While the world is still unsure of the whereabouts of chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who on April 3rd, was detained for “spreading pornography on the internet” and what the Chinese government described as “economic crimes”. Dazed Digital got their hands on this unpublished interview, which five days before he was detained, the artist Ai Weiwei gave this interview to a German newspaper.
What kind of model is that on your table?
Ai Weiwei: Right now I am putting together an exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan. It is set to open on October 29.
Interesting. That is the first time for you to exhibit in Taiwan, right?
Not only that. If Taiwan really is a part of China, which is what the Chinese government claims, this will be my first ever exhibition in China. (Laughs) So far, I had not been permitted to exhibit here.
You had attempted only recently. Your first exhibition at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art was set for March.
Yes, but they prevented that from happening. I had been working on that for one and a half years but then the exhibition was simply banned. And they also destroyed my new atelier at Shanghai.
The situation is becoming more and more difficult for critically thinking and acting artists in China, right?
They have been putting more and more people into prison recently, just because they posted something on Twitter or on their blogs. The phone gets cancelled, they are getting observed, their flats get searched. The police breaks into your house in the middle of the night, they search the house – and then they create evidence against you for the courts. They sentence innocent people to ten years in jail. The most recent one was Liu Xianbin.
You have repeatedly raised your voice in favour of Chinese human rights activists, for example, those that attempted to investigate the collapsing of many school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake.
Tan Zuoren for instance. Exactly, these are the people I am talking about. People like him simply get imprisoned for years and years. They just disappear. The relatives don’t get to hear anything from them. Nobody can get into contact with them. Their lawyers don’t get to see them. What kind of society has this become?
At the same time there is a huge German exhibition at the largest museum in the world at Tiananmen Square. It is entitled The Art Of Enlightenment. What do you think about that?
Tiananmen Square is the most ironic place for an exhibition about enlightenment, because we, the Chinese people, are currently experiencing the age of darkness. There is economic upswing and the people’s living standard is slowly increasing. But at the same time China has reached a new low point in terms of freedom of speech, freedom of artistic expression and the freedom of education. It is a new low point for our civil society.
You have been attacked severely by the police before. In fact, it was so severe that you had to have surgery in Munich in September 2009 because of cerebral hemorrhage. Have you ever considered emigrating considering all the repression in China?
No. Never. But I do have these dreams very often. Just two days ago. It was a nightmare. I was involved in some sort of secret society and I saw horrible things. People crying. I wrote it all down. But then I wasn’t allowed to take anything of it with me. I was followed. The dream seemed to last all night. And the most shocking thing about it was that there were so many tourists in that society. They saw all those things but they didn’t care. They just pretended everything was fine.
Exile must be a vital thought in your mind.
No, that is absolutely not an option. However, the officials of the national security organisation did suggest that during the interrogation. Maybe it was a better choice for me to go abroad was what they suggested. They said that I was an influential artist but also that things were becoming dangerous for me around here. But that would be the last thinkable choice for me.
Although you were threatened directly?
I do realise the risk in staying here. Looking at the history of my country, I can see that the stories of people questioning authorities have never ended favorably.
Do you believe that there is a possibility for artists in China to play a public role in changing the society, in the same way the Enlightenment demanded that in Europe?
Not really. I no longer exist in the eyes of official China. If you enter my name in an online search machine there appears a notice of failure. I was being “harmonised away.” But at least I still have 70,000 followers on Twitter, which is accessible inside China by means of some technical tricks. I comment on problems of the society, so people can see that the flame is still burning, even if not as bright as it used to. I want to demonstrate that there is still a spark alive. Should that one die too, that would simply be all too sad.
You are one of the very few Chinese who still dares to talk to foreign journalists. Isn’t that also becoming too dangerous?
Yes, I often ask journalists as to why they don’t ask somebody else. That would probably be better for me. Were there at least two persons like me, the burden I am carrying would only be half as enormous. Were there ten… you see my point. But it is still my job, exclusively. That’s funny. But at the same time I am very scared.
Your father, the famous poet Ai Qing, was once imprisoned and tortured by Chinese nationalists, then banished to the countryside for another two decades under Mao Zedong. Looking at today’s intellectual climate in China, can one assume that there has not been a lot of progress in terms of intellectual freedom?
That is true. We haven’t made progress. Definitely not. And the basic principle remains the same. The powerful want to prevent dissident voices from being heard. They want to silence and destroy them. They never allow real and open discussions on the topics to happen. Why is exchanging ideas, sitting down and talking so very difficult?
The exhibition at Tiananmen Square might have been a possibility. Forums for dialogue with artists are planned. Have you been invited?
No, I was not officially invited. I suppose that the Chinese involved with the organisation do not want to see my face there. It would probably be embarrassing for the Ministry of Culture. But it would be a good thing. They should invite me.
If there is no real critical dialogue along with this German exhibition, what relevance does it have
I guess it’s better than nothing. At least Germany has beautiful objects to offer. But the question is: how can we connect that to today’s reality? Otherwise it is just a gesture between governments. Are we Chinese willing to accept the values of the Enlightenment? No, even centuries after the age of Enlightenment we are not willing to accept that. In that sense it is interesting that the exhibition takes place here – of all places! Because: the current situation in China is crazy. Had I to create a name for these times, I’d say it is the age of craziness.
Don’t forget to add your name to the petition for Ai Weiwei’s release here.