In the Consequences of Poetry — Ai Weiwei Interview Part 1

Ian Boyden is an artist, writer, translator and curator whose work investigates the relationship between the self and the environment, in particular how art and writing can shape human ecology. His work reflects his abiding interest in material relevance and place-based thought, as well as an awareness of East Asian thought and aesthetics. He studied for many years in China and Japan, and holds degrees in art history from both Wesleyan University and Yale University.

In pursuing his interest in human rights and culture, Boyden has worked with Tsering Woeser (ཚེ་རིང་འོད་ཟེར་, 1966-) and Ai Weiwei (艾未未, 1957-). In September 2018, Boyden was awarded a 2019 Literature Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to translate Woeser’s poetry.

In addition to his solo projects, Boyden also collaborates with scientists, poets, composers and visual artists. He has exhibited widely, including a solo exhibition in China at the I.M Pei-designed Suzhou Museum. His books, paintings, and sculptures are found in public collections including Reed College, Stanford University, the Portland Art Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Twitter: @_IanBoyden

— China Heritage
20 October 2018




Ian Boyden


When I was nineteen, I taught myself Chinese by reading the poetry of Ai Qing in a bilingual edition that I carried in my backpack when traveling around China. The language was vivid, simple and direct. The causal relationships were clear, making the poems a kind of doorway into political realities of twentieth-century China, and into a mind born to a state of exile — internal and external. The poems I laboured over that year shaped my heart.

At that time, I didn’t know that Ai Qing had a son by the name of Weiwei. When I discovered Ai Weiwei’s work years later, it immediately appealed to my own art and my interests in the intersections of human ecology, art and political dissidence. I recognised both the play and gravity of a poet’s intellect at work. I still remember the moment I realised that he was the son of Ai Qing — suddenly, I saw a lineage of mind. This father and son reflect each other across time in profound ways: in championing humanity, in the seemingly unavoidable confrontation of the individual and the state, and in how the creative mind dares to confront brute power with words and art. Such minds extend beyond geographical and cultural boundaries. Whether in the sands of the Gobi Desert or a subterranean warehouse in Berlin, they are keenly aware of their present conditions, and insist that their actions have consequences.

Today, Ai Weiwei’s call for fundamental human dignity extends an enduring invitation to each of us. He stresses that the individual’s proper role is one of responsibility, often making lucid declarations of cause and effect. Ai Weiwei says, ‘If you don’t act, the danger becomes stronger.’

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.

My thanks to Darryl Leung, Press and Publications Manager at Ai Weiwei Studio, for his extensive help with this project. My appreciation to Jennifer Boyden and Michelle Piranio for their advice and editorial prowess. And my gratitude to Geremie Barmé for providing a home for this interview.

October 2018

Not Yet Not Yet Complete
An Interview with Ai Weiwei

Part 1: In the Consequences of Poetry


Ian Boyden: I’d like to talk about your life and work through the lens of the poetic mind. In the West very few people understand how consequential your father, Ai Qing (艾青, 1910-1996), was as a poet and political figure. And because of this, I think many people fail to comprehend some of the extraordinary ways you have extended his fierce individualism and poetic sensibilities.

You rather famously said you see no boundary between art and politics. In your essay On Poetry, you wrote: ‘My father was punished for being a poet, and I grew up in its consequences.’ That punishment was political, it silenced one of China’s greatest poets for over twenty years. By ‘consequences’ do you mean those of poetry, of political conditions, of the specific conditions of your father’s punishment?

Ai Weiwei: Poetry and politics are one. I don’t think we can separate poetry from the human condition and the political process, from struggle and individual fate.

IB: Individual fate?

Ai Weiwei: My father is a perfect example. The moment he was born, he caused his mother difficulty. The birth was terrible, it took two days. At that time, such a birth was extremely dangerous and painful for his mother, dangerous for the whole family. It left a permanent scar on my father’s life. As part of the social custom of his parents’ hometown in Zhejiang province, they brought in a fortune-teller. This person said, ‘When this child grows up, he will be difficult; his fate is to contradict his parents.’

