“The Artist Who Can’t Leave China”

TIME has an interview with Ai Weiwei, whose Hirshhorn exhibition opened in DC last weekend:

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 means 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 was 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.

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.

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