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World-Renowned Artist Ai Weiwei on His Childhood in a Labor Camp, Art, Activism, Prison & Freedom

StoryOctober 09, 2017
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Ai Weiwei has been called the most powerful artist in the world—and the most dangerous man in China. Born in 1957 in Beijing, he spent his childhood and youth in a hard labor camp in the Gobi Desert in remote northwest China. As a student at Beijing Film Academy, he first became involved in art and activism. He spent his twenties in New York City and then returned to China. In 2008, after a massive earthquake in Sichuan, China, Ai Weiwei launched a citizen investigation to collect the names of the more than 5,000 schoolchildren who died, partially as a result of the highly shoddy government construction of the schools. While his citizen investigation catapulted him to international fame, it also enraged Chinese government officials. In 2009, his popular blog was shut down. A few months later, police broke into his hotel room and attacked him, punching him in the face and causing cerebral hemorrhaging. In 2010, Ai Weiwei was placed under house arrest, after the Chinese government demolished his studio. Then, in 2011, he was arrested at the Beijing airport and held for 81 days, without any charges. Chinese authorities seized his passport and refused to return it until 2015. For more on the remarkable life of this world-renowned dissident and artist, we speak with Ai Weiwei.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to your own story, especially for young people who are tuning in around the world right now. Talk about your parents. Talk about what happened to you in China.

AI WEIWEI: I was born in 1957. That’s the year my father was purged as a so-called rightist.

AMY GOODMAN: He had been a friend of Mao Zedong?

AI WEIWEI: Yeah, he’s the same generation, maybe younger than Mao Zedong. And they all spent time in—before the new nation established. So he belongs to this early revolutionary group. And he was a poet. He studied in Paris. And right after he came back to China, he was being put in jail for six years. Then, later, he joined the revolution. After the '49, he was criticized. And with about half-million of the intellectuals in China, they're being all put in the labor camps to—called re-education. So I grew up in these camps. During the Cultural Revolution, he really has to do very hard labors, insulted, beaten and—

AMY GOODMAN: This was in the Gobi Desert?

AI WEIWEI: Yeah, in the northwest, in the Gobi Desert, very far, farrest location you can get on the Chinese map.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was your understanding of what happened to you, as a child?

AI WEIWEI: As a child, you have no way to think otherwise, because everybody is in an extremely difficult situation. You think it’s like you’re standing in the rain, everywhere is under the rain. You know, it’s not—there’s no exception. So, he spent about 20 years, but cannot write words, you know, doing a lot of—to clean the public toilet. And he often been beaten and, you know, very—and sometimes he comes home with all the ink poured from—his head, you know, has become totally black, and going through a lot of this kind of insulting.

AMY GOODMAN: They poured ink over his head?

AI WEIWEI: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s just there’s a lot of meetings. The meetings, he have to stand in front of other people, and they would say all kinds of bad words about him. And he has to confess his crime, which he never committed any crime.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about your mother?

AI WEIWEI: My mother—

AMY GOODMAN: She also was a writer?

AI WEIWEI: Yeah, she also have to struggle. She has to try to find something to feed the children. And, you know, we’re living underground. You know, it’s like a hole. You’re digging down. And, you know, it’s just the whole family living underground.

AMY GOODMAN: You helped your father burn your whole library, except for this one French encyclopedia?

AI WEIWEI: Yeah. One day, I—my father had a huge collection of books, art books about impressionists, about Renaissance and even medieval artworks. You know, because the Red Guard always come to my home, have to check on those books, every page, page by page, they would—if they found anything like nudity or abstract art, they would really start to really question my father. And, you know, it’s humiliating him. So, one day, my father said, “We have to burn all those books, because those books attract so many people to come to our home.” So I helped him to burn those books, page by page, because it’s—and a lot of poetry books. You know, he’s a literary man, has a huge collection of books. So we burned it, everything.

AMY GOODMAN: And the next day, you were sent off to the labor camp?

AI WEIWEI: Yes, soon after, we were sent to the labor camp.

AMY GOODMAN: So you lived in this remote area of China, for how long?

AI WEIWEI: I stayed 'til I was 18 or 19. Then, after Chairman Mao's death, he has been—how do you call it?—rehabitized.

