The Conditions of Empathy — Ai Weiwei Interview Part 5

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 5: The Conditions of Empathy


IB: I feel like you have some very specific goals, they just don’t fit in with more generally recognised aesthetic categories. I wonder if we could talk about an aesthetics of empathy or compassion. You know, in English we have three words — sympathy, empathy and compassion — that are similar but have important differences, and I don’t really know how to translate them into Chinese, maybe as 同情 tongqing, 同理心 tonglixin and 愛心 aixin or 悲憫 beimin respectively.

Ai Weiwei: In Chinese, we don’t differentiate these three words. They are all the same, traditionally tongqing 同情. It means you share feeling or emotion with another person. Sometimes it is very important to have words that are a little blurry. I see the difference, but it is not so important for me. Compassion is a little different, this term beimin 悲憫 has a Buddhist element to it. It has sadness in it, an acceptance of conditions — it’s a larger word that holds a human’s inner condition in how it relates to another’s life.

IB: Maybe the distinction isn’t that important, I thought perhaps this might help to clarify a goal within the murky realm of emotional vocabulary. I see you and your work as containing profoundly empathetic and compassionate qualities. Can you talk about your work in relationship to empathy or compassion?

Ai Weiwei: It’s like you are asking someone selling vegetables to talk to you about Vitamin B — I’d rather talk about vegetables. It’s like asking a high jumper to talk about gravity. 

IB: Okay, then let’s talk about something specific: the photograph of you posed as Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in 2015 on the beach of Lesbos. [NB: In 2016 Ai Weiwei gave an interview for India Today to draw attention to the refugee crisis unfolding on the beaches of Greece. During this interview, he posed for the photographer Rohit Chawla lying face down on the pebble beach in the same position as a drowned Syrian refugee child named Alan Kurdi. The photo, published in Indian Today on 1 February 2016, caused intense controversy in the art world, with many critics condemning Ai’s act as insensitive.] I saw this act as a spontaneous attempt to trigger empathy and compassion. Judging from the amount of criticism, that act certainly triggered something. 

Ai Weiwei: When I posed as Alan Kurdi, I did it very unconsciously. I just did it. There is no need to search for hidden meaning. For me, it was one of my daily acts. I didn’t see it as symbolic to put myself in that position. I wanted to put myself in that condition. I didn’t see why not. 

IB: Similar to your sitting alone in the abandoned lifeboat. 

Ai Weiwei: I grew up in the most restrictive society. We paid so much for any gesture or show of attitude. Then I came to the West, I went to the Lesbos beach where people are dying daily, and I posed as a single child. I was confused and surprised by so many people being against this act. I want to understand why they were against it. Humans are so fixed in their ways: when to sleep, when to eat, our educational systems that teach us what we can or can’t do, all these religious reasons and fake moral structures. I don’t understand why you would set yourself up to be afraid. 

On the Lesbos beach people are dying daily, not just Alan Kurdi. This criticism is so fake — a fake emotional condition they set up for one instance. Come on, thousands are dying. Maybe the one next to him was his brother. Maybe the way he was lying on the shore was different. But the media never showed his brother, stuck in the rocks just fifty meters away. Why don’t people talk about him? Why don’t they know his name? This kind of soap opera sentiment controls the mainstream mind and makes society the way it is today. Nobody cares, people only want their own emotions not to be affected, to not to be touched. They can still feel comfortable. They want to decide when they will shed tears.

IB: And yet you did this and there was an eruption of criticism.

Ai Weiwei: My response to this criticism is, ‘What the fuck? You want me to go do it again?’ But who cares about a single photograph, a single post, really? A single boat flips over and seven hundred people die. The media doesn’t care. A person drives a car into a few people in London and CNN covers it for a week; a boat flips over and complete silence. It is just so fake.

People are blind — they will never be enlightened beyond their own experience. You see many people visit Buddhist temples, but do you think they understand even a small sense of Buddhism? Do people understand anything about Buddhist philosophy? They love it, but don’t understand it. When they don’t love it, everybody abandons it. It is not that they abandon it because of the depth of their understanding; they have just become lazy and stupid. 

IB: I think we have a long history of willful ignorance. But throughout the world there is also a long history of taking the voice of the poet or artist seriously. One thing that frustrates me right now is that in the United States we have many strong poets and artists voicing extraordinary truths, but we don’t see the larger public embracing them, and throughout American history they have virtually been ignored by the political elite. Why do you think this is such a characteristic of American culture? 

