Exile and the Consequences of Hope — Ai Weiwei Interview Part 3

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



Not Yet Not Yet Complete
An Interview with Ai Weiwei

Part 3: Exile and the Consequences of Hope


IB: We think of exile in negative terms, but I wonder if that judgment is a cultural failure to understand a form of fundamental human nature that a few people are born with — a really important form of identity with regard to truth and our humanity. In China there is a lot of mythology surrounding poets. One of the pervasive themes is that of exile, the individual who refuses to compromise his or her integrity and as a result is banished by the state. I’m thinking of Chinese poets like Qu Yuan, Li Bo, Du Fu, Su Dongpo, Bei Dao, your father, you, and I think the contemporary poet Woeser can be understood in this light.

Ai Weiwei: Yes, you know some are exiled and others are self-exiled. When you see some people they are like a monk … China has always been troublesome with regard to freedom of the individual, especially poets. In China, the poet and the artist were the elite of society. They were always the focal point — their behavior reflected the soul of the land. That is why exile has been so highly respected throughout Chinese history. They understood exile as a natural condition. So much Chinese poetry is about shanggan (傷感, the experience of being emotionally wounded), shangxin (傷心, to have a wounded heart), likai jia (離開家, leaving one’s family), likai ren (離開人, leaving the world of people). All of these themes speak to the experience of exile, what the Chinese call chujingshenqing (觸景生情). 

IB: Yes, coming into contact with a condition or scene evokes a feeling or emotion — an affective image of some sort. Why did you immediately differentiate between exile and self-exile? Is this an external verses internal exile?

Ai Weiwei: Exile normally means you are forced out of your home unwillingly — this is what I mean by external exile. I would say internal exile means you have lost your sense of belonging in your heart no matter where you are. You could be at home, really any location you are familiar with, but you have a sense of not belonging to the environment, not belonging to your own given conditions, political conditions, or even your own fate.

I think internal exile is more profound because it is a mental state. External exile most often is not really a mental state, but rather a physical condition.

IB: You and your father seem to have experienced both in significant quantities. 

Ai Weiwei: My father, his life and his plight, and my own life and plight — we were not prepared for exile. No one is ever prepared for exile. If you are prepared then it is not exile. 

IB: You inherited a sense of displacement. Your home was another person’s wandering.

Ai Weiwei: As a child, you can easily sense that your parents don’t belong where they have settled. There is nothing that relates to your mom or dad. You know you can’t establish a future there. If you have a place with a future, you can plant a tree. Five years later you see that the tree has grown. If you have a pig, you can feed the pig and watch it grow. However, in these kind of military camps, like today’s refugee camps, you don’t get any sense that there is anything growing. Today and the next year on the same day — it is all the same. The people who moved in five years ago and those who move in today are the same — it is all the same. They enter into the labour camp and they all become identical.

Right after I was born we were sent to the northeast and then to the northwest — the farthest places from Beijing. We stayed in these unfamiliar places for sixteen years. I was a foreigner until the last day I was there. A few years later, I went to the United States for twelve years, staying mainly in New York, where I had a small sense of belonging. I was a cultural misfit. Then I went back to China and felt like a foreigner again. China has never been a place I could call my nation because it has not protected me in any respect; in fact, it has been actively against me. At that time, my parents were comfortable again. They had regained their reputation. They had a small home with a courtyard. But I had become a guest in my own home. Before my father’s death, the only words I remember him saying were, ‘Weiwei, this is your home. You should take it easy and do whatever you want to do.’ He knew that I was staying at my own home like a guest.

IB: How do you see yourself within the reality of exile? Do you think you were born into a state of internal exile?

Ai Weiwei: I was born like this. I don’t feel there is another way. I am an outsider, a dissident, someone unacceptable and to be excluded. For many reasons — family reasons, aesthetic reasons, geographical reasons — I am just an yiji (異己). You know, this word in Chinese is so interesting. In English, it means a dissident, an alien, but in Chinese it means that your self is different, or you are a ‘different self’.

IB: Simultaneously, you could say exile is a doorway into a more global awareness — huge patterns appear in this state of being, patterns not just of a small place, but spread across the earth.

Ai Weiwei: I never thought about this until after I had filmed Human Flow. [NB: Human Flow, documentary by Ai Weiwei, released on 17 October 2017.] It was only afterwards that I encountered this fundamental question. Many people asked, How is it possible that you shot this film? When I was first confronted with this question, I thought it was a little strange. Why should I not be able to shoot this film? But then I thought, so many people have not shot this film. This, too, was of interest. 