AMY GOODMAN: Rehabilitated?

AI WEIWEI: Yeah, yeah. So we moved to Beijing.

AMY GOODMAN: And you went to school?

AI WEIWEI: Yeah, at that time, the universities started to open again, after 10 years shut down. I went into Beijing Film Institute.

AMY GOODMAN: And you immediately got involved with politics and freedom of expression movements there.

AI WEIWEI: Yeah, that time is the first time trying to have a wall we called the Democracy Wall. So we put our artworks, our writings, our poetry on that wall. And very soon after, the wall being torn down. And the people who got involved, some of them being put in jail. So that’s a reason I decided I have to leave China.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you knew right away, of course. You had just come out of exile. You knew what you faced, doing what you did.

AI WEIWEI: Yes, it’s unbelievable. You think China, just after Cultural Revolution, and everybody has to think about the lessons they’ve paid for this kind of harsh political movement. Then some younger people started thinking how to make the nation or change it or to protect it from this kind of political event. Then, immediately, Deng Xiaoping crashed the students and, you know, the people who were trying to make China more progressive.

AMY GOODMAN: So you left, and you came here to the United States.

AI WEIWEI: Yeah, I had a chance, so I left. I come to United States. I stayed in New York about 10 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Lower East Side?

AI WEIWEI: Yeah, I stayed Lower East Side and Brooklyn. And the most time, Lower East Side, Third Street between A and B.

AMY GOODMAN: You befriended Allen Ginsberg?

AI WEIWEI: Yes. He was in the neighborhood. And he went to China at that time. And after he came back, he had a poetry reading in Saint Mark’s Church. So I was listening to his reading, and he talked about China trip. He said he had met a poet. So, I figured out that’s my father, because the story he’s telling. So when he comes down, I said, “You just met my father.” So, he was very surprised. Then we become friends.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you ended up returning to China, despite all you had been through, because your dad was ill, in 1993.

AI WEIWEI: Yeah, at the time I moved out of China, I was telling my mom, “I will never go back.” You know, I told her—you know, my mom was very worried when she sent me to the airport, because this child has no money and no—bad English. I told her, “Don’t worry. I’m going home.” So, she’s kind of sad. She knows I will never come back to China. But after 12 years, I decided to go back, because my father was ill.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you operate? What kind of space did you have there then? And talk about your art and, ultimately, what you did with the Sichuan earthquake, which was what? About 10 years later, in 2003?

AI WEIWEI: Yeah. By 1993, I went back. China had some change. You know, people become better off. You know, there’s roads been fixed and some tall buildings in the city. But, basically, it never changed the political structure, so there’s no freedom of speech, no independent press. You know, it’s very—it’s still very harsh on any kind of ideas or discussion.

So I come up an idea to publish some underground books to document Chinese art movement. So, every year, we made a book. And the book has no title, just black cover, grey cover or white cover, in protesting the censorship. And those books document the underground movement of art at that time, because there’s simply not any newspaper or magazines who will talk about contemporary art. Then I opened the first art gallery in China—it’s a nonprofit place—to show undergroundly about Chinese art. Then, by 2000, year 2000, I made a—I curated an art show. The title is [bleep] Off. It’s about—also about contemporary young artists’ work.

And yeah, but at that time I was involved in architecture. And I did a lot of architecture projects, about 60 projects, 'til finally I got involved with the National Stadium for Olympics. We call it a Bird's Nest. And after that, I quit the architecture.

And by 2005, I had a chance to learn how to use the internet and started typing and writing articles. Suddenly, I become very, very popular on the internet, because I would write three, four articles a day. And the next day, I would see a few hundred thousand articles—reposts. So I thought, “This is a really beautiful thing you can do.” And with—this nation has no tradition of freedom of speech. And people basically are very scared about their writing, but I openly discussed politics or anything, you know, with my own independent view or opinion. So I got so—I was so popular, you know, for a very short time.

Then I got involved with the Sichuan earthquake citizens’ investigation. And—

AMY GOODMAN: The Sichuan earthquake, 2008.

