Ai Weiwei Interview: The controversial artist on his first solo exhibition in China

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The king of controversy Ai Weiwei talks about laying the foundations for his first solo exhibition in China. Interview by Cat Nelson. Additional reporting by Amanda Sheppard
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Photo by Gao Yuan

When you catch talk of Ai Weiwei, how do you hear him described? Famous, or infamous? The opinion given usually depends on where the discussion is raised, but one thing remains constant – the dissident artist is on everyone’s radar. Beijing-born Ai’s controversial works and opinions have caught the attention of activists, artists and government officials alike.

Ai’s overtly political stance has garnered him international support and recognition. Just this year, he was presented with the Amnesty International Ambassador for Conscience Award. However, his criticism of China’s democratic and human rights records has not been without consequence. Ai was arrested in 2011 and charged with tax evasion, with many speculating that the artist was in fact imprisoned for political reasons. However, if the intent was to suppress anti-establishment art, it failed to have the intended effect. Following his arrest, the Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei street art campaign was launched in Hong Kong, with graffiti stencils of the artist’s face sprayed across the city. Following his 81-day imprisonment, Ai continues to be closely monitored, and both Ai and his wife Lu Qing have since been investigated for allegedly spreading pornographic material.

Ai has been banned from leaving China, but has continued to produce politically-challenging art, contributing work to international exhibitions remotely. This month marks a huge turning point – Ai’s first solo exhibition in China. The self-titled exhibit sees Ai returning to his architectural roots, and features a laboriously reconstructed building that dates back to the Ming Dynasty. But it appears to be devoid of the unconcealed political slant that the world has come to expect from Ai. Or is it? Time Out finds out…

What are the early origins of this exhibition?
It really started in 1996 when my father passed away and I was invited to see his hometown. That was the first time I saw it. I grew up in Xinjiang autonomous region in [northwest] China, which has a very different type of culture compared to my father’s hometown. Then I went to New York, you know, all you see are skyscrapers over there. After I came back [in 1993], I paid so much attention to Chinese antiquity and [ancient] philosophy and I started relating to China as a state of mind. My idea was to have a show, have materials – a physical metaphor – to represent my current condition – and the current being of our time, our state of mind.

Why architecture in particular?

By the year 2000, I’d built my first studio in Caochangdi [in Beijing] and afterward, I became an architect. I started to pay attention to old architecture in the south – my father is from Zhejiang province and in his hometown, Jinhua, there are many, many [older] buildings. The earliest ones are from the Yuan Dynasty, 600 to 700 years old. I was fascinated. Every time I travelled to the south, I wanted to see all the buildings. I wanted to visit different towns, cities and buildings.

[At the time] I had a really clear Chinese aesthetic or philosophy in relation to every object I was making. From a village, a building itself – could be a house or some kind of ceremonial space, in which to pay your respects to your ancestors – to a piece of furniture, it all came from the same background, the same language. That is extremely fascinating to me, to see a society designed as one in all aspects, including the individual’s behaviour – their way of sitting or relating to other people in the family or outside the family, all that behaviour – and moral judgements and aesthetics, too.


Original structure in Jiangxi

How did you select the particular building in this exhibition?
I bought this building, which is very unique in the marketplace. We saw a hundred buildings, but none of them were so [old] or such a large structure. You know, earlier buildings are less decorative. [Later buildings] have a lot of decorative parts, a lot of carvings, the earlier ones are about structure. We searched all of the [old] buildings in Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Anhui provinces. Those areas have what’s called ‘huipai jianzhu’, which means architecture in Anhui style. [Eventually] we found one piece of architecture which is from the late Ming Dynasty and belongs, not to a temple, but rather a place for one big family in one village to worship their ancestors. It’s called a ‘shitang’.

Is there anything special about this building?

Those types of building served in China as a church would in Italy. It’s a community centre, everything was decided there. It has clear family history displayed there. So those are really a microcosm of the society in China. All their ritual and their understanding of society, all the politics and social discussions, family affairs or relations interrelating to other families, other villages. It functions as a very important unit, in the sense of community, where you come from, what you get, what you have to defend.

Is that same meaning maintained in Chinese society today?

Since 1949 all those things are being destroyed. The idea of communism has reduced society to one entire flat area. There’s only one authority [in] a nation, which has created a very different type of social structure. That kind of social structure never existed before. You always had some kind of hierarchy, some kind of group, some kind of unit but in this new society every individual is disassociated from everybody else – even in families, even your parents or brothers and sisters. Personal emotions are being diminished. This is a very, very unique phenomenon; to turn a human into a kind of machinery, to make them part of a machine. The emotions, the morals, the social behaviours are gone or changed.

Was it hard to recreate the building in Beijing?

It took about two months to take apart and examine, count the pieces, to make the record, to make sure every piece on record had been marked and could be put back in place later. There were over 1,500 pieces. And then we had to package it and ship it to Beijing, which took five or six large trucks.


Deconstructing the ancient house in Zhejiang province

Is there any element of cultural preservation within?
I don’t worship that kind of thing. I didn’t want to fall into the trap, you know, this protection of theold culture. That’s not my interest at all. I don’t think it has some profound beauty except the idea, the concept behind it, which is pretty overwhelming. But not the material itself. To be creative and to use that [old culture], but at the same time not too much of it, [I decided] I’d have to find two galleries and just show half of [the exhibition] in each. That is the way to completely destroy the original feeling, because totality is the core idea of the Chinese culture.

As you alluded to earlier, it’s not all in one place?

The actual building is structured in between two galleries [Tang Contemporary Art Centre and Galleria Continua] in this contemporary art location, 798. That means in each gallery we only have half a show. If you want to see the total work you either… You know, you’re not going to see the total product – all at once, anyhow – but you can see it with an imagining of the other space. So I’ve created a ‘neither-nor’ condition, which is what I enjoyed, I think. I can still say I have never had a show, one-work-in-one-gallery in Beijing! It’s an interesting location and the city needs locations like that – you can see work that really represents sensitivity, or has the ambition to reflect. I’m very happy that both galleries have the courage [and] the ambition, and that they have the belief in the liberal way of contemporary art to let me take risks.

Is there a reason you chose to present an architectural project rather than something more political for a China show?

To me, any work is political. Even when the works are being announced where the artists say ‘we don’t care about the politics’. That’s a very political statement to me. And so I always openly say that is something I cannot escape as long as I have a show, as long as I’m an artist. But you know, the politics… It can relate on different levels: it can relate to history, culture, social change. It can even be related to ourselves – our understanding and our position as individuals – and it can relate to power and to our past. So it’s very complicated. I wouldn’t say there’s a clear political message in there, but of course, people will interpret it for themselves.

How do you feel about this being your first solo show in China?

I don’t feel anything unique about it, because I always say my life is a show. Us artists have to wrap it together, otherwise my work has no meaning. It’s just a bunch of materials that the wind will blow away. You know – Beijing has a strong wind!  

Ai Weiwei Until Sep 6; visit tangcontemporary.com for additional information.

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