Ai Weiwei on Art, Activism and Human Rights

An Interview with Ai Weiwei by Zeng Jinyan

Ai Weiwei 艾未未 is renowned for making strong aesthetic statements that resonate with timely phenomena across today’s geopolitical world. From architecture to installations, social media to documentaries, Ai uses a wide range of mediums as expressions of new ways for his audiences to examine society and its values. Recent exhibitions include: Inoculation at Fundacion Proa in Buenos Aires, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors with the Public Art Fund in New York City, Ai Weiwei on Porcelain at the Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul, Ai Weiwei: Trace at Hirshhorn at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., Maybe, Maybe Not at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Law of the Journey at the National Gallery in Prague, and Ai Weiwei. Libero at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.

Ai was born in Beijing in 1957 and currently resides and works in Berlin. Ai is the current Einstein Visiting Professor at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK), and he is the recipient of the 2015 Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International and the 2012 Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent from the Human Rights Foundation. Ai’s first feature-length documentary Human Flow premiered at the 74th Venice Film Festival in competition. His 2017 installation work, Law of the Journey, a 70-metre inflatable life raft filled with human figures representing refugees, will be the centerpiece of the Biennale of Sydney when it opens on 16 March 2018.

Human Flow by Ai Weiwei


Zeng Jinyan 曾金燕, writer, scholar, and documentary filmmaker, was the 2017 Oak Fellow at Colby College. In 2017, Zeng was awarded her PhD degree from the University of Hong Kong for a thesis titled ‘The Genesis of Citizen Intelligentsia in Digital China: Ai Xiaoming’s Practices of Identity and Activism’. Her 2016 book Feminism and the Genesis of the Citizen Intelligentsia in China 中国女权公民知识分子的诞生 (Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong Press) received a Publishing Award in the Social Science category of the 2017 Hong Kong Publishing Biennial Awards. Zeng co-directed the documentary film, Prisoners in Freedom City, with Hu Jia (2007), wrote the script for the animation short, A Poem to Liu Xia (Trish McAdam, 2015), and produced the documentary feature film, We the Workers (WEN Hai, 2017). Zeng’s creative work is a synthesis of her scholarship and her experience as an activist. For a period of eight years (2004-2012), she was subjected to around-the-clock surveillance and periodic house arrest in China. Read The China Story’s 2013 interview with Zeng here.


Ai, often and deservedly described as China’s ‘most famous living artist’, is also famous for his candid criticism of the Chinese art world. When he returned to Beijing from New York in 1993, he had this to say of the Chinese art scene:

The investigation of all kinds of language, the deployment of a sparkling array of methodologies and media, the plagiarism of styles and content—none of these things can disguise the cultural deficit, a lack of self-awareness, social critique, and creative independence. Instead, artists celebrate their craven pragmatism and opportunism. They reflect degraded standards and a lack of heartfelt values.  (Quoted in Geremie Barmé, ‘China’s Art of Containment’, 27 November 2017)

The release in October 2017 of Ai’s documentary Human Flow, which explores the depth and scale of human suffering in the global refugee crisis today, prompted Zeng to interview Ai. She sent a list of questions to him on 25 September 2017 and received his reply on 4 October. An initial translation of this interview was produced by the Oak Institute for Human Rights, Colby College, and published as an excerpt here. The translation below is by Gloria Davies. The original interview can be read here.  My thanks to Ai Weiwei and Zeng Jinyan for this contribution to The China Story – Gloria Davies 

Zeng Jinyan and Ai Weiwei

Zeng Jinyan interviewing Ai Weiwei in 2014. Photograph by Gertjan Zuilhof


Zeng:  First, I’d like to understand what motivates you to create art? What part does your ego play in your motivation to create?

Ai:  Everyone is looking for a method by which to express themselves in real life. Art does this very well because its variety of methods and perspectives enables you to tell people who you are and how you view the world around you. This doesn’t mean that I feel this at the very beginning of the process; rather, it is in the gradual process of expression that a so-called ’me’ emerges. It was not there originally. The id had not yet formed. Artistic expression allows for ego formation while also being a possibility for life to show its value.

