In 2005 Ai Weiwei wrote his first blog post: “To express yourself needs a reason; expressing yourself is the reason.” It marked a new chapter in the already storied career of the artist, whose personal musings on freedom of expression and social injustice have attracted millions of fans. It also drew sharp rebukes from the Chinese government, including being detained for nearly three months in 2011.
Ai has the uncanny ability to dovetail his art with scathing critiques of government wrongdoing, such as stringing 9,000 backpacks across the facade of Munich’s Haus der Kunst to call out China for its complicity in the deaths of thousands of children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake because of shoddily constructed schools. This combination has elevated his profile far beyond the rarefied art world.
Since 2015, when he moved to Berlin for a three-year guest professorship with the Berlin University of the Arts, Ai has continued to find ways to fuse his personal politics with global issues, most notably the migrant crisis. In 2017 he made "Human Flow," a feature-length documentary that follows individuals in 23 countries who, pummeled by war or climate change, have embarked on life-threatening journeys to find sanctuary. In one scene, Ai is wrapping a man in a blanket, offering him tea and praising his bravery in crossing the Aegean Sea on an inflatable boat.
In person, Ai is soft-spoken and unfazed by the demands of three major shows opening in Los Angeles just days apart at the UTA Artist Space, the Marciano Art Foundation and the new Jeffrey Deitch gallery. Although he still maintains a Chinese passport, the peripatetic Ai is planning to move to the U.S. in the near future.
Is confrontation a strategy in your work?
No, it is not a strategy but rather the essence of my being as an individual. I would never choose confrontation. Maybe confrontation chose me. One life fights for its own existence, to get its voice out.
For your documentary "Human Flow," how were you able to connect to the people you visited?
From my earliest understanding of my family as refugees, of myself as a dissident, as someone being pushed away and discriminated against, insulted in every aspect of my life in a communist society, I have managed to relate to people who have seen the struggle, who have been misunderstood, who have been treated unfairly.
Do you find yourself engaged by the U.S. political situation?
It certainly affects our future. When you talk about “America First,” then I think about who comes second, third and the rest. Inevitably, America’s future relates to the world’s future. It will continuously have a strong impact.
Chinese authorities recently demolished one of your Beijing studios. Do you have plans to recreate a space that embodies the inspiration that you had in China?
I am over 60 years old and I never think of any place as having a feeling to relate to. There is no single tree or road I can remember that has significance over another tree or street corner. I move from here to there with uncertainty, not necessarily with a purpose. But it is surprising that people, especially governments, have to behave that way.
What are your thoughts on the general relationship between governments and their artists?
Individual artists have to question the government’s power. That is why we need freedom of speech. Government is supposed to be a collective effort, but often the bureaucracy, the special interests and the political manipulation dominates the behavior of officials. We see almost every government not reflecting the notion of the individual, but rather special interests.
When people think of the relationship between art and politics they often look to you as a prism through which to see the world. Does that feel overwhelming?
No. [But] being an artist, you are never satisfied. You always see the problem. You always say, “You can do better.” But, of course, there is no such thing as perfection.
What is next for you?
With my schedule, it’s the next, and the next, and the next after that. In reality, I do one thing, just one. All the exhibitions, interviews and films relate to this: to act out a life and then to understand it. Tomorrow can be different. It’s the most important characteristic of life: You can be different, you can change, you don’t have to be what others think you are or what you think you are.
This interview first appeared in Monocle magazine. To find out more about the magazine and to subscribe, visit monocle.com.