What do you do? According to custom, the only solution was for his parents to give this child to someone else — he must not to be raised by his parents. His father was a landlord, he was literate and very well-off. My father was his first son. As the oldest, he was supposed to inherit everything. They had to believe in this superstitious prediction. They couldn’t just give him to anybody; they had to give him to the poorest woman in the village to raise. She already had five children, so it presented a terrible hardship to her. My father was born into a fatalistic society.

IB: Did he accept this fatalism? 

Ai Weiwei: It was not about accepting or not accepting. He didn’t want to come to this world. So the very moment he arrived, he was doomed. It was not a gradual becoming. It was his fate. This is how I understand myself. I tell people that I did not become radical — I was born radical. I am part of something larger. I am a branch of a tree. I cannot say I became a branch. I am a natural part of that tree’s growth, there is no personal effort.

Ai Weiwei and Ai Qing, 1958. Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio

IB: Returning to this idea of your growing up in the consequences of poetry, your description of your seemingly pre-ordained self is that of a form of natural growth, it is like it is part of the landscape.

Ai Weiwei: Yesterday, we both saw this exhibition of Chinese self-portrait paintings. These Chinese poets and intellectuals placed their likeness in the landscape. They drew their faces and bodies like the way they drew the trees or rocks, using the same brushstrokes and the same ideas informing both themselves and the landscape. It is hard to tell if the painting is the consequence of his understanding, or if the way he is painting his portrait is the consequence of being a part of nature. 

IB: When you read ancient Chinese poets, sometimes it is like you’ve encountered a pool of limpid language in the landscape that is reflecting the landscape itself through the poet’s, something incredibly clear that the world organises around, but which is still part of the environment itself.

Ai Weiwei: Poets are the most unique consequence of any given time. The poet is like a mineral, a product of all the pressure and heat in their environment. The poet is like a piece of jade, a stone in the landscape. Such a rare thing is hard to describe. It is impossible to replicate the conditions. It is very hard to say how it forms on its own. The poet is clearly different from the wider surroundings, but is also clearly a product of it. You cannot take the poet out of the surroundings or the poet loses its context, it loses its meaning. This is why I think the poet is like a mineral. Historically, poetry is more like a piece of jade. It reflects its time and it reflects the highest human behavior that takes solid form.

Have you ever seen them mine jade? There are two rivers, the White Jade River and the Black Jade River that evaporate in the Taklamakan Desert. The jade as a stone comes down through the ages, millions of years, rolling, rolling, rolling, until it reaches one of these rivers. The stone falls asleep in the bed of the river. Sleeping there in the bed of the river, the river washes it for thousands of years, polishing it until it becomes this beautiful egg-like stone. Then someone picks it up and crafts it. This carver pours into this stone their best understanding of nature.

You know, when I lived in Xinjiang I never once saw a piece of jade. I lived in Xinjiang for twelve years, but I rarely saw a Uyghur person, I rarely ate lamb, and I never saw a piece of jade. I lived in the very heart of this area, but was the most distant from it. That was my condition.

IB: That seems to be the characteristic of the bingtuan labor camps [兵團, that is, Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps], to create a Chinese logic in a non-Chinese area. It is as if the logic is to separate you from the local environment and its culture and insist on the supremacy of something distant and theoretical.

Ai Weiwei: Yes. Isolated. It was isolated. It was so distant from Beijing. Shihezi 石河子 is a location for military replacement. After 1949, China had a policy to send retired soldiers to settlements in these very remote territories so that when war came they could have some sort of presence and they could fight. When war was not there, they farmed. They used this presence to control the region’s ethnic groups. They planted a Han population there. Today, the government is still doing the same thing.

