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Ai Weiwei sighs and looks annoyed. “The West trying to understand China is like a soccer school trying to understand how to play a chess game,” he says. “It’s a completely different sort of system. You have too much confidence in your own ideology, or the kind of language you’re using, but you don’t understand the situation.”
I have just asked the 64-year-old Chinese exile – almost certainly the world’s most famous living artist – about the tennis player Peng Shuai. In November, on the social media site Weibo, she revealed her affair with China’s former vice premier Zhang Gaoli, and suggested that she had been pressured into having sex with him. Peng then vanished from public view, before giving an interview two weeks later retracting her claims.
“She is not a ‘MeToo’ – the West has confused themselves,” says Ai carefully. “Everybody in China knows, as a sportsperson or entertainment star, you’re always trying to find someone in a higher political position to protect you, as an umbrella.” Peng was involved with a man so powerful as to be almost untouchable.
To Ai, it’s clear that the pair were lovers, their affair consensual and that the private feelings expressed in the original Weibo post were later “cleaned up” for Peng by the Party. The West doesn’t understand, he says, that “in China, there’s no privacy or individual will. Everything belongs to the Party, you are the property of the Party.” He suggests people here put themselves in Peng’s shoes. “So, what do you want to do? Lose everything – your family and friends, your career – and just argue about something which is not a sexually offensive act?”
We didn’t begin this way. Ai – who, on the same day as Peng’s Weibo post, released a remarkable memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows – has a solo exhibition opening next month at Kettle’s Yard, in Cambridge, the city where he lived from 2019 to 2020 with his partner, the film-maker Wang Fen. Their son, Lao, nearly 13, still goes to school there and is, says Ai, “already a very Cambridge boy”; one not shy of giving his outspoken father advice. “He says, ‘Keep your mouth shut!’”
Ai, who has since moved to a rural estate outside Lisbon, clearly has no intention of doing so. His book, written over 10 years and edited down from 800,000 words, tells his life story alongside that of his father, Ai Qing, a celebrated poet, who knew Mao Zedong personally. In 1967, when Mao’s Cultural Revolution turned against intellectuals and artists, Ai Qing was sent to a desert labour camp in “Little Siberia” to correct his “Rightist thinking”, because he believed writers should have creative freedom.
Weiwei lived there with him between the ages of 10 and 15, for part of that time in a dwelling that was no more than a covered hole in the earth. It’s not hard to plot a course from the child who watched his father publicly abused at denunciation meetings or made to clean frozen excrement from the camp latrines to the man who would later become such a thorn in the side of the Chinese government.
Ai’s “Citizens’ Investigation”, for example, was his attempt to record the name of every child killed when many shoddily constructed school buildings collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. “If you had just kept quiet, [the parents] would already have forgotten about it,” administrators told him. With the aid of 100 volunteers, he compiled a record of the victims that reached 5,219 confirmed names (Ai believes the final death toll to be 5,335) that was the basis of the work Straight – a 90-ton floor sculpture created from mangled steel rods pulled from the ruins and straightened by hand. It was shown at the Royal Academy in 2015, alongside the full list of names.
The project so angered the authorities that by 2009 Ai had been put under round-the-clock surveillance. In a police raid on his hotel room that year, he was beaten with a baton and suffered intracranial bleeding that required surgery (he later made an artwork of the brain scan). It was just one year after the magical Bird’s Nest stadium, which he had designed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, had won China the admiration of the world.
Then, in 2011, Ai was detained for 81 days without charge; he was interrogated daily. In the lavatory, he had to ask the guards’ permission before he flushed. At the same time, his vast and beautiful Sunflower Seeds installation was still showing at Tate Modern. The carpet of 102.5 million ceramic seeds, hand-painted by 1,600 artisans, represented the artist’s understanding of his homeland – in Mao’s China, sunflowers often symbolised the people in propaganda posters – as well as the spiritual comfort of the dark days when a handful of sunflower seeds in his pocket were all that stood between the young Weiwei and hunger. Does he ever look back with disappointment that Tate visitors weren’t allowed to walk on the seeds after it was discovered that they released a fine silica dust?
“No, because I think the work has to be examined by reality, so it’s not just my imagination or fantasy,” he says. “And because the work cannot be repeated, you can never cross a river twice at the same time. That’s the past.”
Ai Weiwei’s new exhibition, The Liberty of Doubt, sets out to explore the freedom the West has, in contrast to China and other authoritarian regimes, “to question truth and authority, express doubt and seek transparency in political matters”. Not that he is wholly convinced by our version of freedom. “I think the West is in many ways under covert authoritarianism,” he says, “the culture, and even the so-called free media, is dominated by corporates.”
As for freedom of speech, he adds, the extradition of Julian Assange to the US (which the High Court ruled permissible in December), for the crime of having a platform to publish material the American government did not want released, “which any journalist should do”, shows it is a sham. He equates the “175 years of jail time” now facing Assange (pending a potential Supreme Court appeal) with the UK acquiescing to “assassination”. “If we don’t defend individuals, or those cases caused by freedom of speech, then what are we talking about? It’s ridiculous.”
Ai is a believer in a pure form of free speech, which extends to social media. “I don’t think anybody, if it’s on a public platform, should decide or censor any language or any ideas.”
The Liberty of Doubt also looks at the differing traditions in the art of the East and West in relation to authenticity. In the show, 13 works by Ai – including his marble Surveillance Camera with Plinth and a Lego rendering of the earlier work Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn – are exhibited alongside 14 antiquities, some of them fakes that he unknowingly bought online at auction.
This mix of ancient and modern art has its roots in the period when Ai returned to China in his 30s after 12 years living in New York between 1981 and 1993, struggling to make it as an artist. For several years in Beijing, he tells me, he lived “outside of society, with no job”, just helping his younger brother Ai Dan, who was trading in antiques. It was a boom time for antiquities, he notes, because there was so much development and road building that new finds were continually being unearthed, yet people saw them as leftovers of a feudal society, which meant rich pickings.
“I spent about six years, day by day, all my time looking at the new finds in the markets,” he says. I wonder if he has a favourite period of Chinese history? “Yes, I have a strong admiration for the Bronze Age, which is the Shang (c 1600-1046 BC) and the Zhou (1046-256 BC) dynasties,” he says. He slips from his usual laconic mode into a voice that is plainly passionate and reverential. “If you look at many objects from the past, they are very primitive, but the Shang and Zhou [objects] are so powerful. They have clear bronzes and jades, which still, every time I look at them, I am almost speechless to imagine their lives. And, of course, you have the early silk weavings… oh my God, how were they able to make silk with such perfection? The sensitivity, the technical manner, everything, it’s a miracle to see.”
The immense antiquity of these pieces fills him with awe. “The monkeys come down from the tree to define themselves in such a way – it’s just unthinkable.”
The exhibition will also feature several of his films, including Human Flow (2017), about migration, and Cockroach, a stunning feature-length work shot in 2019 that documents Hong Kong’s last desperate convulsions of protest at the loss of its autonomy, rights and freedoms. It shows the dream of democracy dying in front of your eyes, yet it also captures the beauty and defiance of the human spirit. Drone shots depict patterns of disorder on the street, while behind-the-barricades footage captures the blood and emotion close up.
Ai directed the film remotely, sending in a team with 4K digital cameras while young men and women in T-shirts – faced with tear gas, water cannons and armed police – turned to bricks and Molotov cocktails. Does Ai believe it will be the last time we see large-scale protests in Hong Kong? “Unfortunately, this is the last time, yes. This was a unique situation of young people, all educated, very rational, who made a party of resistance, a celebration that turned out to have such a tragic end, but it can never be repeated.”
The last time I had spoken to Ai, in November, he’d told me that the imposition of Hong Kong’s new National Security Law – banning any act of “subversion” or “sedition” against the Chinese Communist Party – would be used to crush all dissent and “many people will be put in jail”. This has already happened to most of the talking heads in his film. New crimes under the law were announced only last week. The situation, he said, will “just take them time to wrap up… in China, if you disagree or talk to someone or argue with someone, you are subversive to state power. It all depends how sensitive they are. And now I think they’ve become extremely sensitive.”
He picks out China’s zero-Covid policy as an example of an authoritarian state exerting its dominance. “It has become a kind of psychological warfare to prove what China is capable of,” he says. “They are doing it through the strongest system ever seen in history. China has 1.4 billion people, and among them are 90 million Communist Party members who have to do whatever the Party wants them to do and keep the Party’s secrets. This is how every day they silence people.” In Xi’an, the central city that has been in lockdown since December 23, “where you find maybe a few thousand cases in something like 70 million people, they make sure to control them all in isolation, in a very dramatic, ice cold, cruel way”.
He has strong views, too, on the likely origin of the virus: “I made a film in 2003 about Sars, my first documentary film, which is where my understanding of these Chinese institutions comes from, and how it works. And it’s obvious the disease is not from an animal. It’s not a natural disease, it’s something that’s leaked out, after years of research.”
There are those who think that premier Xi Jinping is pushing China back towards the all-controlling personality cult of the Mao Zedong era. Is Ai one of them? In some ways, he says, the two leaders “are similar because they have the same kind of ideology. They strongly believe China can take over.” He pauses. “They might be right.”
The difference, he adds, is that “today, China has much more capital, is developing much faster in science and has also made a lot of connections and profit all over the world. China is not alone any more, and their competitors – the US and also England – are so dependent on China that it is not solvable, I think. The West is trying to find a safe way out, but it will still have to depend on China.”
I ask the joint architect of the Bird’s Nest stadium if he’s looking forward to Beijing’s Winter Olympics. “The Olympics is just a showcase,” he says, “it’s not really about human dignity or anything healthy. It’s a business event.”
As someone who has lived in the US, Germany, the UK and now Portugal, does he ever feel frustrated that his work is always seen through the filter of Chinese politics? “I don’t care,” he says. “I don’t even care if people call me an artist or not.”
Ai often talks in these provocative soundbites. Cockroach has a superb, jarring, metallic soundtrack composed by Hong Kong indie band Punkgod, yet he says he never listens to music, even though he is directing Puccini’s problematic “Oriental” opera Turandot at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome in March. “I don’t listen to music, but I have good judgment, and I’ve become very picky in selecting musicians and giving clear indications to composers,” he says. “I never liked colours,” he adds, “but I’m an artist, so I have to use colours well.”
The more I talk to Ai Weiwei, the stronger the impression becomes that he rejects not just all forms of authority, but also the enclosing quality of language itself. Does he see himself as extraordinary? “I think I’m the most normal example of an individual,” he says, “but I think I’m quite liberated.”
Ai Weiwei: The Liberty of Doubt is at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (kettlesyard.co.uk) from February 12 to June 19