Ai Weiwei: I can only talk about today. I don’t know the history. Today, people are overwhelmingly taken with materialism. As a result, the individual has become disassociated from the meaning of life and the concerns of humanity. I think this is one purpose of capitalism and it has been very successful in the United States. The capitalist system will not accept a life of abstract thinking in dealing with aesthetics. Reality is too strong in capitalism. It is about material possessions, money, power and status.

‘Salute’, by Ai Weiwei. Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio

IB: I’m intrigued by your statement, ‘Reality is too strong in capitalism.’ By that do you mean it overwhelms the development of self?

Ai Weiwei: A certain kind of reality. Capitalist-self reality is overwhelming. The understanding of the individual is not based on what you already have, but in competition with others. Everyone’s success is measured by or within this competition. The competition is not about humanity or thought. So we see in society, including in the media and in education, fewer and fewer people that think about the values of life itself. 

IB: This form of reality seems to foster a specific form of violence, the violence of indifference. The non-reaction of governments to the refugee crisis.

Ai Weiwei: The governments are not doing anything. It is like they started a fire and then shut the door and said, ‘You can’t come in here.’ You become a part of this violence against people who need shelter. That is very difficult for me to understand. How can this be? The only explanation is that we have lost our humanity. We don’t understand our establishment. We don’t understand that our civil governments are based on the basic understanding of fairness, justice and empathy toward another human being. So when these things are lost, even if we live in a democratic society, we are still isolated and scared. We understand that nobody is going to help us if something happens. That is really the biggest question of the day. Something is missing in capitalist societies, especially in those so-called democratic capitalist societies. I think this needs a lot more discussion. We have to always understand what is the human condition. What kind of society do we want to build besides so-called security and prosperity? Is it even possible for security and prosperity to continue without defending human rights and basic human conditions? 

IB: What roll do the arts play here? Do you think the arts can change human behavior from within? Can the arts change the way we view ourselves?

Ai Weiwei: No. It is impossible to lift yourself up by pulling on your own ears. [NB: an expression from the writer Lu Xun 魯迅] You need someone else to come and pull on your ears — that’s the only way it is possible. You know that intellectuals in the US are very corrupted. Not in a bad way, but they have no inner need to see beyond themselves and their own comfort.. Maybe this is not that moment. History has different moments and you might say that this is not that moment. Spiritual quality or aesthetics can overcome the public’s need for comfort. But this is not that moment. You can easily sit on the couch and watch television — you can sit there for hours, days, an entire life, or even an entire generation.

IB: Is there a moment in your life when you began to understand the importance of compassion and empathy?

Ai Weiwei: If I think back, I can think of moments that affected me. I was maybe six or seven years old. My mom saw a beggar, a woman, with her son. From her accent, my mom could tell the beggar was from the same region of Shandong she was from. She told the woman to wait a moment, then she turned to me and said, ‘Go give your jacket to that child. See how he is shaking. He has no jacket.’ That was a struggle. That was my jacket. If I gave it to him, I would have no jacket. But he was certainly shaking, so I gave it to him. We went home and I put on another layer. My mother steamed some mantou, some warm bread, and she gave it to me and told me to run and give it to the woman and her son. I saw how generous my mom was and this is so important to understand when you are young.

Actually, compassion is not something you can share with someone, but rather something you must define to protect your own dignity. I do these things not because I think I have something to share with someone, or I have pity on someone, but because if I don’t do these things then I would lose my own identity, I would become lesser of a person. I’m still selfish, but with a strong belief that I am no different from any other person. If I feel a certain way, then someone else might feel that same way too.

IB: There is a famous story of a previous life of the Buddha where he sees a mother tiger at the base of a cliff who is so weak she can’t feed her babies. He has a strong sense of empathy and compassion and he wants to help them. So he climbs to the top of the cliff and throws himself to the ground below to feed his own body to the babies. This story has been painted thousands of times. When I saw your photograph posing as Alan Kurdi, I thought of that story, and then as I looked at you lying there, I wondered, what exactly is it that is starving to death?

Ai Weiwei: In all of art and poetry, the works that I remember and cherish are works that try and protect humanity, they are works that try to protect humanity, to give humanity a different shape and color, to make us understand how precious humanity is.

