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

Getty
Show Hide image

Why do we talk to ourselves? A new book investigates the voices in our heads

The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough is an ear-opening book – and an important corrective to myths about schizophrenia, the brain and even our self of sense.

You’re going to be late for that meeting; you haven’t even left the house. But where’s your wallet? It’s not in your pocket, it’s not in your bag – come on, come on, you’ve got to find it. Where on Earth could it be? If you’re like me, that “come on, come on” will be sounding vividly in your head as you stomp from room to room. You’re issuing a silent instruction to yourself. But how does this inner voice really work? What purpose does it serve? Does everyone hear something similar? These are some of the questions that Charles Fernyhough sets out to investigate in The Voices Within.

Fernyhough is an interesting fellow. A professor at Durham University, he began his career in developmental psychology, with a focus on social, emotional and cognitive development. But in recent years he has shifted his attention to the study of psychosis – particularly the phenomenon of voice-hearing, in which the inner voice is not the speaker’s own, helpfully assisting in the search for a lost wallet, but seemingly external, often frightening, dismissive or commanding.

People who experience this are often simply labelled “schizophrenic” – a “highly misunderstood term”, Fernyhough writes. The word, coined in 1908 by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, invokes alarm: “The sound of its sibilant label triggers fear and prejudice.” One of the aims of this book is to question that prejudice and to consider other ways of thinking about these “external” voices, setting them on a continuum with the dialogue we all conduct with ourselves.

But it is more than merely science that informs the author’s attention to how the sound of a word can influence its effect on its hearers. Fernyhough is also a novelist and not a little of this book is concerned
with another expression of the inner voice – the creation and consumption of fiction. When Fernyhough asked 1,500 people whether they heard the voices of fictional characters in their heads, 80 per cent said that they did; one in seven “said that those voices were as vivid as hearing an actual person speaking”. Many novelists report the experience of building their characters as being observational as much as it is creative. Fernyhough quotes David Mitchell describing his occupation as a kind of “controlled personality disorder . . . To make it work, you have to concentrate on the voices and get them talking to each other.” Fernyhough’s fine description of how it feels to read fiction is an expert blend of the scientific and artistic:

The voices we encounter in a novel can express our desires, threaten our safety, challenge our morals and speak of what cannot be said. They take us into a place of expanded possibilities where we can try on other identities. Through their expert control of these fictional voices, novelists lead us into a controlled dissolution of the self, and then bring us back safely to who we are.

What happens when that dissolution of the self is not controlled? Fernyhough introduces us to Jay, who hears the voices in his head as having different accents, pitches and tones. There is Adam, who lives with a voice he knows as the Captain; the Captain is a hard taskmaster, ordering Adam around, berating him, letting him know who’s boss. And yet, while Adam struggles with the Captain, he doesn’t long for his disappearance. “It feels like you’ve got a mate looking out for you as well,” Adam says.

The Dutch psychiatrist Marius Romme is a pioneer of the Hearing Voices Movement, which aims to remove the stigma often attached to the phenomenon of voice-hearing and instead pays attention to the information (about childhood trauma, for example) that those voices bring to the surface. Fernyhough discusses this approach with sensitivity and warmth.

The trouble is, as the author demonstrates, that discovering what is going on in the individual’s brain isn’t simple. Although voices, as he writes, can give us clues to “the fragmentary constitution of an ordinary human self”, the nature of that self – how my self makes itself distinct from your self, whether the voices in my head “sound” different to the ones in yours – is one of the central problems of both philosophy and science. Fernyhough doesn’t skimp on the science when demonstrating the difficulties that arise from “self-reporting”: inner voices must, by necessity, always be described by the person experiencing them.

The book traces in detail (the footnotes are just as interesting as the text) the various attempts to pin down inner voices, whether those involve MRI scans or something called “Descriptive Experience Sampling” (DES), by which volunteers describe exactly what they are thinking when a beeper goes off in their ears. Yet there is still a fascinating gap between science and experience: it remains impossible to express what those voices really sound like to each person who hears them.

The voices within have always been with us and this is a book of history as well as one concerned with science and art. In centuries past, our ancestors seemed rather more certain of the source of the voices that rang inside them. Fernyhough doesn’t neglect those who knew that what they heard was the voice of God – or the gods.

His discussion of Margery Kempe, the 14th-century English mystic whose recounting of her spiritual life lays claim to being the first autobiography written in the language, is particularly sensitive. And he is careful of the retrospective “reductionist dishing-out of diagnoses” when it comes to figures such as Kempe, or Julian of Norwich, or Joan of Arc. His role as a scientist does not prevent him from recognising Kempe’s experience as what it must have been for her – “an inner conversation with a very special substance: the relationship between a woman and her God”. The brain’s conversation was once perceived as mystic. Even if that is no longer wholly the case, much mystery remains.

The Voices Within: the History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves by Charles Fernyhough is published by Profile Books/Wellcome Collection (319pp, £16.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad