For our latest issue, China’s most famous ‘expat,’ artist Ai Weiwei, considers what the future holds for society.
By Naomi Rougeau.
When Mission caught up with Ai Weiwei over Zoom in early February, the artist had just arrived in Portugal. Before that, he had found temporary refuge in Cambridge, England, after leaving Berlin, his base of nearly five years, due to growing anti-Asian sentiment. If anyone was well primed for the disruption that 2020 delivered, it was Ai. “I never really had a sense of home, even when I was in China,” explains the artist, who spent his formative years in the country’s remote Xinjiang region after his politically outspoken poet father, Ai Quing, was sentenced to toil in a labor camp due to his work’s criticism of the Communist regime. Though he hasn’t set foot in China since 2015, when authorities returned his passport, distance hasn’t stopped the artist from turning a critical lens on his native land, as his two most recent documentaries show: Coronation is a riveting glimpse inside Wuhan during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, while Cockroach centers on 2019’s Hong Kong protest movement. Here, he shares some of his seemingly infinite wisdom.
Mission Magazine: Regarding Coronation, I know England has gone through several lockdowns and a lot of people in the country are criticizing them as being as equally draconian [as China’s]. We’re now seeing violent protests in Denmark. Are you surprised to see this in Europe?
Ai Weiwei: I think it’s normal, because the pandemic really, deeply affects everybody’s lives, jobs, social relations, and emotions. So I think it’s very normal to have people pro it and against it. It’s always like that. The hard lesson is people still cannot accept this is an almost universal disease, it carries out a value that we’re all created equal and that we’re all equally affected by the pandemic.
MM: You haven’t been able to travel to China for some time. Do you feel that that made you better prepared for this time?
AW: My case is very unique. When I was born, my family was exiled to Xinjiang, which is the most remote possible location in China, and I grew up in this rigid education and town, so I never really had a sense of home, even when I was in China. But then, by 2015, because of my political position, I was pushed out, or forced out, and I started to spend some time in Germany, England, and travelling, and now I’m in Lisbon. My situation is never a clear settlement, but rather “hanging around.” So this pandemic doesn’t affect me that much because this is very normal to me, to be isolated and to be dissociated.
MM: What is “home” for you?
AW: I think if I can imagine “home,” it’s related to security, some location you can trust or you have more trust for that environment that you’re familiar with, and that’s what we call “home.” But since I don’t have that, not in my own country or outside it, I can’t really know what “home” is.
MM: Until recently, Germany had been your base for several years. Was it difficult to leave?
AW: It was not very difficult for me to leave Germany. First, I don’t speak German, and second, I’m not very used to German culture. I came out from a state, the authoritarian state that is China, so I can question it and I can be involved with arguments and debates. But in Germany, I don’t even have that chance. The society certainly doesn’t welcome foreign opinions about them. I think Germany is very closed as a society.
MM: I’m curious about the timing of Coronation and Cockroach—it’s really interesting because there’s obviously some overlap between the two events. When news first emerged about the virus and the first lockdowns were being announced, there were some people who hypothesized that it was an active measure by China to silence the protest, and then it perhaps got out of hand—and you can call that a conspiracy theory, if you like. I’m curious if you have an opinion about that and the people who believe that.
AW: If we talk about the pandemic, there’s a clear timeline. By the end of 2019, [the Chinese government] already found they were under pressure about the disease. So, it takes them weeks or even months to clearly announce that this is person-to-person transmissible, and now they [have allowed] a large timespan for this very extreme transmissible disease to spread around. So certainly China, as a very untransparent society that has strong control of information, and very often manipulates the truth, this is very normal practice for them—to find the right moment to give us the information. [And it was done] with the help of the WHO, which is supposed to be a scientific organization that helps to control global health issues, but they’d rather betray their own founding ideology, they’d rather be on the side of Chinese authority, which also made the disease become very uncontrollable. This is a fact, and it has nothing to do with conspiracy issues or theories, and we all know it. But still, I don’t think anybody who was involved in the situation early on could have predicted this crisis getting so bad and [lasting] so long and making society face such a huge loss.
MM: How you were able to oversee the filming remotely? And when did you decide you needed to document the pandemic? It was still early days when you began, and we had no idea that it was going to become global.
AW: I have this political alertness, as does any investigative journalist or activist. I started to document the pandemic in 2003, when Sars first started in China, so I was already very well prepared for what was going to happen 17 years later. From a very early stage, I started observing and started to organize the team. Because many of my old colleagues and artist friends were on lockdown in the city, it gave me the best opportunity to shoot inside the hospital and the city. Every day I gave them instructions of what to shoot and what not to shoot, and every night they would send all the footage to me, and I would discuss with them the film quality, the sound, the interviews. So it was fun. With today’s technology it’s very much like you’re actually on-site and you know exactly what’s going on and what needs to be done.
MM: I was so amazed that they were able to even gain access to the hospitals, and it was interesting as they were walking around, they seemed sort of invisible. Were the cameras obscured in some way?
AW: No, normally we don’t use hidden cameras. Of course, nobody knows that we’re going to make a film, but they know we are shooting the truth and the facts, and the people don’t really need to cover up because they already have masks, and certainly it makes them more relaxed, because there is no individual identity there, except for writing their names on their safety jackets. But you know, it’s quite small, so of course you have moments of confrontation with authority, but we have plenty of footage.
MM: Have any of the subjects, either in China or in Hong Kong with Cockroach, faced repercussions for having been involved in these films?
AW: Not from what I know. Rather, there are activists who are completely exposed to the media, and in Hong Kong, many of them are being arrested. In China also, one of them is under severe political monitoring, but not because of the film.
MM: The title Coronation has a bit of a double meaning. I’m curious how you landed on that.
AW: I tried to find a title that I could relate to the pandemic that, at the same time, doesn’t really point fingers and doesn’t criticize the Chinese government or the political situation, but rather to give honest reflections about the ordinary citizens under these kinds of restrictions, and how their lives became possible or not possible. I like that “coronation” reflects, too, that China is always dreaming to become the central state of the universe, and so the pandemic probably gives them a very good opportunity, and the fact that they use their advantage as an authoritarian state to very effectively control the situation. Basically, there are 1.4 billion people [in the country] and they maintain very clear control. Certainly, China benefitted from that kind of discipline and control, and the economy made the biggest improvement compared to other nations.
MM: You’ve been making documentaries since 2003. Having made two just in the past year or so, is filmmaking something you’re hoping to focus more on?
AW: No, I made films because it’s very convenient for me. In my early years, I studied film but didn’t really want to become a filmmaker. However, for many of my arguments my research films became a very convenient tool. Last year we made three, one we are holding not to release because of the Rohingyas. It’s about the refugees from Myanmar and the camp in Bangladesh. So, actually, last year we made three films, and if we count the film at Sundance about the 43 students who disappeared in Mexico—it’s called Vivos—that one is also from last year, that would be four films we have done in this pandemic. But we have no intention to make more, because basically the film industry is not a good one. It’s really money-driven, it’s just for entertainment, and there are very few serious films you can really see in the market. That’s why we think of this as basically an end to this kind of film industry. The only thing we can do is put it on the internet, which draws very little attention, and few people watch it. Still, we’re lucky we don’t make films just for the profit, we make films for the truth and for the respect for human life and the human struggle.
MM: Wuhan was the focus on Coronation, but I think that people worldwide are very concerned about governments using this as an opportunity to take away certain liberties under the guise of protection. How can people, even outside China, remain vigilant?
AW: I think that the government will become ever more powerful over civilians and the masses, and also technical control of individuals with [regards to] privacy and lifestyle will become more of a reality after the pandemic in many nations as it has in China. China has this “health card,” which records everything about individuals and how they behave. I think after the pandemic will be a new era and I think there will be extreme conflicts between individuals and state power, or corporate power.
MM: One of the many different mediums you use is social media. What are your views on social media as a tool?
AW: Social media certainly liberates individuals to get information and to give out their opinions, but at the same time, the high-tech companies have become over-powerful, and they have the character of dominating opinions and even perform censorship, which is very dangerous for society. We have to find a way to protect freedom of speech. This is essential for a healthy society. Even the opinions we don’t like to hear or the opinions that oppose our own ideology, still the existence of opposition ideas can make us, as a society, stronger and more meaningful. The danger comes from censorship and trying to have a unified opinion, which is always dangerous. If we look at what happened in the 1930s in Germany, we see that this so-called “purified” human ideology can cause huge tragedies in human society.
MM: Many of your works have been large installations that attract large crowds. Post-pandemic, how do you feel about creating large-scale projects when people may be hesitant about venturing into art spaces?
AW: I think that art has to change its function. You can’t just show works in museums or galleries or art fairs—this is just our circle, same people, every show, rather than finding a meaningful possibility to get into public life. During the pandemic, we did one project that was called 2020 in London’s Piccadilly [Circus], broadcasting two minutes of radio through 30 days with 30 radios for the public viewing. It was really exciting as we used the largest screen in Europe to project the message and the art forms. I think those things really need to be encouraged to break the chain of the existing and circulating art systems, and I think I’d like to do more things like that.
I try to bring out all the various forms. We also made masks with printed messages on them and sold them through eBay, and in a very short time we made $1.4 million and donated everything to Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders and Refugees International, so they’ll use the money to help people in this crisis.
MM: In Cockroach, there’s a real emphasis on youth, because they’re the ones who are really driving this movement. As an artist, but also as a father, how do you view the role of young people in effecting change?
AW: That’s very hard to answer. Myself as an activist, I certainly want to provide a better opportunity for the next generation and also to give us a reason to really fight and try to establish a better condition. But the world changes dramatically and the situation can be very different in the next 10 or 20 years, so it’s hard to imagine what it would take to secure a better life.
MM: What do you feel that your role is, given everything that’s happened in the past year? There’s been so much to comment on, so much to try to improve. How do you see your role, not only as an artist but also as one of China’s most well-known expats?
AW: I think China still will become a dominant power in the world. I don’t think that old powers like the US and Europe can effectively stop China’s development, since China has still not accepted those so-called “common values” and there will be a lot of battle and a lot of argument. Certainly, I want China to become a strong nation and to benefit globally for the other communities, but it seems that China is not going to change. It still works as authoritarian capitalism, which could be dangerous for the world’s condition.
MM: What is your vision for the next year?
AW: We can see we still haven’t finished the business relating to 2020. It seems we are far behind and cannot even cope with the situation, so there’s almost no clear vision. So, people are thinking, trying to say, “Let it be over first,” but nobody clearly knows how this is going to be over, and how it got started is not even clear. So, after one year, the WHO started to do this fake investigation in China, which we know is not getting anywhere, but if we keep this kind of attitude, not to have transparency and not to trust the information given to the media, then it will be even more troublesome in the future.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity
Image credit: Ai Weiwei Studios