We were sent there in 1959. My family situation there was such that I could not find a way to adjust so as to form a relationship with that location. When you are always seen as an outsider, you see yourself as an outsider. My father’s poetry has nothing to do with any kind of language or reflection of that place. And so there was no sense of a relationship. It is comparable with the refugees who have traveled to another nation. You can clearly see that you have been relocated. Maybe you have a piece of furniture, a potted plant, or a book you like. Everything else is unfamiliar.

IB: What was your house like?

Ai Weiwei: We lived underground. It was a bunker. It was covered with logs and dirt, and there were bushes on top. Someone had decided that this would be my father’s punishment, that he would live below the people. There were a total of two hundred families and we were the only ones who lived underground. When I walked into my house, it would be totally dark. The floor was dirt. The walls were dirt. Because of moisture, this white crystal would form on the surface of the walls. Someone covered the walls with paper and wheat paste. But the mice liked to eat the paste and they would dig behind the paper. All night you would hear this incessant scratching on the walls. It was my job to catch the mice. I would dig a hole in the floor next to the wall and place a small bucket in it. The mice would run along and fall into the bucket. Every night I would catch several mice.

Several years later, I went back. The house had disappeared. I found out that, after we left, they put a bunch of pigs in the house. The house collapsed a few years later.

IB: Now your studio in Berlin is underground…

Ai Weiwei: Yes, I am comfortable underground. I like it. It makes me look at the world differently. I think the physical condition is also important.

IB: In your father’s essay on the Tianshan Mountains [懷念天山], he’s in an airplane flying back to China from Europe. He asks the flight attendant to please let him know when the plane flies over Xinjiang. I was struck by his manner of speaking. I guess I was expecting some form of condemnation of the powers that put him there, some form of remorse. Instead, there he was in a plane with his face pressed up against the window, looking down onto these mountains where he was banished, and reveling in how these mountains were an inspiration for ancient poets.

Ai Weiwei: You know what I learned? My father, as a poet, really treasured what he treasured deeply. Even though it may have been something small, that small bit was his whole world. He lived a very complete world. In his life, it didn’t matter whether other people thought his life was good or bad. He never lacked anything in his whole life.

IB: How do you think he came to have a heart like that? And how did he pass that quality along to you?

Ai Weiwei: When I look at my father’s world, life couldn’t be more dramatic or difficult for this poet. But at the same time, he tried to survive and not be victimised, not consciously even, it was just his nature to survive his punishment. He was full of love and he strove to have a better perspective than the people who punished him. I think this allowed him to survive. Optimism is a word commonly used, but he was not optimistic.

Poets transform their inner nature. They create a different kind of weather conditions around themselves, a different form of reality. After a great storm, the poet’s world doesn’t dry in the same way nature dries. They create their own conditions.

IB: By creating his own conditions he was able to draw his own nourishment even within a bleak environment.

Ai Weiwei: Yes. Or simply survive. By any measurement he should have committed suicide. He tried three times — he told me nothing wanted to take him. He said he failed.

IB: So heartbreaking. I never knew that. When you speak of weather conditions of the poet, it seems you’re describing a deep awareness of the dynamic self — the weather is always changing. In your father’s essay on Tianshan he wrote:

‘But no matter where I was, as long as it was a clear day, I would always look to the south to find the mountain’s shadowy outline. Sometimes it mixed with white clouds rolling there, and I could hardly tell what was cloud and what was snowy peak. And on days when there wasn’t a cloud for a thousand miles, it appeared as though it were floating in the air, and I thought it faintly revealed to me a good-natured smile.’

Ai Weiwei: I remember moments like this. He always looked at this mountain, maybe 100 kilometers away. It was white and always covered with snow. He would say: shengzai tianshan xia, tiantian kan tianshan [生在天山下, 天天看天山] — ‘living at the base of Tianshan, every day you see Tianshan’. You can see his delight in this line.

That delight is so important. It didn’t matter what people said about him, he always had a good nature. Whatever you see reflects who you are. We are in this world filled with millions of things, but we only see some of them. There he is, my father, and what he likes — what is important to him — is what he sees. Those things he sees, well, that’s him. How else do you describe a person?

