Ai Weiwei is a world renowned Chinese artist. His work often acts as a medium for social commentary regarding topics such as human rights, migration, and activism. His work has led to controversy with the Chinese government, who imprisoned him for 81 days, an event met with global protests. On March 3rd Ai Weiwei and his collaborator, poet Yang Lian, gave a public talk at the Malmö library. The topics discussed included their recent collaboration titled Arts and People: A Conversation with Ai Weiwei, Weiwei’s conflicts with the Chinese government, and the importance of art and poetry in contemporary life. You can listen to the presentation in its entirety in English here.
The panel discussion began with Yang Lian reciting a poem dedicated to Ai Weiwei about his work Sunflower Seeds. It was read both in Chinese and in Swedish as a meditation on the ability of poems and art to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers, a common theme throughout the night.
Sunflower Seeds, an enormous installation of 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds, represents the multilayered conceptual nature common in Weiwei’s art. The imagery and material are deliberately chosen in reference to aspects of Chinese culture and history. The sunflower was utilized by Mao as propaganda depicting him as the sun, with the people as sunflowers turning towards him. For Ai Weiwei, it was a common food that he describes as a symbol of “camaraderie in difficult times.” Themes of conformity, mass production, consumption, cultural history, political activism, and personal history all converge in the piece.
Ai Weiwei tells the crowd that he sees a lot of contemporary art as arrogant in that it is mystic in meaning. He prefers to imbue his work with layers of meaning and intention, which is sometimes bluntly iconoclastic. Take for instance the famous Dropping of a Han Dynasty Urn. The deceptively simple piece comments on the value we give heritage and letting go of the past, quite literally.
Incorporating history into his art, he explains, was something that he initially attempted to reject, but it’s “like a nightmare, it haunts me.” When the conversation turned to his use of ancient material, he stated “they have too many of them and it’s very handy…if your household has several vases, drop one it’s not a big deal.” His seemingly blasé attitude towards the value of historical artifacts garnered no small degree of criticism, to which he responded “Chairman Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one.”
Ai Weiwei’s controversial personality extends into the online space, where he is extremely active on social media and as a blogger. In explaining his relationship with the internet, he describes the situation as totally unique in China’s history because for the first time, someone could extend his voice in a public platform. He was invited by the Chinese internet blogging platform Sina Weibo to be a contributor, an experience he says “gave him life.”
However, the state quickly clamped down on online expression and began employing drastic censorship measures, which he says led to him being forced out of the country. His content tends to be openly critical of Chinese government and policy, and many believe his online activism was the reason for his arrest.
The nights conversation inevitably turned to the topic of his imprisonment, which followed his investigation of corruption following the Sichuan earthquake that resulted in 90,000 deaths, many of them students. Public outrage mounted as allegations began to circulate about corruption in the construction of schools that were not made earthquake-safe. Frustrated with the lack of forthcoming information about the disaster, Weiwei assembled a team to investigate and search for information on the students lost, publicly sharing the process on social media and creating art in honor of the students lost.
In what is generally regarded as retaliation for his actions, his Shanghai art studio was demolished, and he was subsequently jailed for 81 days. The official statement from the Chinese government cited “economic crimes,” a charge often employed by the Communist Party that is typically seen as a justification for jailing political dissidents. His imprisonment was met with global protests, and spawned the Free Ai Weiwei movement which included demonstrations and street art campaigns. When the moderator asked him about adopting the role of the fearless activist, he answered that being called brave can be a curse, as he was often very afraid. Despite this, he says he is “quite privileged that I would have such a strong state to see me as an enemy” as it places him on a different platform, one with global reach.
He continues to use his global platform for activism that engages with contemporary human rights issues such as the ongoing refugee crisis, a topic he explores in the film Human Flow. The film takes a globalized look at the refugee crisis, traveling to a wide variety of countries and engaging with a diverse range of people affected by the crisis.
His directorial statement describing the work states it is a “personal journey, an attempt to understand the conditions of humanity in our days.” His work can indeed be controversial and provocative, but it is ultimately humanistic. When asked if he identifies in the category of “exiled Chinese intellectual” due to his experience, he responds that because of his family history of being involved in “anti” groups, he has never thought of himself in the category of Chinese. The concepts of identity and nationality, displacement, and exile are themes personal to him. Ai Weiwei is very much a refugee himself.
The panel ended with musings on optimism in the face of humanity’s problems, and the dichotomy of happiness and deep sorrow. Yang Lian quoted an excerpt from their book collaboration, an analogy in which Ai Weiwei describes himself as a dumpling that has fallen into the dirt; we are surrounded by the dirt and problems of the world but the light within us spurs us to live and create in spite of deep sorrow.