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

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution