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“You aren’t born a good artist. You have to fight”

Censorship and oppression have obliterated creativity in China, Ai Weiwei tells Angie Baecker.

Angie Baecker China is a rising economic power, and its development over the past three decades has lifted millions out of poverty. The overarching narrative seems to be one of rise, yet for this issue you’ve chosen to focus on the aspects that have been left out of that, such as the lack of an independent justice system and the marginalisation of border territories such as Tibet. What about the arts? How do they stand in relation to this narrative?

Ai Weiwei The question is, can we talk about art without talking about society or politics? I grew up in a society in which writers, musicians and artists were purged, destroyed, just because they had different ideas. Any voice that dared to ask even simple questions was punished because that was considered counterrevolutionary. Millions of families disappeared and the best minds in China were destroyed by this toxic political culture.

Today, China still exists under extreme political conditions. There’s no real rule of law and no essential rights guaranteed to citizens. The judicial system is not independent – there’s never been true rule by law, but rather the party always manipulates the law. There isn’t room for free self-expression. I’m sorry to say it but there are almost no voices that speak out to defend all those who have been treated unfairly. As a result, people try to stay away from the government and those in control. When something is wrong, they try not to see it, try not to talk about it, try not even to argue with it through a form of art.

If you want to talk about humanity and what kind of society China is, if you want to talk about art and culture in China today – it’s completely lost. It has been lost for decades. It’s at its worst today. Every year, there are hundreds and thousands of movies and television shows that are produced. But less than 10 per cent gets through the censorship process, and even before they are produced, scripts are submitted to the censorship department, which still has final control over what gets through. Think about all the writing –books, magazines: they are also produced under these conditions. So, to maintain the politically correct bearing, every level of administration in every cultural production unit in China, whether large or small, state-owned or privately owned – they all have strong private censorship.

AB Do you mean self-censorship?

AW Yes, self-censorship. Because everybody knows that if you touch that red line, you’ll be in trouble. And if you’re in trouble even once, you’ll get put on the black list.

Think about my case. The kind of investi - gation I was facing last year - the people all around me, the people who work for me, their relatives – I think there are hundreds of people that were questioned or threatened or even blackmailed because of their connection to me. The authorities will use any means available They said to my lawyer, “Hey, you have a daughter, you have a wife. They’re still working.” What kind of a state are we in? How can a nation that boasts so proudly of its booming economy engage in such dirty tricks to its own citizens? The people who are the most law-abiding, the most concerned about the  welfare of others - these are the ones who are treated the most unfairly.

AB Do you feel that the condition of human rights in China is intimately connected with the state of its culture?

AW If culture has anything to do with ethics, morality, or any kind of philosophical code – then China is a land that has ruined those conditions. How can culture survive? It’s impos -  sible to separate one’s activity as an artist from an ethical, philosophical, or moral code. If you don’t have a simple sense of what is right and wrong, how can we trust your judgement on anything else?

AB I think there are many in the ministry of culture who wouldn’t have the same opinion as you.

AW And I’d respect their opinion. I’d like to have a discussion with any of them, but can they have a conversation with me? Do they have any kind of argument that can be presented openly?

AB Well I think they might point to the huge investment being made in cultural infrastructure over the past few years – since the 17th National Congress of 2007, when Hu Jintao said China needed to invest more in soft power, the ministry of culture has increased spending on culture by an average of 20 per cent every year, spending 30 billion yuan [£3bn] in 2011 alone. China has built some 200 museums in the past year, there are over 40 museums showing  contemporary  art in China and the 798 Art Zone gets thousands of visitors every day. What do these signs mean to you?

AW These are signs of illness. The system is rotten. All decisions are selective and based on the selective judgement of the party. Whenever you have a party that is higher than law and cannot be judged by common sense, then I think that’s like the Nazis. ABYou’re comparing the bureaucrats at the min - istry of culture to Nazis.

AW Yes. They’re a cultural elite who dictate their version of what the arts should be. Even Hitler was a strong promoter of culture. AB He was.

AW Dictators all understand the role that culture plays. They love those numbers. But that has nothing to do with culture. Culture is about humanity, and they don’t trust humanity, they don’t trust the truth of our everyday feelings, they don’t trust that those emotions can be shared. This kind of statistic greatness is purely a sickness.

AB Do you think there are artists right now who are good artists, who are able to maintain a strong practice in spite of the system?

AW In China? Yeah, there’s one; his name is Ai Weiwei. There’s a few, maybe. There are some young artists.

I think there’s a new generation that is a little more independent but still they have to go through the fight. You aren’t born a good artist, you have to fight your way through.

AB If a young artist came to you right now, would you recommend staying in China and creating art here, or leaving?

