Ai Weiwei: ‘No matter how I fantasise and struggle, truth still determines my behaviour’
As a new exhibition, Ai Weiwei: Making Sense, opens at the Design Museum in London, we invited the Chinese artist to respond to questions about authenticity, creativity, controversy — and Lego
Ai Weiwei’s life and art can be seen as one long rallying cry for creative freedom. Born in China in 1957, the son of the poet Ai Qing, he is arguably the most famous artist in the world and certainly China’s best-known dissident. Ai first came to prominence in 1995 with the provocative photographic triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) in which he let a 2,000-year-old artefact fall from his hands and shatter into pieces. ‘I just thought, why not?’ he says in the interview below.
Ai’s artworks include Duchampian readymades, sculptures, installations and photography, and all reveal an artist with a clear, courageous vision and a keen attention to the past and the meaning of the materials he uses.
In 1993, Ai began collecting ancient Chinese objects as a way of learning about his country’s past before the Cultural Revolution. He says that exploring these artefacts, ranging from Stone Age tools found in the Yellow River region to porcelain cannonballs from between the Tang and Song dynasties, is essential to understanding ‘an integral part of human culture’.
These objects will feature in the artist’s new exhibition, Ai Weiwei: Making Sense, which charts the history of design from the Neolithic era to the present day. Opening on 7 April 2023 at the Design Museum in London, the show also includes new forms created out of centuries-old materials, such as a stone iPhone and a white takeaway box carved out of marble from the Dashiwo quarry, which was used to build the Forbidden City. The results are aesthetically complex, the physical weight of the material appearing at odds with the objects’ disposable nature. Each object offers an insight into the values of the time, says Ai, ‘reflecting our living conditions under the prevailing power structures of the era, be they political or cultural’.
Your exhibition Making Sense tells the story of design through the ages. Where did you start?
Ai Weiwei: Most of the artworks come from China, where I used to live. They include tools dating back to the Neolithic era, such as axes, scythes, knives and burins, and Stone Age tools found in the Yellow River region from the Yangshao culture. I returned to Beijing from New York in 1993, and since then I have been continuously researching and collecting Chinese ancient objects.
You have said that you learned about China’s history through the objects you found in antiques markets after the Cultural Revolution.
AW: My fundamental belief is that this material culture across the various Chinese dynasties is essential to understanding the history of ideas, aesthetics and craftsmanship of China, which is an integral part of human culture.
For example, the porcelain cannonballs in the exhibition are from between the Tang and the Song dynasties, made in the Xing kilns in Hebei province. They were used in wars and are almost perfect spheres, handcrafted through dozens of painstaking steps, which is difficult for us to understand from today’s perspective.
Wittgenstein wrote that ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world’. Your practice encompasses so many aspects of artistic creativity — do you feel similarly about art?
AW: I like this quote by Wittgenstein very much, as it conveys multiple meanings. One way of understanding it is that the language we use, be it artistic, design-oriented or textual, is inherently limited. Despite this limitation, language remains the primary tool that humans use to exchange thoughts and emotions.
As humans, we must acknowledge that our language imposes significant constraints. These limitations form the basic foundation of what we call creativity. Without constraints, many of the values we hold dear, such as creativity, freedom and resistance, would not exist. Recognising the existence of these limits and striving to transcend them is a vital endeavour in the fields of design and culture.
In the past you have exhibited fake artefacts. Do you see a difference in the way authenticity is valued in China as opposed to the West, where there is considerable anxiety on the subject?
AW: In the long history of human beings, the definition of what is ‘real’ has diverged. For example, in religious societies and Totemism, the supernatural existence of gods and spirituality were considered real. Today, however, ‘real’ is usually understood as a materialised concept that can be estimated, quantified and ascertained.
Everyone’s interpretation of history, or understanding of what information is true, can create a very different picture. The notion of ‘real’ only exists through people’s regathering, editing and verifying process. What we consider as real is merely some fragments that people recognise and acknowledge.
Cultural products such as porcelain works, paintings and other kinds of artworks are valued as ‘authentic’ in the Western context when they are the first to appear, but if we bind the value of art solely to authenticity, it could lead to problems.
For instance, the value of the paintings of Van Gogh and Gustav Klimt does not depend on their originality; both of them are influenced by Japanese prints. Scientific verification using carbon-14 only provides evidence of authenticity but cannot explain the value and concepts of originality and what is ‘real’.
In Chinese history, it is challenging to determine if a painting or piece of calligraphy was created by the original artist or one of their admirers, or whether it was ‘forged’ by following generations. Sometimes, the effort put into forgery could become some kind of ‘real’ that can even surpass the value of the original work. This happens a lot in Chinese history.
A collector accidentally smashed a small Jeff Koons balloon dog at an art fair recently, and another collector immediately offered to buy the shattered remains. How did you feel about this?
AW: I did not know about this incident, so cannot make any comment on that, but it reminds me of a coloured ceramic artwork of mine that was deliberately smashed by an artist in a museum.
What I can say is that the value of such acts and behaviours is determined by people, so it is difficult to say that it is not an artistic act. Whether it breaks any law is another question. Regardless, all these behaviours make us think about the interplay between value and power.
You famously smashed a Han dynasty urn. In Buddhist thought, such destruction could be seen as a continuity: evolution and destruction becoming an instrument of realisation. Would you agree?
AW: The artwork’s Chinese title is ‘失手’ (a slip). When I did it, I did not give much thought to it. I just thought, why not? The idea of ‘why not’ can be somewhat dangerous and lead to an unpopular and perhaps a confrontational and controversial act.
In fact, the thoughts that this act triggered were not necessarily what I expected. But the happening itself is very important, especially because it falls outside the boundaries of routine and norms. That is usually an important element in the raison d’être of an artwork.
Your exhibition features a recreation of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies in Lego. What is it you like about Lego as a material?
AW: Instead of simply liking Lego as a material, it is rather that I like the ability to use a material, even though it is a toy for children, to create an artwork. The limitations imposed by these toy bricks, such as the fact that they only have about 40 colours, make the game a possibility.
I feel like a person with physical limitations attempting to execute a complicated set of gestures. This is a challenge for me.
At the same time, it is fun, because it is only under these circumstances that magic appears. Using Lego, I can merge my personal experience and thoughts on aesthetics and socio-political issues, and make it a playful act that is at the same time a very formal and cold expression, and something transcendental.
It also directly speaks to our information age, internet culture, and the digital pixels surrounding us, besides approximating the Graeco-Roman era’s use of mosaic.
Václav Havel used the term ‘living in truth’ to describe how totalitarian states can be defied by the individual. Do you see yourself as living in truth?
AW: I never thought that I could ‘live in truth’, but I always thought that truth encompasses inner truth and cosmic patterns. Truth is like gravity; I can hardly imagine how I can surpass it and exist without it. No matter how I fantasise and struggle, it still determines my behaviour.
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What do you hope this exhibition will reveal about the human condition?
AW: Today, humanity is undoubtedly facing its greatest potential for major crises. These crises are rooted in our understanding of ourselves, our perception of life, and our ability to coexist with the world around us in a harmonious manner.
Humankind has never been so confused or lacked such contemplation of our own value. My efforts are centred on leaving a personal trace of action, a tangible mark of my movement.
Ai Weiwei: Making Sense runs from 7 April to 30 July 2023 at the Design Museum in London