IB: It seemed like something fundamentally shifted in you when you got into the abandoned refugee boat. Can you tell me about that experience?

Ai Weiwei: The first time I went to Lesbos, I asked a boat captain to take me out into the ocean to see what it was like, and while we were out there we found a refugee boat. It was abandoned, no one was in it. It was partially deflated, like a balloon that had fallen from the sky, with just a little air left in it, but still floating. My first thought was, ‘I want to jump aboard.’ The captain said, ‘No, this boat is really shaky.’ I said, ‘No, I’m sure it’s okay. I’m going to jump in and then I want you to drive your boat away and wait. Let me sit there awhile. I want to sit in the middle of nowhere.’ I sat in meditation on this little piece of plastic. I tried to adjust my mindset to be in the condition of being on that thin layer of the surface of the ocean, of the waves, and to sense what it is like. This boat still had in it some old clothes, shoes, a baby’s milk bottle. I picked these things up. After a while, the boat came back and we left. I have this tendency to jump into alien situations.

Ai Weiwei, On the Boat, 2016. Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio

IB: Into situations that in some respects have the quality of a ‘different self’?

Ai Weiwei: The same kind of thing happened with the Sichuan Earthquake [12 May 2008]. For many days I could not write. Everyone thought this was so strange. They said, ‘Ai Weiwei writes every day. How could it be that after this earthquake he can’t write anything?’ In fact, I was speechless. What could I write? I hadn’t prepared for something like that. I had no vocabulary. I don’t think my existing vocabulary could describe my feelings. I didn’t trust my feelings. I just listened to the news. I felt all this information needed to be washed away by my own contact with reality. I was eager to empty myself and restart. The only way to do this was to go to the situation. 

So I went to the site of the Sichuan Earthquake and I stood on the ruins, stood in the wind, and felt under my feet the thousands of children under the school rubble. You begin to sense death. You start shaking, but don’t know why you are shaking. You are not scared — death is in the wind, hanging in the air. It is a very strange feeling. And it was the same thing when I jumped on this rubber boat. I want to recollect information from direct contact — this is real knowledge.

It was then I realised I had grown up in an unfamiliar location. Of course, I am able to make a film about refugees; I have been preparing for it since I was born.

IB: I am intrigued by how you use mythology when dealing with present conditions. It presents an extraordinary commentary. For instance, in your work with the Sichuan Earthquake you took hundreds of tons of twisted rebar and then had it all straightened by hand — this incredible Hephaestian task of physically pounding it with hammers. [Ed.: In Greek mythology, Hephaestus is the god of metal working, forges and sculpting.] Then in Law of the Journey you made a two-hundred-foot-long zodiac boat, like a giant black plastic arc. [NB: Ai Weiwei, Law of the Journey, curated by Jiří Fajt & Adam Budak at the National Gallery, Prague.] Can you talk about the tension between present conditions and mythology?

Ai Weiwei: Mythology is part of the human condition, and, of course, the human condition is a part of mythology. We see Syrian people migrate to Europe. But this so-called Europe, it is a name from ancient Greek mythology. There was this woman, her name was Europa, she lived somewhere near what is Syria today, and this white bull came and lied to her and carried her away. The bull jumped from island to island, to Greece, to so-called Europe. It followed the same path the migrants are following today. History is repeating itself. In Europe, you see this money and you see the image of the woman sitting on the bull. I think that years and years from now, assuming there is still human history, what is happening today with the refugees might become part of mythology, and in it we will see the political conditions of today. What is happening today is actually more dramatic, more unbelievable than the story of Europa. Of course, we might be totally finished before that happens and the stories will have vanished.

IB: Last night I had a dream I was interviewing Prometheus. He was sitting there in a chair that appeared to be made of a dust cloud. I ask him, ‘How do you think of home?’ He opens his hand, and in his palm is a very complex and delicate box that looked like one of your treasure boxes. He says to me, ‘I’ve opened this box a thousand times, and every time the world regenerated.’ He then invites me to open the box, but I can’t find the lid. Then I realise all the sides are lids, that the box and the lid are the same thing, like two sides of reality. Just as I opened it, I woke up. And here I am in Berlin. And it occurs to me that in many ways you are a very Promethean figure, has anyone ever mentioned this to you?

Ai Weiwei: No one has ever mentioned that.

