Ai Weiwei: “Without truth, no nation has a future”

“Inequality always speaks to society,” says Ai Weiwei, the artist who has made activism of his art and vice-versa, in this exclusive interview. In his recent visit to Mexico, the Chinese creator who met a few days ago with the relatives of the 43 missing teacher students of Ayotzinapa, visited University City, reflected on the need of truth and what lies behind it: justice
Ai Weiwei during his latest visit to Mexico City – Photo: Juan Carlos Reyes/EL UNIVERSAL
11/02/2018
14:10
Mexico City
Gerardo Lammers/Confabulario
-A +A

I meet Ai Weiwei (Pekin, 1957) with his back turned to me, playing chess with a kid at the restaurant of the hotel where he is staying at, in Mexico City. He's wearing a hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and black tennis shoes. The kid, who has oriental facial features, could very well be his son (or grandson). And the kind woman who smiles at us, offering a cup of coffee while the artist either concludes or interrupts his game, is his wife. Him carrying a portable chess set reminds me of Marcel Duchamp – one of his greatest influences – the creator of the ready-made, the one who made miniatures of some of his works and that, after completing the "Large Glass", took a break from art to devote himself fully to chess.

Ai Weiwei is back in Mexico to meet the relatives of the 43 missing students of the Ayotzinapa Teacher's Training College, Guerrero; to visit University City and the University Museum of Contemporary Art (MUAC), where he will mount an exhibition in one or two years; and to do something which makes him think back on his younger years in the United States, during the early 80's, when he made a living as a gardener or cartoon artist and was completely unknown: wandering. In his Instagram account (@aiww) he uploads photos of his findings. The author of "Sunflower Seeds" (2010), one of his most famous works – 100 million of ceramic sunflower seeds, painted by hand, made by 1,600 Chinese artisans, a metaphor of the oppression of the Chinese people – and the one who managed to survive 81 days in isolation in 2011 after the government of his country arrested him for an alleged tax evasion, is an active user of social networks.

“Life is art. Art is life. I never separate them,” said Ai Weiwei, probably the best-known artist who has managed to merge art and activism. In recent years, one of the problematics which has caught his attention has been the refugee crisis. In 2016, he covered with 14,000 life jackets the columns of the Konzerthaus in Berlin. A year later he premiered at the Venice Film Festival his documentary “Human Flow,” for which he visited 23 countries.

Also in 2017, he visited his beloved New York to mount his exhibition "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors," a series of sculptures about the migration phenomenon, with a special dedication to Donald Trump.

Stoic and inscrutable, the artist who likes to take a selfie of his middle finger using backgrounds related to the concentration of power (Tiananmen Square, the White House, the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower, etc.), stands before me. He doesn't smile.

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(Gilded Cage, 2017. Ai's sculpture, part of "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors" in Central Park, New York. Photo: Jason WychCourtesyst of Ai Weiwei Studio & Public Art Fund)

How are you? How's your visit to Mexico going?

I've been here five or six days and each one of them has been full of surprises and interesting observations. Mexico is a place full of life. Within the global scene, I think Mexico still has many advantages because of its culture and geographic location.

A few days ago you met with the relatives of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa. What can you tell us about this experience?

Since my last two trips to Mexico, I've been interested in the case of these families. At that time, about a year and a half or two years ago, I saw them in a demonstration at a public park-square. They set up tents here in Mexico City and I was completely shocked, truly surprised to see this modern society of the 21st century suffering a tragedy like this one. I always ask a friend the same question: 'What really happened?' There are so many different versions and all these versions reflect deep wounds within the society, at a political level, at a civil rights level, at a human rights level. It is unbelievable. Not only for certain individuals such as myself who have a profound respect for Mexico and its society; it had a very profound impact in me. But at the same time, seeing that such a brutal and mysterious event can happen in this society reflects the overall condition of the country, given that many people have been missing for years. It wasn't just an isolated event. This is evidence of the underlying problem. I feel a great empathy for the victims and their relatives but at the same time, I have a great respect for all the people defending the truth, who are seeking the truth because this will always benefit society. It won't only benefit the members of a family, it's not only for you, it's for the whole society. Because we have to understand human rights as a universal right in which violating one right hurts us all. So if we fail to establish this understanding, society will never become a modern society.

