The Chinese artist answers questions from Observer readers and art world luminaries on creativity and protest, Chinese politics – and why he never cooks the same dish twice
by Tim Lewis
Ai Weiwei’s studio can be found behind unmarked, black metal doors in a grand square in the old east Berlin. You immediately descend two flights of very steep stone stairs before emerging, blinking for light, into a vast, brick-lined cavern that has the proportions of a church. The temperature drops a few degrees. The space was originally, back in the mid-19th century, the cooling warehouses for the Bavarian brewer Joseph Pfeffer. But, since Ai fled China five years ago, this has been his main place of work – and, given that the 62-year-old artist and activist is almost always working, more besides.
“When I’m here, it’s like my home,” says Ai, who wears a blue hoodie and comfortable shoes, his beard less unruly than it appears in photographs. “Like my home,” he clarifies. “I’ve never had a home. In China, my studio was often destroyed. So for me, it’s a shelter – a shelter not so different from refugees in the camps that gradually build up. I can leave, of course, but since 2015, I have stayed here, never had a holiday or weekends. I’m working all the time.” His face crinkles into a smile: “I love work.”
Ai’s output is prolific and diverse. In 2008, he was the artistic consultant for the Olympic Stadium in Beijing, the Bird’s Nest. Two years later, he filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern with 100m handmade and painted porcelain sunflower seeds. Early in his career, he made a photo series of himself dropping a splendid, 2,000-year-old Han dynasty urn. Recently, he has created several powerful works – installations, video and a documentary – on the refugee crisis. War and its fallout is also the subject of his latest work, History of Bombs.
Until the coronavirus outbreak, Ai’s design – a grid of 50 explosive devices from a 1911 grenade to a 2019 guided nuclear missile – was due to cover the floor of the Imperial War Museum London’s vast atrium, underneath the suspended Spitfire and Harrier jet, leading visitors to the spring exhibition, Refugees: Forced to Flee.
Now the exhibition is postponed and Ai says when contacted last week: “Cultural institutions are probably the last to be damaged, but the first to show how severely this can affect our understanding about art and culture, which reflect tragic human moments like this. It is very hard to predict the future, but it seems like the situation is not going to be easily resolved and will have a strong impact. All the factors that allowed for this incident still remain the same – this could happen again – and a more thoughtful response in terms of social structure and the philosophical understanding of this situation is required.”
Ai’s notoriety now of course reaches far beyond the art world. He took the 99-year lease on his Berlin studio in 2010 when he was starting to worry about his safety – his freedom – in China. He was right to be concerned: in April 2011, he was arrested and jailed for 81 days on insubstantial charges. His passport was confiscated and only returned to him in 2015, at which point he came to Germany.
“When a friend showed me the space, it was in a very bad condition,” Ai recalls. “That’s why nobody wanted it: it’s dark, it’s wet, it’s cold. There’s no light down here. So I said: ‘I want it.’ He was surprised and said: ‘Why do you want it?’ And I said: ‘Because there are so many problems, and I like to solve problems!’”
Before Ai was an artist, he was an architect, and it shows. The studio now has natural light from goodness knows where, and is clinically clean and dry. For the most part, anyway. A while back, he discovered water dripping from the ceiling, so he went to see his upstairs neighbour, the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, about it. “Olafur is my dear friend, but we don’t see each other very often, maybe once every three months,” says Ai. “So I said: ‘Olafur, it’s leaking!’ And he said: ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ And I said: ‘No, don’t worry, I’ll call it a waterfall and when you have the chance, come down to sign it!’”
Those who follow Ai’s work and pronouncements might be surprised to learn that he still has a base in Berlin. At the end of last year, he moved with his partner and 10-year-old son to Cambridge. In January, he gave an interview to the Guardian in which he was so excoriating about life in Germany that you might imagine that he would never set foot in the country again. Germans, he said, “deeply don’t like foreigners”. He went even further: nazism – by his definition, as an ideology that dismisses alternative viewpoints – “perfectly exists in German daily life today”.
What has been the reaction to these comments in Germany? “When I chat like this, it is only because journalists ask me and I have to answer,” says Ai. “The German response was very heavy, very dark – a form of ‘love it or leave it’, or ‘go back to China’ . Or the more intellectual was: ‘Oh, it’s only a few taxi drivers.’ And I said, ‘Yes, but that is a long ride.’”
Ai guffaws, but he’s totally serious. He has to keep his studio in Berlin for now, but would like to relocate. “I know I would never get a place like this, but so what?” he says. “Many people have to leave their nation barehanded, and maybe before they used to have a palace. In China they say, you’re born as a nude person, you die as a nude person. You should understand both ends.”