IB: Maybe the question rests in the box he held out to me. In your exhibition According to What?, you displayed a small wooden box that had belonged to your father. [NB: Ai Weiwei: According to What?, curated by Mami Kataoka, Mori Art Museum, 2009. The piece, titled Cube in Ebony, is actually not a treasure box, but a solid cube of ebony. The treasure boxes came later. I conflated the two during the interview.] You related that small box to this larger ebony box, with the simple line, ‘I am my father’s son.’ Describe why these treasure boxes fascinate you.

Ai Weiwei: I think as artists we have certain objects that affect us profoundly, but at the same time we really don’t know what it is about. At a certain stage, it jumps out into your own work, language, or understanding. That happens to me quite often. These things are like seeds that have been carried through the ages, through a long frozen winter. Suddenly, the seed sprouts — two leaves, four leaves, the idea begins to grow. It is as if some elements of the box have become supernatural. We gaze upon it, we pay attention to it. The box has been made perfect, but the understanding of its perfection is an understanding of the fact that it is so different from the other perfect things in the universe. This small box is a universe in itself filled with energy.

I think the best things that happen in our lives or the moments we treasure most are those when we don’t consciously understand ourselves. Maybe that not understanding or that lack of consciousness opens the opportunity for those things to happen. If we all understand everything very consciously, then probably everything will turn out the same, right? So I think many things that happen are led by so-called intuition. That intuition jumps out from our knowledge, our understanding of aesthetics, or even our moral compass. Abandoning forgone conclusions and overthrowing rational determinants are among the distinctive characteristics of art.

IB: One of my favorite memories of installing Fault Line was of opening the first crate. [NB: Ai Weiwei: Fault Line, curated by Ian Boyden, San Juan Island Museum of Art, 2016.] When we pulled out the first box, the construction was so beautiful, this wonderful, exotic smell filled the gallery. My first instinctual desire was to open it. I think with any box, we have a desire to open them. At least in the West the act of opening a mysterious box goes back to Pandora. Zeus had put all these things in the box and tells her not to open it. But of course she opens it and all the evil comes out. But she closes it just before hope can escape.

Ai Weiwei: I think this is very profound even if it is against our modern paradigms of freedom of information. The limiting of knowledge is so profound to the human mind. It affects how we regard knowledge. Right now, we have a completely opened-up society and all this flow of information, but we still don’t know how it will affect our true knowledge and our emotions. We are becoming very different human beings than we were before. All people have a heart and a mind to process emotions and logic. How we capture information, how our emotions identify with the important information, determines how we structure all this information into our sense of ‘I’ and how this ‘I’ is different from ‘You’. And yet, now the facts flow so freely that, in fact, we may all start to capture the same information because we don’t have different paths anymore. As a result, I think our identity as individuals is disappearing. When all of the information is the same, we each become like a book printed with all the same information in the same vocabulary, same structure, same sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. We are becoming identical books. And because all the information is scattered, the book today is a book that is not organised. How strange then to look out and still be able to identify each other even though all the words are scattered and random. Random means you cannot make sense of it. If you can’t make sense of it, then it has no use. If it has no use, then it is meaningless. So you can see, when information is made accessible to all, the ways that it flows can also be very detrimental and dangerous.

IB: One of the things I’ve wondered about in the story of Pandora closing the box before hope can escape: is hope beneficial or was it actually another form of evil that couldn’t escape? What are the consequences or conditions of hope?

Ai Weiwei: The consequences of hope are to show the condition of our heart. It is unsatisfied with any condition. Your heart is always bigger than reality. Bigger than any reality that can be measurable. And since it is immeasurable, even if you let hope out, in that moment it is no longer hope anymore. Hope is self-contradictory. Once you have hope, that hope is not a final hope. You can still hope, or you can hope that you don’t have hope. Even evil cannot control hope. 

IB: The heart and hope reveal themselves across time, their volume becomes infinite, like an hourglass that reaches into the future. 

Ai Weiwei: In the conscious world, we are living in this world at this time. But unconsciously, I don’t know. There must be some sort of measurement that blocks us or seals us with the unknown; maybe we are part of the past, or we’re an agent from somewhere else, or we may come from the future! Only by understanding that dimension can we illustrate our world in a better way. Otherwise, it is dull and dry — just a hopeless situation.

IB: Do you ever think of yourself coming from another spot or time?!

Ai Weiwei: No, never. I never imagined such a thing. We are only talking. It just came out of my mouth in this moment and now it disappears. 

IB: I want to return to exile and this condition of being banished at birth. You could easily have been swallowed by these conditions, disappeared, after all that is the very purpose of this kind of punishment; but instead you have emerged as one of the most powerful voices in the world articulating concerns about humanity, one of the most influential artists alive. This may be an unanswerable question, but what is the experience of this transformation like from the inside?

