Arts interview: Ai Weiwei

The Chinese artist responsible for this year’s Tate Modern Turbine Hall installation speaks to the <

Did you always want to be an artist?
No. I decided to become an artist in the late 1970s to try to escape the totalitarian conditions in China. Everybody wants to be part of the big power, so there are lies and false accusations everywhere. For me, art is an escape from this system.

If you were not an artist what would you be?
An artist.

Is there a distinction between your art and your activism?
Art and politics are fragments of the same thing – they're about an understanding of our surroundings. Sometimes my work is political, sometimes it is architectural, sometimes it is artistic. I don't think I am a dissident artist; I see them as a dissident government.

Your twitter account (@aiww) has 48,000 followers and you usually tweet over 100 times a day. Why?
For the first time in over 1,000 years, Chinese people can exercise their personal freedom of expression. This is down to Twitter, which has become part of my life in the same way that art has. They are inseparable. I also like Twitter because it creates possibilities for us to reach out to feel hope, otherwise we are all just individuals and cannot share the same kind of dream or same kind of gaze in another person's eye. It's a little bit of light in a dark room.

Has your interest in politics overtaken your interest in art?
My art works best when there is an underlying political theme. I want all of my political efforts to become art. I also feel a responsibility to speak out for people around me who are afraid and who have totally given up hope. I want to say: you can do it and it is OK to speak out. But it isn't necessarily deliberate, it's just how I am.

You claim that police entered your hotel room and attacked you because of your involvement in reporting the names of students who were victims of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Has this forced you to change the way you work?
No, I haven't changed anything about the way I work. And I don't plan to. The attack almost ended my life, but this work will always be worth the effort if I can make a strong voice and readjust living conditions for the people around me. I will always feel sad when students are killed and nobody takes responsibility.

People describe you as the leading Chinese artist fighting for freedom of expression.
It is difficult, though. The ideology in China doesn't encourage freedom of speech. There isn't even freedom of information – everyone knows that the Internet and newspapers are heavily censored in China. I think that all artists should stand for certain values, particularly freedom of expression. It is the most important issue we face in China, yet hardly any Chinese artists concentrate on this. Maybe artists in the west don't have to fight for this, but democratic societies have other problems.

How do you view China's development since your childhood?
New technology has forced China to put itself in a more open position. But this has not been done willingly by the government. Politically they want the structure to be the same as it was when I was growing up. Although everyday life has become better for most people, there is still a lot of work to be done. People are too cautious of the potential crisis. We all need to take more responsibility for the political situation.

Are you optimistic about China's future?
In the long run it is not possible to stop Chinese people speaking for freedom and democracy. Living in China can be very frustrating, but also very exciting. You see the possibilities and play the game.

Is there a plan?
No.

Are we all doomed?
I am not optimistic about the future. Our whole lives have been designed by fate. And although some humans are brilliant, everything looks like it has already been settled.

Interview by John Sunyer

Ai Weiwei's Unilever exhibition is in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London SE1, until 25 April 2011.

 

Ai Weiwei: defining moments

1957 Born in Beijing to Gao Ying (mother) and Ai Qing (father), who is often cited as the most influential Chinese poet of the 20th century
1978 Joins the Beijing Film Academy
1981 Moves to New York; leaves in 1993
1995 Produces controversial artwork Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn
2008 Boycotts the Beijing Olympics, despite helping to design the "Bird's Nest" stadium
2009 Produces Remembering 2009 to commemorate the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a wall of Chinese text covering the façade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, made up of thousands of children's backpacks
2010 Becomes the 11th artist to show in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall

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The Day That Went Missing: a memoir that breaks all the rules

Richard Beard's book is brimful of anger and guilt, fails to deliver an uplifting ending and opens with a death.