AI WEIWEI: Yeah, trying to find these 5,000 students who was vanished during this earthquake. And, of course, that’s related to government corruption and badly built buildings. So a lot of other effort and argument about a lot of judicial cases, because that’s a big problem in China. So, all those brought the government to have—well, I will say they dislike me. Or—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you did this—you showed the images of the children. I wanted to show images from the installation you made called So Sorry from 2009, creating this installation called Remembering on the façade of the Munich Museum. Can you talk about this, in Germany, this—that would then travel the world? I saw it at the Brooklyn Museum.

AI WEIWEI: Yeah, I—once I get totally involved in this kind of life, a real situation, I often want to find a language to express it in the art context. So, in that time, I do have art shows, and so I always build a work relating to my research or my findings. And the show in Munich, and also in Brooklyn, you can see some works are really relating to Sichuan earthquake.

AMY GOODMAN: You took the children’s backpacks.

AI WEIWEI: I redesigned the backpacks.

AMY GOODMAN: Because you didn’t have them, of course.

AI WEIWEI: Yes. This is—needed a lot. This is 9,000 backpacks.

AMY GOODMAN: And you wrote out the words of the mother.

AI WEIWEI: Yes, yes. That’s—Yang Xiaowan is the girl who got killed, and her mom, very touched, is another person arguing the rights of those students, because, basically, China is silent about all those things. So I made a quite dramatic arguing, with about 60 articles I write about Sichuan earthquake. So—

AMY GOODMAN: And the poor architecture and the poor building standards that—

AI WEIWEI: Yes. Yeah, we have a lot of investigations, materials on the site with it. So we have concrete proof, evidence, about how those buildings has been collapsed.

AMY GOODMAN: And you wrote out the words with the backpack, what the mother said, “She lived happily for seven years in this world.”

AI WEIWEI: Yes. That’s what her—where she said, “I don’t want to get government pension. All I want is people to remember my daughter has been living happily for seven years.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and when we come back, what happened to you next, what launched you back into the world outside of China, after you were arrested and beaten. Ai Weiwei is our guest, the world-renowned Chinese dissident, artist, activist. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Give Tomorrow Back to Me” by Ai Weiwei. Yes, this is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Our guest for the hour is Ai Weiwei, yes, spending the hour with the world-renowned Chinese artist, dissident, activist. In 2008, after the massive Sichuan earthquake in China, Ai Weiwei launched a citizen investigation to collect the names of the more than 5,000 schoolchildren who died, partially as a result of the highly shoddy government construction of the schools.

While the citizen investigation catapulted him to international fame, it also enraged Chinese government officials. In 2009, his popular blog was shut down. A few months later, police broke into his hotel room, attacked him, punching him in the face, causing cerebral hemorrhaging. He had to have emergency brain surgery, which he later documented in his film So Sorry. In 2010, Ai Weiwei was placed under house arrest, after the Chinese government demolished his studio; then, in 2011, arrested at the Beijing airport, held for 81 days without any charge. Chinese authorities seized his passport, refused to return it until 2015.

So, after this—your exhibition, showing the children, challenging the government, what did happen to you in 2009?

AI WEIWEI: I was trying to do a test as a witness for a fellow investigators who is going to be sentenced. So, I went to Sichuan, rested in a hotel. The next day, the court will open. And at midnight, a few dozen police just rush in. I think it’s about 3:00 in the morning. They broke in the door. And, you know, it’s in the dark. And we had some argument. I feel this punch right on my face. And then, after that—oh, they seized us in the hotel, so we couldn’t make appear in the court, ’til the court finished.

So, after that, I feel headache, so I—I had a show in Munich, so I have to travel to Munich. In Munich, I went to hospital. They found out I have a hemorrhage in my—you know, the bleedings in my brain. So, immediately, we had an operation. Then, if I don’t have this operation, they said I will be finished.

And yeah, and after that, the situation even getting worse. You know, police follows me all the time. And, of course, they try to intimidate me. But by 2011, I was kidnapped in the airport, been put a black hood over my face and taken to a secret location. And in that location, I was kind of jailed, but it’s like a military base, for 81 days. 'Til now, nobody knows where this location is. And two soldiers would stand in front of me, you know, the kind of military soldiers, about 80 centimeters away. They would look at me like this and stand still and, you know, doesn't make any kind of move, day and night, 24 hours a day. And even when I sleep or when I take a shower or go to toilets, they also have to stand right in front of me. And now, I’ve been going through about 50 interrogations. The crime they accused me is subversion of state power, so which is the biggest crime you can commit in China. And yeah, that’s what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: But they gave you your passport back in 2015.

