric of Chinese society... it’s a very effective, very dramatic piece of archaeology, but a work of intellectual as much as physical archaeology.”
On the 22 July, six weeks after the Beijing shows opened, my first email of the day has ‘Fwd: Great news from BJ!’ as its subject. It is an email from Hilty with no text, just an attachment. An image pops up of Ai holding a passport, the words ‘People’s Republic of China’ inscribed in gold on its burgundy cover. Logging on to Instagram, the image is there again, alongside hundreds of congratulations in Chinese and in English. Later that day we discover that Ai will come to London during the installation of his exhibition.
Only the day before, The Guardian reported that over 200 Chinese citizens, including lawyers and human rights campaigners, had been detained in the previous fortnight. “The Chinese authorities are not softening their attitude to artists and dissidents,” says Marlow. “Ai Weiwei poses them a particular problem, a case that they have to deal with specifically, and the returning of his passport is only part of that rapprochement.”
Ai’s passport was returned to him as arbitrarily as it had been withheld. At the time of going to press, it is not known whether he will have problems returning to China after travelling abroad – other activists, including novelist Ma Jian, have found themselves barred from re-entering the country. What is certain is that, unlike the steel rebars spread out on the Royal Academy floor, Ai Weiwei cannot be bent into shape.
Ai Weiwei is in the Main Galleries at the RA from 19 September – 13 December.
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