The Day That Went Missing: a Family’s Story, by Richard Beard

Harvill Secker, 278pp, £14.99

This memoir breaks all the rules. It’s brimful of anger and guilt, fails to deliver an uplifting ending and opens with a death. In the sea off the Cornish coast, the author, aged 11, is jumping the waves along with his brother Nicky, aged nine. It is August 1978. They are trying to outdo each other, joshing in the water; but then a rip current catches Nicky, pulling him out and sucking the sand from beneath his feet. A last image is burned in Beard’s brain: Nicky paddling madly and whining, “his head back, ligaments straining in his neck, his mouth in a tight line to keep out the seawater”. The next moment, responding to a deep instinct to save himself, Beard turns his back on his brother in a frenzied break for the shore.

All his life, Beard writes, he has “made a habit of looking away”. With this book – born of a midlife wobble, a dissatisfaction with being “insufficient in feeling” – he is determined to face down the dreadful events of that day and bulldoze the walls of denial that his family began erecting immediately after Nicky’s funeral, when they returned to the same house (and beach) in Cornwall to finish their holiday as if nothing had happened.

But now there’s so little of Nicky left: a gravestone that gives no date of death, a memorial at the boys’ Berkshire boarding school, a chapel dedication. Beard’s father, who with his determined silence imposed a moratorium on discussing Nicky, is now dead, too, and his living brothers’ recollections are as hazy as his own. At his mother’s house, a suitcase in the attic stows Nicky’s scant belongings, out of sight and mind, and there is a bunch of condolence letters whose well-intentioned inanities Beard quotes to good effect throughout the book, ­showing up the poverty of our language in acknowledging grief. “Death in these letters is character-forming, like a traditional English education,” he remarks at one point.

Beard revisits the holiday house, where difficult memories surface of his boyhood self, pretending to cope while falling apart. He cries uncontrollably as he walks along the cliffs to the beach where Nicky died. “My eyes are leaking,” he writes, another reminder of how he has been drilled not to feel (his boarding school, co-conspirator in denial, does not come off well here).

Beard’s mother hides behind revisionism. She tells him that Nicky was “hopeless at games, and not very brainy”. By believing this, he writes, she can believe that he didn’t have the strength or cleverness to outwit the sea. Another distancing mechanism: his mother points out that Nicky bore little physical resemblance to his three brothers. Beard drily notes how this helps account for Nicky’s erasure: “He wasn’t genuinely one of us – a reason for forgetting him that would make sense, in a novel.”

Making sense of life in novels is what Beard does for a living: in 2011’s Lazarus Is Dead, he even gave his central character a brother who drowns. And his novelist self protects him still, here. While reading (and finding flaws with) the condolence letters, he relies on his inner literary critic to “fend away the risk of genuine empathy”; stumbling on precious references to Nicky’s personality in school reports, he expresses a wariness of short cuts to character. Yet even the denial that serves him professionally breaks down when he comes across stories he published in his school magazine when he was 12 and 13 – one about a diver crippled by fear of water, another about a consummate actor who can’t keep up a performance: he keeps fluffing his lines.

Scraping away this final layer of self-protection creates a certain freedom. It allows Beard to be crazy angry at his father, who had cancer in 1978 and a lousy prognosis with it, and therefore had nothing to lose by jumping into the waves to save his son. And yet he didn’t do it.

Beard is angry at Nicky, too – “stubborn little bastard”. His brother, it turns out, was far from hopeless at sport. School reports indicate that he excelled at it, that he was ­indefatigable, competitive, ambitious. Beard hated him for that, for showing him up, for being the more talented sibling. Once, he punched Nicky in the face but there was no running away to tell on him in response. Nicky bore the punch, showing his brother who was the bigger of them. “I didn’t like him,” writes Beard, and so he goaded Nicky into the sea. “I was older and it was my idea. I left him out of his depth and drowning and I didn’t try to save him, not really. I was busy saving myself.” This is the stuff of true grieving and remorse, the acid peel of genuine soul-searching, whose sting few of us are capable of bearing. And it sings.

Beard has written an enriching rather than uplifting book. It deals in difficult truths. It insists that we can hate those we love; that forgetting is hard work and more damaging than remembering; and that grief will hound us to the end. It also tells us that brothers are more important than we might ever credit. 

Marina Benjamin’s “The Middlepause” (Scribe) is now available in paperback

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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