One of the differences Ai sees between the UK and Germany is the engagement with his work and his opinions. He says that he has done more interviews in one week with the British media than in five years with German outlets. “The Hong Kong riots, the corona situation – I thought the German press would ask what we think about it, right?” he says. “I’m not blaming them or asking for this, but it makes me feel kind of like I’m in China, because my name cannot be written.”
On the evidence of this feature, a You Ask the Questions special, there is certainly an intense fascination with Ai in Britain (there are also at least a couple of questions from Germany, and submissions from all over the world). The many hundreds of inquiries ranged from his early life (Ai’s father Ai Qing was a notable poet who was ostracised for criticising the Maoist regime; the family lived in a cave for five years and his father was made to clean the village toilet) to his opinions on music and food (he’s obsessed with one, not the other). At one point Ai stops me mid-sentence and marvels: “You have important questions from a lot of powerful people! Amazing!”
Subject to any further disruption due to coronavirus, IWM plans to open History of Bombs this summer at IWM London as part of IWM’s Refugees season.
Questions from cultural figures
Director of the Tate galleries
You have moved to the UK just as we leave the European Union. What does the idea of the nation state mean to you?
If you take a historical view, our map is always changing. It continues to evolve. That might be a king’s decision or the people’s decision in a democracy. I don’t think Brexit is a problem. I’ve asked many people and Britain is Britain. It has problems, but it’s still there and this doesn’t add more problems. So it’s a time for people to rethink what Britain is and how to survive.
Artist and film-maker
What is the most satisfying thing to you about being an artist?
To not even think that I am an artist has been very satisfying for my work.
In free societies, people often have the romantic feeling that better art is produced in circumstances of hardship. What would you say to that?
This is a tricky question. I would say that many bad artworks have come from circumstances of hardship. But hardship can also be defined as a long period of mental and intellectual struggle.
Marcel Duchamp’s work, The Large Glass [also known as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even] looks very casual. Duchamp had the lightest attitude towards art but his mindset was formed over a long time, taking in poetry, French literature, the attitudes of that generation, Dadaism and surrealism. The Large Glass speaks of all of that.
If artists aren’t active in the political space, do you think that they are essentially supporting the status quo?
An artist must also be an activist – aesthetically, morally, or philosophically. That doesn’t mean they have to demonstrate in street protests, but rather deal with these issues through a so-called artistic language. Without that kind of consciousness – to be blind to human struggle – one cannot even be called an artist.
Hans Ulrich Obrist
Artistic director, Serpentine Galleries
What is your unrealised project?
That will be death. In my life I have gone through pretty much every single trauma: communism, postmodernism, post-capitalism and globalisation, but the only project I think everyone realises is death. I know nothing about death. I haven’t met anybody who has come back to tell me their experience. So I’m waiting for the moment and it will come sooner or later.
I’m happy with the work I’ve done, even though I have done so little. Often in life you don’t get the chance to do what you want. For me, that period lasted almost 45 years: I either didn’t know what I wanted to do or I knew what I wanted but I didn’t get the chance to do it. But since 2005, when I touched a computer for the first time and started to learn how to type, I began working on the internet and have been reborn. So in the past 15 years, I basically did everything and I’m pretty satisfied. If I have to die now, I have no regrets.
Director of the Design Museum
Given you’ve designed buildings as well as installed art in a whole variety of different spaces, what can artists and architects learn from each other?
This is a bit technical, but I think artists and architects are the same profession, if they’re good ones. Even doctors or politicians, they should have vision and they should understand human behaviour and try to offer possibilities for surviving intellectually or physically.
Group editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury publishers
How can art help the plight of refugees?
Art helps human consciousness, art is about individuals’ emotions or ideas or concepts relating to a larger cultural definition of who we are. And art can break boundaries: there’s no “refugees” or other names, even “terrorists”, we’re all human. Art tries to illustrate or explain the situation we are in. So in that sense art is dangerous because art doesn’t accept any kind of regulation or any kind of principle; instead you have to go to an unknown area. Art helps our human understanding of our situation. Words like “refugee” and “terrorist” are a simplification and those words destroy the humanity.
After creating so many works of art that give voice to the voiceless across the world, I wonder what are the emotions that you find easier to think, write or express in Chinese and what are the emotions you find easier to think, write or express in English? I am curious what is your relationship with each language, and how do they differ, if at all, emotionally.
For Chinese readers, the sensitivity and storytelling about common feelings and people’s everyday behaviour are the most effective. For western readers, since I was not raised in the west, my arguments are more about matters of ethics and philosophy. Rationality is easier for any audience to understand.
Lord Alf Dubs
What steps do you think can we take to persuade European public opinion to be more sympathetic to taking in refugees, especially in Britain?
