It’s difficult –if not impossible– to separate the artist from the activist in Ai Weiwei (Beijing, 1957), considered the most influential living artist in the world nowadays. Focused towards topics related to human rights and freedom of speech, his work has costed (or earned) him, among other things, to be persecuted, jailed and tortured by the Chinese communist regime.
His pieces are denouncing methods and political questionings. Some of his most representative works make up Inoculación, the artist’s first exhibition in Chile, that will run until 9 September at CorpArtes in Santiago, after its show in Buenos Aires and prior to its tour to Brazil. The exhibition is curated by Marcello Dantas (Rio de Janeiro, 1967), and presented by Moneda Asset Management.
In addition to the thirty pieces that are exhibited at CorpArtes, Inoculación includes the installation Forever Bicycles (2015), sculpture made of 1,254 steel bicycle frames displayed at the esplanade of the cultural centre; the intervention Safe Passage, in which ten pillars of the National Archive of Chile’s façade were covered with thousands of lifejackets retrieved from the shores of the island of Lesbos (Greece) that were worn by refugees who sailed through the Mediterranean; and the premiere in Chile of Ai’s documentary Human Flow (2017), which follows the artist while witnessing first-hand the drama of refugees and migrants around the globe.
Having grown in between a forced labour camp near the Gobi Desert and in exile in north-western China after his father, poet Ai Qing (1910-1996), was accused of being a rightist amidst the Cultural Revolution, Ai developed a social conscience that led him towards activism in art. After exposing the cover-up made by Chinese authorities hiding the number of students dead after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the artist started suffering the harassment from the communist regime, which later led him to be jailed and his studios being constantly broken in or demolished. After being allowed to leave the country in 2015, Ai lives and works in Berlin, and travels the world advocating for human rights through art.
On the opening day of the exhibition, Ai Weiwei talked to Artishock about the role poetry has in his work, freedom of speech and the state of the world today.
Carolina Castro Jorquera: You father’s story, the persecution he suffered under the Chinese regime and his exile, relate and resonate with your own story. You have gone through similar things. What are the lessons you remember the most from your father? In what moments of life have they been fundamental to you?
Ai Weiwei: It’s quite funny. I grew up with my father… we’re about 50 years apart. I don’t really remember much about what he taught me, or whatever, because he seemed in such a horrible shape. He had been considered an enemy of the State. For people in China this is a very severe crime. His poetry basically became his own world, and that protected him. These horrible, tragic things that happened in his life in some sense didn’t get to him because he had his own world upon. But, of course, these situations are severe, evidently, capable of shaking anybody or killing anybody. In his generation, people simply could not survive, committing suicide, or having a failure at home. The situation was too severe, having to work at a hard labour camp, and also so desperate because nothing makes you feel the situation will improve after 10 or 20 years being the same or getting worse. So, basically, I don’t think I got anything from him at the beginning… But now I realise that maybe I got everything from him. He loved art. He had this pure idea of poetry, and sought to defend justice and fairness. I inherited from him all of those things. Maybe we’re not as pure as his generation, and because we’re always doing too many things it’s that our landscape is much more fragmented, broken. But my passion, my focus has always been into relating to ideas o into relating to human emotion and thought. I would not call that “art”, but that’s what I do.
C.C.J: Poetry is really relevant in Chinese culture. Marcello Dantas just mentioned that you were a poet prior to becoming a visual artist. What is the importance of poetry to you? In which way are your own father’s poems related to the works you’re presenting in this exhibition?
A.W: I think poetry is a unique human thought and emotional language, or carrier, that can construct our world not exactly following a so-called rationality or any scientific discovery, but rather through beauty, memory, and imagination, or fear, or a sense of glory… Poetry deals with the integrity of the human being. It’s something ancient and contemporary. It gives a special quality to any work, instead of having just a rational result. Poetry makes a human a human. I think that those qualities –because I am a human being and I appreciate those kind of human qualities– always exist: it’s called wisdom, humour, narrative, the way we use the language, the structure, the emotion to express it. It’s any kind of human communication.
Nicolás de Sarmiento: While North and South Korea are taking the first steps towards some understanding, we’re still witnessing horrors, like the violence that Israel exercises over the Palestinian people in Gaza –where you have been before–, the civil war in Syria, or totalitarianism in Venezuela. How do see the world today?
A.W: I think the world today is a complete mess, and maybe we have strong reasons to almost have a sense of the end of the world now. The issues we see today sometimes are not the real issue. Maybe North Korea and South Korea never had a problem, maybe we want them to become a problem, maybe we don’t want them to agree peace. There are always other players there. It’s the same with the Israeli-Palestinian situation, we can clearly see the interest of other players there. International politics have always reflected a certain kind of philosophy of our time. The greatest character trait of the human condition is capitalism. We’re in the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, and some people laugh at him, but even though they laugh, Karl Marx is still the most important thinker of our times. I think that human society still cannot provide a better answer to our present tragic condition which, needs to be said, in many ways capitalism explores. Our environment –not only the environment of the so-called human nature, but also of the human soul, mind and moral, and the philosophical environment, as well– is so tragic, and it clearly defines that today very few people would be critical on those of us who are not always welcome because it touches the core nerves of this social structure.
N.d.S: The world, due to these tragedies, is living one of the largest migratory processes since World War II, as you said in your documentary Human Flow. How was it to experience first-hand this process around the globe?
A.W: If you see 65 million people being forced out of their homes, this is the biggest report of human tragedy in history. Never had that much people been pushed out. What is behind those tragedies isn’t only regional wars, but also famine, poverty and environmental problems, and those sources of these tragic conditions have never changed. In many ways, there are two different degrees that develop from these situations: rich nations profit from these tragic events, and there you can see the clear image of how this world works. In every tragic moment in history, there is always someone profiting, and it’s that kind of greediness that creates these problems. There’s always some national interest that will become part of the problem in the future, it was in the past and it will be in the future. I don’t see a clear solution to this unless we, as humanity, become fully aware that if anybody gets hurt, it’s a problem to all of us. If we don’t have that kind of idea and we separate every issue as regional or local, we won’t be able to cope with these tragic situations, and that is too dangerous. You question yourself about human intelligence, if it’s still there.
N.d.S: Regarding migration topics, Latin America is living its own social processes, as well. Chile has become an immigration pole, especially for people seeking shelter from the political situation in Venezuela, or from poverty in Haiti, among other nations. In this context, your intervention Safe Passage at the National Archive’s façade seems really relevant and current. Immigration is an ongoing debate in Chilean society now. How do you see this?
A.W: I think immigration should not be seen as just an immigration problem. It should not be seen just as a Venezuelan problem or a Syrian problem, a Bangladeshi problem or Kenyan problem, or a Palestine-Israel problem. We have to see every tragic situation as a human problem and a potential global tragedy. It’s not until we build this kind of understanding, until we demand the international joint forces and political leaderships, while becoming conscious of this at a mass or civil level, that we will be able to really solve this. These problems always happen, and when they happen, every nation, every human, is selfish and short-sighted. We cannot just see, we need to have vision: if we really cannot see, having a higher moral or standard is not possible. We have to treat it very practically, but to treat it practically you need to have a really clear understanding of the situation.
N.d.S: You are known for being an active user of social media. How do you see that social media affects freedom of speech?
A.W: I can be seen as being heavily dependent on social media, which is kind of ridiculous since I only post a few selfies, a few tweets, and it doesn’t have a much profound meaning. But when I was in China, for a very short time I created an individual movement –or a city movement– which was quite impressive, because I could fully explore the impact of social media working in terms of civil society or human rights. I don’t see that possibility in the West. I am still using them as a habit, but it doesn’t have a strong impact. Social media in the West is probably great for information flow or individual expression, but I still haven’t seen a revolutionary usage of social media in terms of social change. That’s my impression.
N.d.S: What are your feelings regarding freedom of speech, now that you’ve been to the West and to the East?
A.W: I think that freedom of speech in different nations has very different definitions. In China, freedom of speech means you have been in jail, been sentenced or were disappeared. Anybody that exercises that right would be made to disappear. That means nobody would access freedom of speech. A few people did and now they are on that adventure. Why would anyone do it? Then nobody does, people learnt from that. But in the West, so-called freedom of speech is so much manipulated by the mainstream: education, trendy thinking, political correctness… In that sense, you see meaningful activity very rarely. And mainstream media is so powerful. If you see someone drove a car and crashed, a few people and the media would talk about that for one week; if you see a Palestinian being killed –56 the other day–, we don’t see the same kind of discussion. Then, what’s wrong? Is it conspiracy or is there something wrong with our judgement? Or if we value lives differently, that would be really tragic, thinking lives are not equally important. Justice doesn’t mean the same in different regions. Then we are totally corrupted. That means that there is no freedom of speech because whatever you speak out becomes not relevant. Nobody cares. So, what really happens? Freedom of speech would never work by itself, so it becomes like a false alarm: nobody would listen to it.
Featured image: Ai Weiwei at CorpArtes, Santiago de Chile, 2018. Photo: Nicolás de Sarmiento