Of course, it is not like this for everyone. There are people like scientists and athletes who need to set the goals they want to achieve. For me, art is what gives me the maximum possibility to realise myself. But it seems that this is only a choice. As for how to create art, I really don’t have any experience to relay. Even though I have created a lot, and am recognised as the artist with the highest number of exhibitions, every time I create I feel as if I have never done it before. I’m always going back to zero, which gives me a chance to redefine art within the widest latitude possible.

There will be some struggle, confusion and anxiety—elements that are requisite conditions for creativity, and only from them can one derive joy or a new self-identity. Therefore, the ego is rather elusive in the creative process: sometimes it appears, sometimes you need to resist its appearance, and sometimes you also need to affirm a new existential condition through its appearance.

 Zeng:  An artist often plays the role of the ’joker’, agitating the status quo to provoke different groups of people and unsettle power and culture. What is the difference between the social role of an artist in China and Europe, the United States and other parts of the world? What do you see as barriers, internal cultural taboos, or external cultural censorship that European and American artists face?

Ai:  Artists in every country or region are subject to the restrictions imposed by their own languages and their cultural and historical conditionings. Within these restrictions, what limits a Chinese artist most is the extremely harsh political censorship system that remains in place to this day, together with its dismembering and distortion of history. These two factors alone have done great damage and disfigured the development of art and art education in Chinese society. Whatever is left, what we might call the phenomena arising out of China’s cultural condition, falls basically within this scope. It is hard to give specific examples of these cultural phenomena. However, we can say that there is an overall condition in which they occur.

In other countries—and I’m referring here mainly to Europe and the US—art has been raised to the status of an independent social actor, one capable of promoting social development. That is how art is defined in these countries. In still other countries, art refers only to crafts or the decorative arts. In Europe and the US, art has taken on a role akin to that of philosophy and ethics and it also serves as social criticism. Thus, it plays a relatively advanced cultural role.

I’m not saying that all European and American artists possess qualities of this kind. I’m merely pointing out that art in these countries meets a certain social need. To a large extent, artists in Europe and the US are profoundly deluded by the framework of so-called ‘democracy’ and ’freedom’ in which they operate. This framework is suggestive of a utopian perception of the basic contradictions in Western society and it lets artists avoid dealing with the real contradictions around them. Consequently, there’s a great deal that’s phony and empty in Western art which has resulted in impediments and prohibitions that are deeply embedded in all of the cultural institutions, selection processes and value systems to do with art. If you look at the possibilities of capital flow and the art market, you’ll see that this is generally how things work.

Zeng:  The role of the ‘joker’ is generally not accepted in discussions of politics and social activism. Some have criticised you for acting irresponsibly with respect to Chinese issues. You once said you had ‘no friends’. How do you understand and deal with the conflicting roles of an artist and a Chinese dissident?

Ai:  I guess the ’joker’ you mentioned is someone who’s a cynic or a jester-type figure. In fact, I may be more concerned about aesthetics and ethics than most other people. It’s just that I adopt different postures to discuss fairly serious matters. In fact, the seriousness of many political and social occasions needs to be dispelled because these occasions do not facilitate serious discussion of any topic. In the West, you’ll find discussions of varying levels and depths occurring in different contexts. However, the minute you want these discussions to find broad social acceptance, you’ll see how fragile and narrow they really are.

As for those who think that I am acting irresponsibly in relation to China’s problems, I feel that I am fundamentally incapable of assuming any such responsibility. When one’s very existence is being threatened, it seems rather far-fetched to talk about ‘being responsible’. When I said ’I have no friends’, it was in response to Liu Xiaobo’s claim that he had ‘no enemies’. Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波and I were friends once and I didn’t agree with this highly moralistic statement of his with all its sagely pretensions.  It was contrary to the basic makeup of someone who had made it his task to protest.

The roles of the artist and the dissident are not in conflict. When the situation calls for it, true artists can become dissidents at any time. As for artists who are bereft of a will to dissent, their creative work will not help to re-define their times. In short, there is no conflict between these two roles.