In Chinese, we have the saying 虎毒不食子, meaning ‘the tiger is evil, but it won’t eat its own children‘. Everyone thinks the tiger is so crazy, but it would never eat its own children. But certain animals do eat their own children. We like to think that humans are a little better, that we have better rules. But really, we see that humans are not better, that humans kill other people’s children. People think Obama was so great, but he was not great in this regard. He was responsible for sending drones into Pakistan to kill people, resulting in the death of many children. 

I have no feeling for these kinds of people because what they did is not right. Their actions are devoid of compassion or sympathy. Who in the world is left, what leader is left, that champions compassion and sympathy? It appears to be the Dalai Lama. He has a larger scope of understanding of humanity. Rather than build up an enemy, or protect a special interest, he makes the argument that we must defend our love. 

How do you test your love? You measure it by how badly you kill others. If you don’t say you hate somebody, then that means you don’t love anybody. I think we are all basically the same. We simply lead with different emotions — love, hate, and so forth. We are like a tree that has the same roots. The branches reach out: some on the sunny side, some on the shaded side, some branches have leaves or fruit, some simply don’t have fruit. That is life. We are all on the same tree. If you talk about those emotions and you compare them to a tree, it is the ability to transform light and water into green. 

IB: I often feel there is a Buddhist element to your work. Perhaps the goal is to get people to listen to suffering.

Ai Weiwei: Not only the suffering, but also the joy. The joy in the suffering and the suffering in the joy. You can see that. I do not have a conscious spiritual or religious practice. People have told me that I am a living Buddha. This shouldn’t come as a surprise because if you constantly think about your expression, your condition, your nature, your so-called self, life and death — those were the fields the Buddha was engaged with. Suffering and sacrificing to find a right condition in the world within nature. The mental practice of the Buddhist is to penetrate the surface of reality, to penetrate reality itself.

IB: Penetrating reality, the immediacy of response, the spilling of blood — this is the realm of Chan Buddhists.

Ai Weiwei: I know very little about Chan. But I know that my thinking has a similarity with Chan. People often say, your artwork is so simple, you don’t know how to craft it. There was this Washington Post art critic, a very famous art critic, who criticised my show at the Hirshhorn. [NB: see Philip Kennicott, ‘Ai Weiwei’s new show at the Hirshhorn is self-satisfied, but not satisfying’, The Washington Post, 27 June 2017.] I exhibited Trace, consisting of 176 portraits of political prisoners made out of Legos. He said I needed ‘to make better art, more thoughtful art, art that isn’t consumed and exhausted in a single glance.’ But I so enjoyed this work because it is such a Buddhist piece. Buddhism has an interesting saying: When you first start to practice, you see that mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers. Then after a while you go into a very profound space and you that see mountains are not mountains, rivers are not rivers. But then you reach the highest stage and you say the mountain is a mountain and a river is a river. So I say to myself, I am on the highest stage. People who want to see art as something different from the reality, they are stuck in the second stage. Confucius says if a person knows one, then you can teach him two. But if he doesn’t know one, you cannot teach him three. That is an insult to his ability.

Buddhism was born with the water, the air, the sun, and I was born of the same conditions. Everyone is born in this condition. Maybe the similarity you see is a question of practice. You know, Buddhist monks often travel by themselves. There is this monk traveling on this cold, dark evening. He sees a little village far away in the distance and there is a single light shining. He walks and walks toward that light. He finds a house and inside there is a room with an old lady sitting there, reciting Om mani padme humOm mani padme hum…. He is amazed, the light he saw from so far away is coming from her mouth. But he listens carefully and hears that she is actually saying the words wrong, she’s saying O babi rabi hom…O babi rabi hom…. He says, ‘No, no, no, dear lady, there is something wrong there.’ She says, ‘What is it?’ He says, ‘It should be pronounced Om mani padme hum.’ She says, ‘Really?’ He says, ‘Yes, really.’ She says, ‘Oh, I’ve been doing it like this for years. I’m so sorry, so deeply, deeply sorry.’ She feels terrible that for so many years she had pronounced it wrong. She’s so grateful that this real Buddhist has told her the correct way. She treats him nicely and gives him some food. He says, ‘I have to go now.’ She goes back to reciting Om mani padme hum the right way. The monk walks off into the darkness and, after a while, stops and looks back. The village was completely dark.