AW I think that depends on the situation. If you think of art as a universal language, then it doesn’t matter where you are. But whoever stays in China should reflect upon the society that they exist in. It’s their responsibility. If you don’t act on what you know, then that’s very strange. For me, that’s unthinkable. Trying to pretend or communicate without understanding what it is you’re trying to communicate. Yet many artists work like this.

AB You talk about how, in the context in which you grew up, there was a lot of state control over society. It was a totalitarian government, with whole generations of artists and heritage destroyed. How do you see that violence reflected in China’s culture today?

AW At that time, there was a need for violence, but today you don’t need violence. People scare themselves enough without needing an external threat. The monster comes only once but the rest of the time you’re just trying to imagine it. That means it is still there for you.

AB So do you think the biggest problem today is a lack of courage?

AW It’s the lack of a system that can guarantee people have the right to express themselves. If that system is not there, nobody will speak out. There’s no creativity, there’s no soft power – we just don’t have these things and this system will never have them.

AB Do you think Chinese art has become fully participatory in the international art system?

AW I don’t think so. I’m sorry to say, but if we’re going to talk about it, I don’t think Chinese art has made any significant contributions to international art. If we think of all the design and cultural events – fashion, lifestyle, industrial design, anything trendy – is any of it influenced by Chinese art? I think zero. There’s almost nothing there. There’s no language that can be applied to common well-being, or that young people can share. So what’s the contribution? What is the aesthetic that you’re trying to present? Is art a secret for the elite? Or can it be applied to our daily struggle?

AB Do you think Chinese art needs to be understood in a Chinese context?

AW If you say that one type of art needs to be understood in a certain context, then this is discrimination. It’s like saying that that context is different from the human context. I think that means that art has already failed, in terms of communicating, and it has no life.
AB You’ve participated in many different art movements in China. You were a member of the Stars in the late 1970s, the first major group of avant-garde artists in China, and when you came back from living in the US you were very involved in organising art in the early 1990s. In addition to co-curating the exhibition “Fuck- Off”, you founded the China Art Archives and Warehouse in 1998 with Hans van Dijk and Frank Uytterhaegen, which played a large role in promoting artists who weren’t very well known then but have become quite successful now. What kind of challenges did you face then, and how are they different from the ones you face now?

AW When we started, we saw much art as being influenced by pollution from the west. It was a conspiracy used by the west as a weapon. AB Contemporary art is a weapon used by the west?

AW Yes. So all the effort that we put into it had to be underground, so that it could be as counter-revolutionary as possible. But today, contemporary art has been used by the state like a ticket, or a business culture, to show how China is no different from the west. And they promote that. They also have statistics. I call it a fake smile. So you have a very booming collecting and selling side but at the same time  the art work has nothing to do with society.
And Chinese artists are following the same traditions as officials.

All Chinese artists dream of having a western market, to become the first group to be rich. But they never feel secure. First, they don’t trust society. They don’t give out their true opinions about society. Their use is basically that of decoration to the times.

AB So you think that Chinese art has been coopted by the state, and the state uses artists to promote its own image?

AW I think it functions like that. I wouldn’t say there’s direct usage, but it functions as  ecorative things. It’s like the Olympics. It’s not really that China is concerned with sports or health but rather with having a medal-grabbing competition designed by the state.

AB Do you think those artists who are being used are aware of this? Are they self-aware?

AW Of course. They’re all aware. They all pro fit from it, benefit from it. They enjoy it. I’m talking about the successful ones. Of course there are many people who are really doing interesting work that will never be recognised.

AB Who do you think lacks recognition?

AW I shouldn’t name.

AB What role do you think foreigners have played in the development and promotion of contemporary Chinese art?

AW I think at the beginning, yes, foreigners were the main force responsible for introducing contemporary Chinese art to the west. They set up exhibitions and put artwork in a better environment, so there could be some kind of platform to discuss it.

AB The market has become a big influence in Chinese art right now. How do you see that as having changed Chinese art?

AW The art market is no different from the market of any luxury good, like cosmetics. The markets are booming in China and it’s all about  either trying to accumulate ego or having wild dreams of profit. You know, a lot of art work is used to bribe officials. A huge part of the market for Chinese ink painting is used for corruption. Giving an official a painting, this is an old tradition. Emperors received them.

AB Do you feel hope for the future?

AW I always have hope for the future only because there is so much progress to be made. I always believe that we are here to solve problems. It gives some purpose to us, even if it’s just to renounce the methods, to see that fairness or justice need to be applied.

AB Do you think it’s going in the right direction?

AW I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s any sign of any consciousness in this power system. AB Do you think there was a high point in the past for contemporary Chinese art?

AW No. There was no high point, there’s no low point. There’s just no point.

Angie Baecker is a correspondent for Artforum and the editor of the magazine’s Chinese-language website.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit