【 New York Review Of Books 】   Post Date: 9/13/2015
‘I Try to Talk Less’: A Conversation with Ai Weiwei and Liao Yiwu
Author: Ian Johnson
Ai is now working out of his atelier, a series of converted underground storerooms in a former brewery, in the gentrified district of Prenzlauer Berg, next to the studio of star artist, collaborator, and friend Olafur Eliasson; on September 19, a major show of Ai’s work will open at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
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Adam Berry/Getty Images
Liao Yiwu and Ai Weiwei, Berlin, September 2, 2015
In late July, Chinese authorities renewed travel privileges for conceptual artist and political activist Ai Weiwei, ending a five-year prohibition following his arrest in 2011. He promptly flew to Munich and then Berlin, where he has accepted a three-year guest professorship at the city’s University of the Arts.
After arriving in Germany, Ai gave two interviews that aroused some controversy, telling the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Zeit that repression in China is bad but not as bad as in the past—defensible positions, especially if comparing today’s China to the Cultural Revolution or the period immediately after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, but still surprising to some who had come to expect extremely pointed and uncompromising statements from Ai.
Ai is now working out of his atelier, a series of converted underground storerooms in a former brewery, in the gentrified district of Prenzlauer Berg, next to the studio of star artist, collaborator, and friend Olafur Eliasson; on September 19, a major show of Ai’s work will open at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Shortly after Ai’s arrival in Berlin, I accompanied the exiled Chinese writer Liao Yiwu to meet him. Liao, who has made Berlin his home since fleeing China in 2011, had never met Ai in China, and the two men were feeling each other out, the polished, cosmopolitan Ai contrasting with the learned but rougher Liao. We had lunch at a pizzeria near Ai’s studio, along with the Chinese artist Meng Huang, two of Ai’s assistants, and Ai’s six-year-old son, Ai Lao.
Ian Johnson: You’ve been through a difficult period. How does it feel to be in Berlin?
Ai Weiwei: My feelings are, actually are…how can I describe this situation? It’s like I was on arid land and thrown into water. I’ve been running for so many years and now have reached the shore. It’s that kind of feeling. Because I never felt I belonged in water. That kind of control. That kind of pressure. And every kind of threat. I was living under constant threats. And suddenly this thing, suddenly it vanishes, and everything returns to normal. It’s a little bit like the effect at high altitudes. Some people in Tibet live at high altitudes very naturally, when they get to lowlands they also have a reaction. They have lowlands reactions. The brain bloats. Everything hurts. From head to foot everything is not right. It’s something like that.
I’m curious about your views on the role of history in China. Some people think that Chinese have forgotten everything, that they suffer from amnesia. But others think that Chinese are rediscovering their history. There are documentary films, and unofficial histories being written. How do you see it?
Ai: When a revolution doesn’t have a deep foundation in aesthetics or theory, change is quite easy. The Communist Party’s revolution had no capacity to have anything to do with history because forming a relationship with Chinese history would have been disadvantageous for it. They overturned Chinese culture as it had developed over several thousand years because they changed the system of ownership.
Liao Yiwu: I agree with this. The Communist Party used land reform to cut links to all traditions. It wiped out China’s so-called landlord class, and gentry class. From ancient times to the present, why did China have some liberty? It was because the “mountains are high and the emperor far away,” and the gentry class could use this distance to obtain liberty. But the Communist Party thoroughly cut this off through land reform. There was no independent land-owning class anymore.
What about non-governmental ways of remembering history, like underground documentary films or journals?
Ai: This [erasure of history] has gone on for too long. From the Three Anti [1951] to the Five Anti [1952] campaigns [against communist opponents and perceived social vices], and then to the Anti-Rightist Movement [1957-59], and to the Cultural Revolution [1966-76], the campaigns were repeated, again and again, so that not a blade of grass grows in this soil. Now a bird has taken off and perhaps in its excrement are a few seeds that can slowly start growing. But the organic growth of this environment has been destroyed.
After society has become more prosperous, some people are making some documentaries, some people are doing oral histories. But this savagely torn fabric of history has no true relationship to the past, so much so that it’s impossible to determine the nature of this society. There is too much that is missing. And add onto that the severe system of censorship, severe political control, and the severely cruel measures taken against intellectuals… so that I feel much despair.
Now we’re celebrating the how many-th anniversary of the victory over fascism, but what is based on truth and fact? Even though society is more prosperous now, are we able to recognize a few basic facts? I just mean a few facts from history, a few ingredients that you need while cooking up a dish. Like did this event take place or not? Or what happened during that battle? If you can’t figure these things out clearly, you don’t have even a factual foundation, so how can you talk about history?
What about independent filmmakers like Hu Jie, or yourself?
Ai: These are very very faint voices. For example, I did surveys of the 512 students [who died in the May 12, 2008 earthquake centered in Beichuan, Sichuan province]. This is a partial accounting: how many people actually died? Who were they? What were their names? But there isn’t much of an actual link with the overall culture of today. Because our survey, or Hu Jie’s documentary films, they can’t be discussed. History has to have a certain number of people who recognize it. But no one recognizes what we do because we can’t reach the public sphere. So it has no influence. It has no influence on education. It has no use in our public memory.
Liao: But looking at Chinese history, in the era of Sima Qian [died 86 BCE], he wrote of a traitor called Li Ling [a Han dynasty general whose defeat in 104 BCE caused a major crisis], and wrote about other [controversial] people. In his time, no one approved of his writing either. But looking at it from a long view, Sima Qian is the greatest historian of China.
Ai: Do you think that there’s a Sima Qian today?
Liao: Our China has many hundreds of millions of people, so we aren’t aware of every person.
Ai: I don’t believe this is possible. I don’t feel there is some secret existence. Just because your land is big, if you don’t have a diamond, you don’t have one. There’s no relationship. And Sima Qian, I don’t think he was unknown in his time.
Liao: But I think that doing documentaries, it has a value.
Ai: It definitely has a value. I didn’t say it didn’t have a value.
Liao: I think the value is that one person begins to do it. For example, in the beginning I paid attention to Ai Weiwei and the Yang Jia case [of a man who had been abused by police and one day killed six police officers]. At the time, Ai Weiwei was an artist. I think there were several thousand signatures [to Ai’s 2008 petition calling for Yang’s release due to extenuating circumstances]. At the time, most Chinese intellectuals didn’t support Yang Jia because after all he used violence and most intellectuals support non-violence. It made me think of Sima Qian because it was about a time when China had no hope and the only hope was that an assassin could get rid of Qin Shihuangdi [the tyrannical first emperor of China]. At the time, I realized that Ai Weiwei was similar.
What’s the link between art and history?
Ai: There’s a big link to history because I am a product of history. People of my age, and people of my father’s generation, and others I have known, have given shape to my world outlook. This world outlook includes all kinds of choices, including aesthetic choices, are all related [to history]. We were talking about history in the sense of something being recorded, and the party cutting that. But history still has a big impact on Chinese society today, to the extent that it controls Chinese society today. This still exists because history is part of culture. Even if this culture has been cut, it is still a product of history.
Key Words: Ai Weiwei,Liao Yiwu
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