IB: He saw this mountain smiling at him in the changing weather. What did you see when you looked at your father when he was looking at Tianshan?

Ai Weiwei: You know, this man had been up and down his whole life. He spent his entire life as a refugee. His family abandoned him. He went to Paris. He was imprisoned upon his return. Then his nation was invaded by the Japanese and, as a consequence, he had to travel to eleven different provinces in China — like traveling all of Europe — just trying to escape the bombing. All he wanted was to find a job as a teacher or as an editor. But during wartime, wherever he found work would close within a month. The Sino-Japanese war was like a serial war, it kept moving through different parts of the country. In 1941, he moved to Yan’an and became an influential voice of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao hailed him as a poet of the revolution. But after a few years they had a disagreement. He was then branded as a Rightist and as punishment was sent to the most remote area of the country.

What did he do there? They made him clean the most primitive outhouse. Every day after school, I would see my father from far away. He carried a shovel and an iron bar that he would use to break the ice. In the winter it was often less than thirty degrees below zero. People would pee and it would become a pagoda. He would take the iron bar and try and smash it. But it was so cold, the iron bar would just leave a white dot on the ice pagoda. He was working so hard that steam would come out from his head. He wore an old military jacket and when he came home it would be soaking wet. My mom would wring it out and his sweat would stream out still steaming.

This man was amazing. He would make everything precisely clean — much cleaner than my studio.

IB: Heidegger has a beautiful statement to the effect that we don’t live in a place but rather we live in our relationship to place. How we generate that relationship and how we become aware of it seems to me of utmost importance. In a sense this relationship is who we are, and that important kernel of who we are is a form of ecology, and we carry it wherever we go. What is that something in your heart that makes you look at things differently?

Ai Weiwei: My heart is not very physical. I don’t really like nature. Nature was so harsh when I grew up. Nature is so indifferent. It does not have any sense of justice. In my heart, if there is going to be something green, it would have to be something to do with the human condition.

When I was young, I saw how harsh nature could be toward myself, toward my father. It’s unthinkable. You were always just close to death. There was no sympathy, no sense of right or wrong, or sense of truth. And, of course, there was no sense of dignity. When you lack all of those things, life becomes so harsh. As a living creature, you need a sense of identity. Even if you are a beggar you have to tell yourself you are a beggar. You simply cannot live in a condition of being misinterpreted, having people misjudge you. This puts you in a constantly tragic condition because your identity is simply not there. You are in your home and others want you dead. You think, how will I become someone? So that kind of struggle can be quite human. Basically, we can love and hate only because we are human. We can clearly define our emotions through what we can sense and what we think reflects our inner need. Even our hope and our imagination have to do with our inner associations. When those things have been cut off, you have been totally denied in every direction — you’re still alive, but you’re not existing. You are existing in a nonexistent condition. The bleak conditions of that village is what makes me see things differently.

IB: For you, the wilderness of Xinjiang stretches out as an inhumane space.

Ai Weiwei: I am so grateful that when I was growing up, when I was very young, I saw that disconnection with humanity. In the Gobi Desert there is nothing growing, for thousands and millions of years it has remained this quiet space. Much, much longer before that, it was an ocean. It is unthinkable.

IB: I think a great challenge to our humanity is for it to encompass the wilderness, just as it is a challenge to see that the person and the environment are one. Did the wilderness of Xinjiang shape your spirituality, or leave a mark on your internal self?

Ai Weiwei: I have no spirituality. In fact, I may not have an internal self. I am flat. I can’t contain anything. I may just be a piece of paper. But Xinjiang left some marks on this piece of paper, these strong scratches. These marks are clear evidence of the impact of that environment.

IB: So you visualise yourself as a piece of paper?

Ai Weiwei: I am an unidentified surface within a total flatness.

End of Part I