In 2015, I contacted Ai Weiwei, then under house arrest in Beijing, to ask if I could exhibit his work on a remote island in the Salish Sea. To my amazement, he agreed. The resulting exhibition, Ai Weiwei: Fault Line, included work related to the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. During the earthquake 5,196 children were killed. At great personal risk Ai Weiwei worked to gather their names so that those children would not be forgotten. I used the translation of these children’s names as a point of departure to write a collection of poems titled ‘A Forest of Names’, some of which have appeared here, in China Heritage (see A Forest of Names — the translation of one grief to another, China Heritage, 24 April 2018). Towards the end of that project, I had the opportunity to interview Ai Weiwei in Berlin. This interview was edited into its current form from conversations that took place over several days, including a trip to Prague, those conversations also touched on his father and his father’s work.
— Ian Boyden
- The Editor, China Heritage, A Prelude: An Afternoon in Beijing, September 1978, China Heritage, 18 October 2018
- Ian Boyden, Introduction, and Ai Weiwei & Ian Boyden, Part I: In the Consequences of Poetry, China Heritage, 20 October 2018
- Ai Weiwei & Ian Boyden, Part II: The Prison of a Name, China Heritage, 22 October 2018
- Ai Weiwei & Ian Boyden, Part III: Exile and the Consequences of Hope, China Heritage, 24 October 2018
- Ai Weiwei & Ian Boyden, Part IV: Automatic Writing and the Spilling of Blood, China Heritage, 26 October 2018
- Ai Weiwei & Ian Boyden, Part V: The Conditions of Empathy, China Heritage, 28 October 2018
Not Yet Not Yet Complete
An Interview with Ai Weiwei
Part 4: Automatic Writing and the Spilling of Blood
IB: While your father was in Paris, he became interested in Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto. Did he introduce you to automatic writing?
Ai Weiwei: No. He never talked about poetry or writing in that way. He would often mention a poet he liked — Whitman or Mayakovsky — and would recite a line or two of their poetry, but he never wanted us to write anything. He believed that poetry was born in him; that it was not something you could learn. For him, a poet is born a poet. You know, everyone when they are young, they are a poet for a moment in their heart. When my brother was young, he started writing a few poems. My father began to mock him, saying, ‘When I was your age, I was already quite famous.’ I think he was a little bit cynical about my brother becoming a poet.
IB: Your description of him discovering automatic writing and the subsequent explosion of his brain sounds very similar to your descriptions of your own explosion of words when writing your blog, writing thousands of words a day.
Ai Weiwei: That’s true. I never consciously think I am writing something poetic. But deep in my heart, I think what I am writing is no different from poetry. That would be the highest reward I could get — if my effort to express first thoughts and emotions, putting them in very simple language, was understood as poetry. For me, writing is the most attractive of all my activities. More attractive than any other forms I work with.
IB: It seems that the writing of your blog was inseparable from your very vocal and passionate reading audience. Tell me about the authorities shutting down your blog and how that affected your writing.
Ai Weiwei: On 22 May 2009, the authorities came to me and said, ‘Weiwei, are you going to publish something on June 4th?’ [NB: June 4th is a reference to the mass public protests of April-June 1989, which culminated in the Beijing Massacre on 4 June.] I asked, ‘Why are you asking me this?’ They replied, ‘Can you promise us you will not publish something on June 4th?’ This call was from the party representative of the Chinese Literary Association. He called me because my father used to belong to the Writers’ Association. Even though my father had passed away many years before, in 1996, and it was now 2009, this man very kindly called me to express his worries.
June 4th happened in 1989, twenty years earlier. The twentieth anniversary was a very big deal for the Chinese Communist Party. He sounded worried, but also very resolute. I told him, ‘I don’t plan to write anything for any day. However, I cannot promise you that I will not write anything on that day. I cannot promise you because it would be completely against why I write or don’t write.’ That evening all three of my blogs were shut down. All three at the same minute and the same second on 22 May.
I had three blogs. One on Sina, one on Sohu, and one on Tengxun — these are three completely different companies. They are competitors. For them to be shut down at exactly the same time means the order to shut off my blogs had to come from the highest levels. Prior to this, they had deleted a few things or temporarily shut down one site, but I always got back on. At the time that my blogs were shut down, I had a readership of over ten million people.
IB: When I’ve had the opportunity to watch your conversations unfold on Twitter, you clearly love to respond immediately. Why is this immediacy so important?
Ai Weiwei: Because it is so fresh. It’s like when you cut your skin and blood immediately pours out. You aren’t prepared. You don’t have a bandage or towel or something to press against the wound. After you’re cut, the blood spills out on to the ground. People loved to see the mess. I loved seeing the mess my words created. I had never experienced anything like this before.