Zeng:  I noticed your recent Twitter debate with netizens about Liu Xiaobo. What made you angry or disappointed? [1]

Ai:  Whenever I discuss Liu Xiaobo, I have focused on his political views and the political value of his existence.  I am disgusted by how he has been turned into an object of mawkish sentimentality by so many people for this has diverted attention away from his social value. Take for instance the many references to his Nobel Peace Prize or maudlin talk of his illness. Meanwhile, the utter ruthlessness of Chinese politics gets no mention.

Liu Xiaobo’s life and his tragic end is the tragedy of Chinese society and its politics.  Among Chinese intellectuals, very few can truly relate to the values that he sought to embody. Much of what these people discuss has nothing to do with the values he stood for. For instance, when he was close to death, at that critical moment, there were many who misrepresented his political position and ideas, claiming that they had personally known Liu Xiaobo or had access to some special channel or other. Moreover, much has been made of his declaration, ‘If I must die, I would rather die in the West’, and other statements of this kind that he had made.  To my mind, to highlight these statements not only demeans Liu Xiaobo as an individual but distorts the political ideals to which he had dedicated his life.

Zeng:  I remember well the many dinner parties to which you invited me. You seem to like eating in the company of others and normally many others at that.  What made you so enjoy eating in company? Did you ever share a meal with Liu Xiaobo or Liu Xia 刘霞? If you did, what things did the three of you talk about? As the curator of Liu Xia’s first exhibition in China [China Art Archives and Warehouse (CAAW) at Longzhuashu, Beijing, 2000], can you tell us how you went about organising it? What made you decide to hold that exhibition for her?

Ai:  Chinese people are often very relaxed when they are gathered around the dinner table. This is not hard to understand as we all need to eat. A deeper reason is that when many people eat together, they can order more food and try more varieties of food. I like being able to choose and dread being restricted. I don’t remember sharing a meal with Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia, but I spent some time with Liu Xiaobo [in New York in the spring, as the student protests were beginning] before he returned to China in 1989.

After he was released, we ate together in a restaurant I owned where we chatted light-heartedly on matters that had nothing to do with politics. He probably didn’t enjoy talking about politics at that time. At any rate, we just rambled on. I helped Liu Xia with her first photography exhibition because Liu Xiaobo had asked me to. The exhibition was held in one of my galleries. Very few people came. It was solely because Xiaobo was a friend that I organised the exhibition. That was the only reason.

Zeng:  Liu Xiaobo passed away on July 13.  How would you describe him? What contributions did he make to China’s political and social movements?  What were his limitations? In this post-Liu Xiaobo era, what message do you have for Chinese activists who are committed to bringing about change to Chinese society and politics?

Ai:  I don’t think there’s any so-called ‘post-Liu Xiaobo era’. When you use a political figure to represent an era, then the whole period becomes demarcated in terms of his influence on the general public’s understanding of politics. This simply has not happened in China. After 1989, he did not have any visible influence on politics. Even at the time of Charter 08, he was not politically influential.

I see myself as an activist committed to the reform of Chinese society and politics. This was how I was perceived in the past and I continue to be perceived in this way. At any rate, it is how I am regarded by those who are politically in charge in China. I think that for China to undergo social and political reform, it is crucial that the Chinese people become cognisant of the situation of their own culture and the political situation in China today. There are complex layers here. China’s problems are not confined to those of political power or the country’s political system.

An even greater problem is presented by China’s own culture. As to whether and how mentally prepared Chinese citizens are in responding and adapting to political change remains a question. For now, this preparedness remains highly inadequate and has the frailest of foundations. This is an important reason why reform has been delayed time and again.

Zeng:  How would you describe Liu Xia’s current situation? How do you see Liu Xia’s living conditions in China, especially now that Liu Xiaobo is dead?