Are you aware of the most pressing problems Mexico is facing, such as poverty, corruption, violence, and inequality?

Yes, this is my third trip to Mexico and I know about all these problems. And the one you didn't mention: the relation with the United States. A huge problem that one. The United States is dealing with its neighbors negligently and thoughtlessly. It is taking advantage of Mexico instead of helping. All these problems can take place in all societies but in Mexico, they have their own character: crimes, drugs, and corruption. It's necessary to recover our social conscience and asks us what the truth is. Knowing the truth does not necessarily mean we will improve the world but it contributes to improving our understanding of our situation. And what lies behind truth is justice. So if we don't have the truth, we won't have justice. All politicians must understand it: without truth, no nation has a future.

How can art be equal to activism? Could you explain this equation?

I think good activism has to be art. Good art needs ingredients of activism. Because art is linked to the conscience of human society. It's parallel to science and matters, you know, such as efficiency and rationality, makes us realize what is human. What matters most. It doesn't matter which time or era art comes from: it appeals to our conscience and it has to be active, otherwise, it is dead art and irrelevant.

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(Ai Weiwei with relatives of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa - Photo taken from his Instagram account)

Perhaps we won't be able to understand your artistic work without understanding first the suffering your father [poet and intellectual Ai Qing], your family, and you, yourself lived during your childhood in Manchuria and the Gobi Desert [where Ai Qing was sent to do forced labor during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)]. Do you consider your art and activism are a way to confront and fight human suffering?

My art is deeply rooted in the fight against inequality and injustice, which happens both in China and many other countries, even in the most advanced ones. Inequality always speaks to society: to the society who suffers and to the one who takes advantage of this injustice. Then fighting for this is clearly an important cause to know why we've been doing what we're doing. Right now the world became even more unpredictable and with bigger problems. It's a huge fight, defending freedom, which we can never take for granted. When a country says: 'We have freedom,' they're telling lies. They don't have freedom, they are only trying to profit from it.

Your father was a poet and both of you have found a way to escape, a way out, through the expression of your own voices. What can you tell us about it?

I think we've been lucky to have this heart and this mind, and that we haven't been destroyed by...obstacles...and the power of the State. Because we believe individuals have the ability to tell people which kind of society it can be. This is a responsibility and a beautiful part of life.

The United States was crucial in your development as a young artist. Did you ever imagine this country was going to have such a change as this, with President Donald Trump?

On the surface, it may seem Donald Trump caused a strong change but this was already deeply rooted in the bones of the United States. What the United States needs to understand is that capitalism, imperialism, and this materialistic culture are causing serious, serious problems in the 21st century. This is related to social justice and world peace, adding to the lack of a true environmental responsibility the United States has shunned for a long time. Saying [like Trump claims] that “America is first” is a shameful phrase for a world leader, it speaks about his narrow-mindedness and shallowness.

Last year you presented in New York the work "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors", a series of sculptures addressed to U.S. citizens. Do you plan to make works addressed to Mexican audiences on this issue for your exhibit in Mexico?

I'm still not clear on what I'll be doing for this exhibition but I will certainly try to relate my works to Mexican society.

As you might know, this week several art fairs are taking place in Mexico City. How do you deal with art market?

I don't deal with it. I almost never go to art fairs or gallery shows, unless as an exception for a few friends. But I did visit the museum of the Museum of the University (MUAC) and I think it was amazing. First class regarding art. A castle of art which defends local culture and current political manifestations. First class Mexican artists. I was very much impressed. I'm very proud of exhibiting my work there.

I would like to know the value you assign to dreams.

I think our brain has different functions: the capacity to deal with every-day matters, to imagine, and to express our fears. And this is all reflected in our dreams. They are an important part of life.

What can you tell us about your life in Berlin?

I was banished (from China). Life in Berlin allows me to focus on my work. I have an open air studio full of energy. What I enjoy most of my studio is being exposed to sunlight.

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(Ai Weiwei during his latest visit to Mexico City – Photo: Juan Carlos Reyes/EL UNIVERSAL)

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