The beauty of freedom of speech is that what you say should have consequences, but in China where this basic right is not recognised, the consequences can be very severe. First, the authorities blocked my name, but immediately one hundred others began to use my name with slight variations. The authorities didn’t know which one was me. Nobody knew who was who. I had five different accounts. I would use one and they would shut it off. Then I would use another. An account would go from zero to fifty to eighty-thousand followers in a few hours. Then they would shut it off. I was like Zoro. They could easily tell who was writing by my style. The next day, I would open another account. The authorities would see that there was a new account with a hundred thousand followers, they would know it must be me and shut it off. I start each day with a new account. There has never been a celebration like this anywhere on the Internet. The authorities finally decided they had to shut off the entire Fanfou site. They shut it off because of me, because of the hundreds of thousands of people following me — there was no way they could handle it. They weren’t sophisticated enough to handle it so they shut it down.
It was a very important part of my life. I never had confidence in writing until I had a blog and Twitter. This possibility to just write, to have freedom of speech, is very, very important. That is why I am devoted to it. It is different from my so-called artworks and other activities. I found a medium I really liked and I jumped right in. It is like being a philosopher, engaging in call and response. The discussion appears so casual, but so deadly serious. It’s brutal It’s direct function is to penetrate whatever illusion is out there. Like acid, it just burns right through.
IB: How would you describe the style of your language?
Ai Weiwei: Nude. Fresh nudity. People always have layers to what they say. They try to blur their words. But I don’t. I use the power of my imagination so that nothing is hiding and I use the power of language to suggest something that is more powerful than anything that can exist in language. It is full of attitude and gestures.
IB: Your Tweets appear to be written very fast, as though you never turn back.
Ai Weiwei: Yes. Even if I write the wrong words, I don’t correct them because people will understand it. I leave them. On the blog I was more careful and I would revise. But Twitter is more like a conversation. I like conversation better. You are responding to something. A conversation on Twitter is like climbing a mountain. You have to grab hold of every tuft of grass, every crevice in the rock face, to make your move. If you let go, everyone will see you fall.
IB: In Twitter you are more aware of gravity. Of all the things poetry could be against, why did you single out gravity?
Ai Weiwei: Einstein said, ‘The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.’ But poetry doesn’t work that way. Poetry establishes a new measurement of the world. It is a measurement that would never exist except in every sentence of that particular poem. It tells the scale and weight and volume of our heart, which could never be defined by science. Poetry is another dimension.
IB: Let’s talk for a moment about a contemporary poet, dissident writer, and mutual friend — Woeser. You designed the cover of Woeser’s book Tibet on Fire, in which she documents the conditions and causation of all the self-immolations across Tibet since 2008. What do you have to say about self-immolation. [NB: Tsering Woeser, Tibet on Fire — Self-Immolations Against Chinese Rule, trans. Kevin Carrico, Verso Books, 2016.]
Ai Weiwei: Don’t light yourself on fire. Don’t light yourself on fire because this act takes away the most meaningful entity. It takes away this carrier of sorrow, of love, of struggle and of pain — it becomes meaningless air. The act is beautiful, symbolic and powerful, yet, at the same time, it will not shake anybody. A few people will watch and that’s it. Don’t light yourself on fire.
IB: Several times you have mentioned that you are not very interested in beauty. What does beauty mean to you? Why are you not concerned with it?
Ai Weiwei: Nothing is not beautiful; nowhere is not beautiful. You can look at a fly or a mosquito or an elephant or the sky — everything is equally beautiful. I have never encountered anything that is not beautiful. When people point out something to me and say, ‘That’s so beautiful’, I have a problem with it.
IB: Do you think meaning, like beauty, is everywhere? What does it mean to identify something as meaningful even when it cannot be seen by our eyes? The only way I could have known this was by you telling me. Can you talk about deliberately concealing meaning in the construction of this piece?
Ai Weiwei: Chinese people understand things very differently from the West. Chinese traditionally think that the inside and the outside must work together. This is a technique that has been around since the Song dynasty. Every material that is part of nature has its own language. You have to figure it out.
IB: It is hard to remind ourselves of the ubiquity of reality. Maybe this is the ubiquity of beauty. It is very overwhelming. Everything is equally beautiful. When people declare something is beautiful, I think they are talking about something other than the thing itself.
Ai Weiwei: What do people mean when they say something is beautiful — that beauty must relate to truth. Or it relates to something they can associate with. Otherwise, why do they use this word beauty? Nowhere is not beautiful.
IB: Chinese aesthetic vocabulary is very specific. To say a work of art is piaoliang 漂亮 (beautiful) is a big insult to a lot of Chinese artists. But in America, this word beautiful is kind of a blanket statement, a soft introduction to show your appreciation, maybe thoughtless, but well-meaning.
Ai Weiwei: You just accept it. This is the American way. You have Trump. You just accept it.
IB: Harsh words, but sadly true. What aesthetic vocabulary would you use to describe your own work?
Ai Weiwei: I don’t use an aesthetic vocabulary. If I have a goal, it is about nothing. I cannot accomplish anything.
IB: You said that when you are writing, you like those moments when blood spills. In your artwork, you certainly spill blood. You dropped the vase, it shattered — blood spilled. When you remade that same image out of Legos, blood spilled again. But it’s a different kind of spilling, the clicking of the individual pieces, and a giant corporation had no idea what was going to come down on their heads. Can we talk of an aesthetics of blood spilling?
Ai Weiwei: The spilling of blood is not a goal. It really describes a certain moment of joy.