Ai Weiwei: Probably the most difficult thing to describe in a person’s life is how much of ones life’s actions or involvement are done consciously or unconsciously. How can we even distinguish conscious from unconscious? I am not so conscious, not so aware, of my own character. If I examine my own, or even my father’s, character, most conditions are given by unpredictable or unknown outside forces. In my case, I respond to those moments. During some moments, I am quite unconscious, quite unaware, of the situation; in others, I am very aware of them and have a strong and clear response; and some are a mix of both conscious and unconscious at the same time. But it’s also very much like you are already in the water. You are swimming out and trying to cope with the situation. It always takes a moment of innocence, or the ability to look at a given situation —s ay a political or life struggle — and simplify it so that you can give a clear and unapologetic response. Later, we might call it a powerful or heroic act. In fact, it is not sophisticated. There is nothing sophisticated about it at all. Rather, that sophistication is only reached by simplicity of response. It could be language, an artwork, involvement over a period of focused time, or some sort of terribly heated focus. Finally, you drill a hole through this almost impenetrable reality. I guess that is what happened. But in most cases, the most honest response is that confrontation and fundamental questioning of power and the existing structures are essential.

IB: So many of us are carrying around with us a form of prison due to culture, education, and so forth. In many respects I think you were able to escape many of those prisons. How did you escape these prisons?

Ai Weiwei: Maybe it is because I am more familiar with what the outside is like than what the inside is like. I never graduated. I could have easily graduated from any type of university, but I never felt like I belonged to this kind of society. I always question, even doubt, existing conclusions or established value systems. And I act on my own attitude and behavior, which can be silly, light, careless, but still it is my act. There is one sentence my father wrote in a poem titled ‘Reed Flute’ (see the Appendix below). He brought this flute back from Europe, but it became a forbidden thing to play. He wrote:

with my hungry stomach
I self-assertively blew upon my reed flute,
and people mocked my attitude,
just because it was my attitude!
And people would not indulge in listening to my song,
just because it was my song!

translated by Ian Boyden

It is a very good poem — he wrote it while he was in jail. In it, he talks about liberty and how it is very important to have your own voice. But what are you talking about when you say your own voice? This is a very severe question. Who has their own voice? That is probably the most difficult question to answer. Those we remember as poets and artists have their own voice. Their voices became unique and distinguished. We cannot help but notice the significance of these voices during our journey.

IB: Speaking of voice, I have never heard your father reading his poetry. Are there any recordings of him reading?

Ai Weiwei: Not that I know of.



Reed Flute

Remembering the late poet Apollinaire

J’avais un mirliton que je n’aurai pas échangé
contre un bâton de maréchal de France.
— G. Apollinaire


I brought a single reed flute
back from your multicolored Europe.
When it was with me,
as I walked the edge of the Atlantic
it was as if I were in my own home.
But now,
your collection of poems Alcool
sits in a Shanghai police station,
and I am one who has committed a crime.
even a reed flute is a forbidden thing.
I think of that reed flute,
it is my most sincere memory of Europe.
Honorable Apollinaire,
you are not just Polish,
because you are,
in my eyes,
truly part of a story swirling down from Montmartre,
part of a long-winded,
violet story spit out
from Magritte’s trembling, faded-rouge lips.
Who shouldn’t turn toward
that territory of Briand and Bismarck
and spit with contempt —
that despicable, plundering Europe
with greed overflowing from the corners of her eyes.
And yet,
I am lost in love with your Europe,
the Europe of Baudelaire and Rimbaud.
with my hungry stomach,
I self-assertively blew upon my reed flute,
and people mocked my attitude,
just because it was my attitude,
and people would not indulge in listening to my song,
just because it was my song!
Get lost —
you who once sung La Marseillaise
and are now defiling
that triumphantly glorious creature!
I am in the Bastille,
no, not the Bastille of Paris.
I do not have the reed flute at my side,
and iron shackles echo more loudly than my voice.
But I swear — with regard to the reed flute,
for its having been disgraced by pain —
I will, in the spirit of 1789,
reach my hand into the flesh-burning flames.
On the day the flute emerges,
I will blow a
cursed song of destruction
with regard to the world that insulted it.
Moreover, I will lift it high,
and, with a solemn hymn,
give it to the ocean,
give it to the ocean’s waves,
the insolent, hissing
waves of the sea.

Ai Qing, 28 March 1933 
translated by Ian Boyden