AI WEIWEI: First, they told me I will be sentenced over 10 years because of my crime. And I could believe them, because compared to other people. There’s many people has been put in jail, also sentenced. I would be much more extreme condition than them. So, just one day, suddenly, they said, “Get out. You can leave.” Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And what difference did international solidarity make for you?

AI WEIWEI: That moment, I don’t know any kind of support, because it’s totally sealed. You cannot get a lawyer. Your family doesn’t know where you are. And also, you cannot let any information out. It’s not possible. So I don’t know there’s a strong international outcry.

AMY GOODMAN: Both of your lawyers are currently in jail?

AI WEIWEI: Yeah, they are still serving time in jail, five years and 11 years, both of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Even your imprisonment, your beating, you turned into an art installation.

AI WEIWEI: Yes. After I came out, many people questioned me on how—what it’s like being in that kind of condition. So, I found out language is very difficult to describe it, so I made an exact same situation in a sculpture, or installation. And every detail fits exactly like the reality.

AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t you photograph the police taking you?

AI WEIWEI: No, nobody can photograph it. My phone was being taken away. And even police think I have some photos of the location, because they couldn’t believe I can make the situation so real. I told them, “You know, you’re dealing with an artist.” So I memorized all the details in the room.

AMY GOODMAN: The iPhone that you use, that you started Human Flow with, you’re—I mean, I know you’re holding it right now in your hand. You were taking pictures in the studios.

AI WEIWEI: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You take selfies with people on their phones so that they can have it. What has that phone meant to you?

AI WEIWEI: I think it works two ways: first, for me to get first-hand information about what’s going on in the world, and second, to reflect my expressions to the world. So it’s like a mirror, but it works on both ways.

AMY GOODMAN: But you also are—a main theme of your work is surveillance, like the Hansel & Gretel exhibit at the Park Avenue Armory, drone surveillance. These phones are the ultimate device for surveillance.

AI WEIWEI: It’s true. It can examine the world. But also, it has—you know, it also examines my life. And I did many works, talk about surveillance. In my household, there’s about 25 cameras set up by police. And also, inside my room, I later found out a box under the electricity where it’s, you know, everywhere. They really think me as a very dangerous person.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we end of the show, you are back in the United States right now, though you’re not living here. Your film is opening across the United States. But I do have to ask you about President Trump and his relationship with your country, with China, and what he has meant. Your concerns about him now?

AI WEIWEI: Well, you have a very active president. Each day it brings surprise to the media and to people, you know. His true relationship with China is very hard to say. He’s going to visit China very soon. And, you know, today’s politics, so many things are hidden. You never know what’s in his mind. And also you start to doubt what really United States policy or principle is.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, look at North Korea. He calls—

AI WEIWEI: Yeah, in dealing with North Korea, or in dealing even just with Mexico, you know, the neighbor, the beautiful neighbor we have here. They would call them criminals or rapists. I mean, it’s—

AMY GOODMAN: You went to the border wall.

AI WEIWEI: Yeah, I—you know, it’s very hard to take this kind of response, to see if that’s a true thinking of this man, or does he really have a right judgment on the sense? So it’s very difficult to really make any kind of analyzing about him.

AMY GOODMAN: You said yesterday at the New Yorker Festival that China likes him because he makes America look bad.

AI WEIWEI: I think he has not only make U.S. look bad, but also [inaudible], you know, could bring some trouble to U.S. that would benefit China. You know, China has been—enjoyed the development after 9/11, you know, when this world talks about terrorists. And China had a long, peaceful development for quite—over 10-some years. So, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you worried about President Trump triggering World War III?

AI WEIWEI: I think the situation is quite fragile. And if we talk about the danger, yes, there is a potential danger there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll leave it there. Ai Weiwei, thank you for being here. Ai Weiwei, the world-renowned Chinese artist and activist, director and producer of the new documentary Human Flow. He also has a major new exhibition opening in these next weeks in New York City, erecting security fences and cages across the boroughs to expose the rise of nationalism and the closure of borders worldwide.

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