It’s not possible to persuade anybody. You can only warn people what the consequences will be of not doing it. The idea of helping the unfortunate has always existed in most religionsIt’s easy to understand but I don’t think people will do it in practice. So, in my work, I’d rather warn about wh at will happen if we are not more sympathetic towards refugees. And that’s what I’m doing.
Questions from readers
Aren’t you discouraged by the lack of political change in China after fighting for so long?
I’m totally discouraged. But I’m very fortunate I committed to fighting China because China is the ideal opponent. He never dies, you cannot beat him with one punch. So it is my life’s work.
You mostly look unhappy. Are you happy, Mr Weiwei?
Uwe Wache, Germany
I am the happiest person with the saddest face on Earth.
Where did all the sesame seeds go? Can I get some?
Ah, the sunflower seeds? Yes, give me your address I will send you one. They are for someone who doesn’t mind seeing a dentist, because they will break their teeth on them! But seriously, in China, all the activists love these seeds, they call them the seeds of freedom. So we’ve sent out a few million seeds. It’s very costly, but they give them to their loved ones as wedding or engagement presents. They make a little earring or something. They really love them. I don’t know why.
How did you and your family survive living in a hole in the ground for five years?
Anne Gray, UK
We survived and had many happy moments in that hole [during the cultural revolution, Ai’s family had to live in an underground cavern previously used for farm animals]. We had the kind of happiness one will never experience living on Park Avenue or in some kind of palace.
Are the people in Hong Kong fighting a lost cause?
Anonymous, Hong Kong
I have said this before: they have already won. As soon as you start to fight – you can be the weakest or strongest – you have won. Of course, it’s very hard to win against a communist regime, but you never die if you keep fighting. So it’s like me: am I winning? I think in a certain way I’m impactful. But I’ll get old, I will die and who cares?
Of all of your accomplishments, artistic and political, what are you personally most proud of?
Vincent Elliott, Canada
I’m proud that I retain a clear mind with sensitivity and judgment. If there is one honour I’d love, it’s to be known as a clear-minded man. Some of my work is more popular, some less, but that is not so important. You make an effort, that’s the most important thing. I think anybody who wants to make the effort can create better work than me.
Has becoming a parent had an impact on your art?
Lorraine Pink, Australia
Oh yes, definitely it helps me. Whatever I did before is like half of the circle; becoming a parent makes the circle full. So it’s very important for me, even if I understand very little about doing it. But still, it’s a gift, so you accept that gift. Also, it’s only when you become a parent you understand your own parents. That’s important, too.
What do you miss most about China?
What I miss most is standing on the ground in China and fighting for its survival.
You believe German society is intolerant to refugees – what has led you to that conclusion?
Samuel Worz, Germany
I have undergone a long period of study and research on this issue. German intolerance is not simply my impression, but a view formed by observing the German response to many different issues. Germany has failed not only when it comes to supporting refugees, but also on other political issues, such as dealing with authoritarian states like China. It has shown indifference to the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong. If you look at Germany’s pattern of responses to China, you can only conclude that most German politicians are not interested in ideology, but rather are focused on their own business interests.
Does music inspire you, and if so what do you listen to?
Not at all! I wouldn’t say that I don’t like music, but I have never really turned on music in my life. I have good equipment, I have a lot of musician friends and I have perfect understanding of music. I can analyse music with my musician friends and conductors and they say: “You understand music so well!” But it’s like a parallel world in which I’m an alien. When I listen to it, I can rationalise happy emotions, but I don’t like music. I like silence. No sound at all. Maybe I belong to death.
Last year you bought 30 tons of buttons from A Brown & Co when the business closed. What plans do you have for them?
Bill Brown, USA
What a pain! We have started to analyse and measure and categorise them. We’re still working on that. At the moment, we don’t have a plan for them. We never do anything without totally understanding the situation, or at least thinking that we totally understand the situation. We want to find joy, then we can turn it into some other kind of joy.
Would you rather fight a horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?
Ian Tinkler, Shetland
I have no preference. I don’t see the difference between my opponents. What I am fighting is an ideology, which has no clear shape or size.
As a young man, you destroyed art and cultural artefacts. Do you still see those acts in the same way you did then?
Amy Thompson, Mexico
My work has a solid understanding, but, at the same time, it happens intuitively. It cannot be repeated or clearly defined by the author.
Do you enjoy cooking? What would you serve at a dinner party?
Nigel Simpson, UK
Yes, tremendously, mainly because my stomach is very sensitive, particularly to food. Cooking is relaxing. Cooking or cutting hair or whatever is a total break from other activities, and stops you getting burned out.
What I cook depends on what’s there when I open the refrigerator. I always find something, but my cooking secret is that I cannot cook the same dish twice. I automatically avoid cooking anything the same. It doesn’t matter if it is such a good dish: “Can you redo it?” No, not possible. I see it as art. And I’m not the kind of artist that repeats the same work for 20 years.