‘My name is Ai Weiwei. I am an artist, activist, writer, and documentary maker. But first I am a human being.’
So begins the visitor guide to Ai Weiwei’s latest exhibition, The Liberty of Doubt, showing at Kettle’s Yard until 19 June. (If you haven’t yet been, I sincerely urge you to.) Proclaiming to be first and foremost ‘a human being’, Ai resists others’ attempts to neatly categorise the artist or his work. This, inevitably, makes me question whether he wishes the art could be separated from the politics?
‘Yes, there is a lot of pressure to make my art political. In the beginning, one collector said to me “be careful Weiwei, now people call you an activist.” Back then if an artist was called an activist that meant he had no future. But I’m still hanging around.’
Most would agree that Ai – who has exhibited successfully in major shows across the globe and has been dubbed by some a ‘worldwide symbol of dissidence’ – is doing better than just ‘hanging around’. His latest exhibition at Kettle’s Yard explores familiar themes – truth, authenticity, value – as well as globalisation, the coronavirus pandemic, and current geopolitical crises. But the exhibition also reveals an artist exploring his own role(s), as well as the labels people frequently assign him.
While the Chinese authorities ‘tell me to focus on my art and drop the politics,’ Ai observes that, in the West, people seem predominantly interested in the political side of his work: ‘The BBC or CNN always ask me about China. But if they don’t ask me, I don’t have to talk about it… I hope you’ll ask some personal questions too.’
Ai is quick to point out that he does not only criticise the Chinese state: ‘I’m not a so-called regional activist. I’m a global intellectual who will criticise any people, any places, which violate the basic principles of human rights, freedom of speech. That could be China or Iran, or it could be Britain, Germany…’ However, ‘not every Western person accepts that approach. In Germany, people would ask, “but why do you care about German issues? Just talk about China.” I think that is wrong. I think of humanity as one. If someone’s rights have been violated – in India or China or Africa – all rights are being violated, so you always have to see human rights as one.’
Ai has lived and worked in many different countries. In 2010, when he first started worrying about his freedom in China – ‘I was very naïve. I was trying to promote civic society’ – he took out a lease on a studio in Berlin. In 2011 he was arrested and jailed in China for 81 days and was only able to leave for Germany in 2015. After expressing some scathing views about life there, Ai moved with his partner and 10-year-old son to Cambridge. He now divides his time between Cambridge and Portugal, which he likes, he tells me, because in Portugal ‘I don’t have to talk to anyone.’ A somewhat perplexing comment from a man who seems to enjoy expressing his opinions.
This is Ai’s third interview of the day, and a quick online search reveals it’s not an exceptionally press-heavy day. Asked at the outset if he minded being recorded, Ai responded: ‘You have to record. If you cannot record then… well, just leave.’ He is a funny man, and irony comes naturally, but the line between genuine and humorous intent is not always clear. The first time I ask why he gives so many interviews, Ai grins, throws his hands up in the air and loudly exclaims ‘I don’t f****** know!’ When pressed, he is more reflective:
‘It’s not self-indulgent. I could only become the so-called “me” through these kinds of practice. That’s one misunderstanding about our individuality or about human existence – that we already exist or know who we are, which is not my case. I am nothing, except when I start to express myself. When I meet a question and answer it, then, at that moment, I become myself. But that moment will pass, that moment disappears, the same as the wind. That’s why I’m constantly facing the challenge of answering questions and responding to other people’s questions. It’s not that I’m addicted to it, but rather to sensing the humanity through conversation.’ This style of expression (although the metaphors and occasionally poetic turn of phrase pour forth quite naturally) is often undercut by more prosaic themes.
Asking him if he is spiritual, Ai responds yes, ‘but in the lowest sense’ – ‘I eat a lot of food. It’s not a very high level of spirituality. Food or something else I won’t mention in this room. You understand.’ Like his artwork – exploring tensions between modernity and antiquity, authenticity and ‘fakes’ – Ai’s responses abound in contradictions. At times his answers are thoughtful and considered. At others, he seems to resist thinking about anything too deeply. What advice, for example, would he give to people from Hong Kong living in exile and wanting to go home? ‘Stay and don’t go back!’ Asked earlier, however, whether he would rule out returning to China, he comments on the many complexities of national identity – ‘by not going back I lose my language, my people’ – and concludes the question is too difficult to answer.
So what does ‘home’ mean to Ai? ‘Home is somewhere that can provide a sense of safeness, a place you can accept who you are, and your family can accept who you are. […] But my experiences are completely cut off from this definition.’ Ai’s father was exiled shortly after he was born and so he says he ‘never had a sense of home’. In light of his own experience, I ask what kind of home Ai has tried to create for his son.
‘He is only 13, but he has been transferred through so many schools, different nationalities, and, finally, he’s settled here. He likes it here. So I feel fortunate that so far he hasn’t developed anti-social behaviour, because everywhere you move is a new environment. New environments mean a disruption to your routine, your habits, your way of making sense of the world. For someone so small to be so positive, I feel impressed.’
When Ai was a child himself, his father warned him ‘of the trouble that would come out of [his] mouth’, and so I ask what advice Ai would give his own son about what comes out of his mouth. ‘I realise that whatever I tell my son to do, he will go in opposite directions. I will say something that is not exactly what I am thinking so that he will go in the other direction.’ This, of course, lies at the heart of The Liberty of Doubt, whose title encourages the viewer to reflect upon the liberty we have to express doubt and challenge authority. In the exhibition, Ai presents historic Chinese objects alongside his own works, beautifully crafted in jade, marble and porcelain, to explore contemporary issues and transform familiar artefacts into iconic objects. A takeout box crafted from marble rather than styrofoam, for example – a marker of ‘globalization and the steep price China has paid’ regarding the health of its citizens through the exploitation of cheap labour, environmental destruction, and the lack of protection for workers. Or ‘Marble Toilet Paper’ (2020). No points for guessing what this ubiquitous object is intended to symbolise in ‘our time of panic and distrust’.
Despite critics’ attempts to understand what the artist is trying to say by a piece of work, Ai states that, very often, he has ‘nothing to say.’ ‘I don’t always have a profound or meaningful thought. I thought for example it might be funny to do that [drop a priceless Han dynasty urn]. At times I was just bored. It’s hard to answer [what a piece means] because the work tells more than I can explain about it.’
What Ai likes about The Liberty of Doubt exhibition is that ‘it asks more questions than it answers.’ Perhaps frustratingly for those gallery visitors seeking an explanatory essay next to every piece, Ai flatly states: ‘You can read it as very big, or very superficial. Meaning takes place at the level of the viewer. As an artist, you always have to transform your experience into a language that other people can understand. Or misunderstand.’
The Liberty of Doubt is showing at Kettle’s Yard until 19 June 2022. Admission is free although advance booking is recommended.