Ai:  I have no first-hand information concerning Liu Xia, not while Liu Xiaobo was alive and not since his death. From what I have read on Twitter, I feel that most of the accounts about her situation don’t ring true. Many of the Tweets simply reflect the psychological state of their authors. Liu Xia is evidently under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. However, we can say that the same applies to every so-called ’citizen’ living in China. No one can say that their situation is different. Liu Xia has evidently been treated most unjustly as a result of Liu Xiaobo’s political decisions and this is the inevitable outcome of resisting a totalitarian regime.

After Liu Xiaobo passed away, Liu Xia should have been allowed to be fully free. This is beyond dispute.  She had already paid an unimaginable price for his acts of resistance. I am unable to evaluate her current situation in China because, in China, everyone leads a life that involves a certain kind of negotiation with the authoritarian state. In fact, to fail to acknowledge the prevalence of these distorted negotiations is to not understand authoritarian power.

Zeng:  Having now lived in Berlin for a few years, how do you see your relationship with the Chinese government and with China?

Ai:  My relationship with China is neither contingent on how many years I’ve lived in Berlin nor on whether I’ve lived in Berlin, nor on the time before or after I lived there. My relationship with the Chinese state is one of enduring and unchanging opposition because the political situation in China is totally at odds with my political ideals as an individual.

Living in Berlin has freed me from the highly restrictive living conditions to which I was unavoidably subjected and from the everyday fears that these conditions brought.  It has kept me out of danger and given me an opportunity to engage with problems of human rights and humanitarian crisis on an even broader scale. It has allowed me to devote more attention to my artistic activities.  The one basic belief I have always followed is that human rights and freedom of speech are values to be shared by all. They should not be treated as topics confined to one or another interest.

Zeng:  Have you felt lonely or fearful? If you have, how would you describe these feelings? Have you experienced fear of political violence, of being unable to put down roots or something else?

Ai:  Any loneliness or fearfulness I might have felt would mostly have resulted from a sense of difficulty in communicating a certain idea or principle. I have few qualms or fears about political violence and brutality because I have grown up in that type of environment. I would also say that I don’t have any romantic attachment to ‘nation’ or ‘national terrain’.

Zeng:  You often speak out against human rights violations in different parts of the world of which a recent example would be your new documentary film Human Flow and projects related to it. To my mind, you have become a powerful voice for raising awareness about global social injustice. Would you say that you have developed your own version of global citizenship? How would you define a global citizen? How should people act as responsible individuals in the era of globalisation?

Ai:  For more than a year now, I have devoted myself mainly to research on matters related to the refugee problem, and Human Flow is a key outcome of this research This large-scale documentary film gave me an opportunity to visit different regions of the world to learn about the complexity of human rights issues in these places and the different understandings that people have of human dignity. Whether it was in the Middle East, Asia, Africa or Europe, I would have to say that people’s recent attitudes to human rights and basic human dignity left me feeling disappointed.

I don’t consider myself a global citizen at all. Though I turned sixty this year, I don’t have the right to vote or cast a ballot in any country. My activities mainly take place on social media. I suppose I can be considered a modern gypsy. All that I have managed to do is to discuss a few basic topics pertinent to freedom of speech, individual dignity, and humanism in the limited time available to me, within the scope of my personal experience.

Thank you for asking me these questions.


[1] [Translator’s note] On 27 June 2017, Ai Weiwei posted a Tweet mocking unnamed people whom he described as being caught up in ‘some bloody tragic season of petition signing’ on Liu Xiaobo’s behalf. Liu, then gravely ill, had wanted to leave China but the Chinese government had refused his request. Ai wrote, among other things: ‘Liu the Stutterer wasn’t locked up for just one day. Where were you bastards then? There are lots of political prisoners in Chinese jails most of whom are treated much worse than Xiaobo. Most have long been forgotten.’

Ai’s Tweet elicited numerous negative responses, of which the most virulent was by Liao Yiwu 廖亦武, a fellow-dissident also based in Berlin, who denounced Ai as follows: ‘You scheming coward, son of Mao Zedong’s slave Ai Qing, con-artist of the art world, you second-gen Red, emperor with new clothes, you’re the product of a dictatorship plus capitalism. My friend Liu Xiaobo is about to die. Have you no decency at all?’ Liao’s Tweet can be read here.