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

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.