We speak with acclaimed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who recently had an exhibition in London canceled after he publicly criticized Israel’s assault on Gaza. “We are gradually losing the ground of democracy or personal freedom,” says Ai, whose show in London was indefinitely postponed after he posted a controversial tweet about Israel in November. He joins Democracy Now! to discuss his longtime support of Palestine and Western hypocrisy over human rights and free speech. Ai Weiwei also describes his new graphic novel Zodiac, about his experiences as a Chinese dissident.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
We turn now to the acclaimed Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. In November, he had an exhibit in London canceled after he wrote a social media post where he criticized the United States for its longtime financial support of Israel. Ai Weiwei has previously expressed support for Palestinians. He made a 2016 documentary, that includes Gaza in the global refugee crisis, called Human Flow.
Ai Weiwei is one of the world’s most acclaimed artists. In 2011, he was arrested at the Beijing airport, held for 81 days without charge. He’s been living in exile since 2015. He’s joining us here in New York City ahead of his event tonight at Town Hall that’s part of PEN America’s PEN Out Loud series, when he’ll discuss his new graphic memoir, Zodiac.
Ai Weiwei, welcome back to Democracy Now! Let’s start with that canceled London exhibit. What happened?
AI WEIWEI: Well, after I post, you know, a single line on Twitter, I never noticed people really become so sensitive or so crazy about my posts. Basically, post described the situation about the Israelis’ relations with U.S., and which is very, very — you know, it’s very subjective. It’s not from my point of view, but it’s really general facts.
So, then, you know, the galleries — actually, not one gallery, but galleries in Paris and in London — they got very worried. And I still don’t know exactly the reason why they have to worry about an artist’s single line, you know, but, rather, they said they want to avoid this kind of argument, and they’re trying to protect my interest, so they postponed my shows — not one, but altogether four shows.
So, I guess that proved what I’m saying on Twitter is correct, because there is all over the world, you know, this strong censorship about different voices towards these kind of conflicts, and the conflict continues getting so massive and also seems it’s not going to stop. So, by doing that, yes, many of my shows have been canceled, so…
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Were you surprised by the reaction, given that you’ve been — not only are you one of the most celebrated artists from China in the West, but also you’ve been a vocal supporter of the Palestinians for years?
AI WEIWEI: I am surprised. I think we are — should live in a more free society and which carry a lot of different opinions and voice. But to have this kind of devastating case in dealing with the art community, not only art community, but also films or literature, I think it shows a really very bad and a backwards in terms of freedom of expression, human rights and, you know, all those issues.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, there are not many Chinese artists as celebrated and embraced by the West as you are, Ai Weiwei. Were you surprised by the swift retaliation against your position, which is really critiquing the West, in London, Britain and the U.S., when it comes to supporting the Israeli government, when it comes to the assault on Gaza?
AI WEIWEI: I think maybe I was celebrated for the wrong reason. But still, as the artist, I have to fight for the human dignity and also basic human rights, freedom of speech. And that’s why I’m here, so…
AMY GOODMAN: Can I ask about your graphic novel, Ai Weiwei? Talk about Zodiac and the message you’re conveying in this graphic memoir.
AI WEIWEI: Well, thanks for asking that. I came to New York to be part of this graphic novel — how do you say? — the promotion. And the novel take us about two, three years, with two other persons involved. And so, we made the drawing and the storyline, and, you know, it’s very — I think it’s pretty unique and also charming in telling my personal stories in relating to Chinese classic stories, but also in relating to current events both in China and in the West. So, it’s very detailed and, you know, very visual narratives about the stories.
AMY GOODMAN: Ai Weiwei, your message to the world right now? You are a dissident when it comes to China. You cannot live inside China. You’re in exile. And now, when you come and are embraced by the West, you find yourself canceled again and again. Your thoughts?
AI WEIWEI: Well, I think we are living in a very crucial time globally. We have to rethink about our values or what we are really defending for. It’s not only a challenge for individual artists, but also for the states. And we are gradually losing the ground of democracy or personal freedom, or even we are still facing crisis — economic crisis, immigration crisis. Also, we are possibly at the edge of the World War III. You know, this is not an exaggeration. It can happen. And I’m afraid this is the facts. But that would calling for every individual to defend the humanity and human rights.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for being with us, Ai Weiwei, world-renowned Chinese artist and activist, has a new graphic memoir called Zodiac. He’ll be speaking tonight at Town Hall in New York.
Next up, it’s primary day in New Hampshire. As Donald Trump and Nikki Haley square off in the Republican race, we’ll speak to a Democratic presidential candidate, Marianne Williamson, about her campaign against President Biden. Her name is on today’s ballot in New Hampshire, though Biden’s is not. Back in 20 seconds.