Artists Interview China

The world’s most visible invisible artist

Ai Weiwei can't travel, but his art and message can

The artist in Beijing. Photo: AP Photo/Andy Wong

When Ai Weiwei was arrested by Chinese police on 3 April 2011 he was an artist at the top of his game. His Sunflower Seeds, 2010, an installation of millions of individually crafted and hand painted porcelain seeds, was then on display at the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London, and his ongoing investigations into the shoddy construction that led to the deaths of over 5,000 schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake was gaining attention far beyond the narrow confines of the art world.

By the time he was released 81 days later, Ai Weiwei was a global household name, the only artist of our time who has successfully merged his art with his activism and is able to use his reputation to bring widespread attention to the causes he cares about. Today, as his major travelling retrospective, “According to What?” opens at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), he remains at home in Beijing, unable to leave China, but his voice is louder than ever. We interviewed him by email.

The Art Newspaper: Can you tell us about the new works included in your exhibition at PAMM?

Ai Weiwei: Marble Rebar, 2012, is related to the Sichuan earthquake of 12 May 2008. Many schools collapsed due to corrupted, sub-par “tofu-dreg” construction, and thousands of children perished in the disaster as a result. We managed to obtain the rebars [steel rods used to reinforce concrete] from campus sites, and the work is an exact copy of a twisted original. Stacked, 2012, is a new work made with bicycles; it is displayed in the US for the first time in Miami. It is related to my childhood experience and our public life in China today. Bicycles, not cars, represent the lives of millions of people. Jade Handcuffs was made after my detention. I was placing my personal experience within the realm of classic Chinese art and craftsmanship. The work was a copy of the handcuffs that were used on me during my detention.

By using jade, a traditional Chinese material, you are recalling an ancient artistic heritage while at the same time referring to the repressive nature of the current political system. Are you accusing the current regime of subverting China’s great heritage?

China has a long history of art-making, a profound appreciation for materials, and a deep understanding of the aesthetic values and the quality of objects that are made. As a Chinese person and as an artist, it is an interest of mine to collect ancient art and appreciate its craftsmanship. By contrast, by maintaining a so-called social harmony by oppressing people’s opinions of art and social change, China today is a culture that has lost its vision and its ability to rethink its own past.

Do you think the themes you explore in your work will have a particular resonance in Miami where there are large immigrant communities, from places such as Cuba, who may have fled repressive regimes back home?

Yes, I think the people in Miami, with the diversity of their cultural backgrounds, will have a special angle looking at the works, and at the fact that I am an artist living under state surveillance with no access to basic human rights, such as the right to travel and to attend events for cultural exchange.

Many of your works are also for sale this week at Art Basel Miami Beach. Does it matter to you who buys your works or where they end up?

It does matter to me where the works end up. However, in the art world today, the concern is almost limited to just a thought. The market is a free economy, so the transactions in buying, selling, and collecting often depend on the participation of many people with different logics and purposes from the work itself. In any case, the acts of buying, selling and collecting often protect the integrity of a work and promote its significance. Otherwise, the work may never be noticed.

Your displays at the Venice Biennale this year were widely acclaimed. Can you tell us where S.A.C.R.E.D, 2013, consisting of porcelain tableaux of your life in detention, will be seen next?

S.A.C.R.E.D. will go to the Brooklyn Museum as part of “According to What?” [18 April-10 August 2014], and I’m very happy to show it publicly in New York.

The Belgian artist Wim Delvoye has said that you are very lucky because you have a great subject to explore in your art: China. Do you consider yourself lucky to be Chinese, to be politically inclined, and to therefore have a wide pool of potential themes to explore in your work?

I don’t ever feel lucky as a Chinese person, but I am lucky to be independent, which could be [true of] anyone of any cultural background. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to speak clearly for people who are less fortunate with their own voices. I feel privileged to be able to integrate art with my political views and social change, because we are living in a world where art inevitably carries the weight of human struggle. This is a historical moment for China, in which we are experiencing dramatic social and political changes. I feel privileged to be able to take part in the challenges [here], relate my work and activities to one-fifth of the world’s human population, and help improve the conditions of their lives by supporting and protecting the freedom of speech and expression.

You have said that it is the responsibility of artists to deal with political subjects in their work. Do you still believe this to be true?

We are living under complex political conditions. Our values, judgement, and almost all details of our lives shift shape quickly and face drastic changes every day. Any means to express our deepest and private feelings will inevitably relate to a clear political choice. Willingly or reluctantly, consciously or intuitively, our actions and expressions will always be tied to our aesthetic, moral, and philosophical judgments, and are somehow political.

Do you think this is a particular responsibility of artists in China or does it apply to artists everywhere, including those in the US?

A new art must relate to a new society, benefiting its young people and the future, which will certainly be different from the past. It is therefore essential that art challenges the old society, as well as the old ways of expressions, languages and vocabularies. It does not apply only to artists in China, but to artists everywhere.

When you were in prison Anish Kapoor cancelled plans to show his sculptures at the National Museum of China in Beijing in solidarity. Did you appreciate this gesture?

When I came out of detention, the first most touching thing I heard was about the support that poured in from all over the world. It did not come only from art institutions, but also from individual artists like Anish Kapoor, who made a great personal effort to identify with and protect the freedom of speech. I think it was a heroic act, and its value and significance cannot be underestimated. The actions really pushed society to rethink what we care or love about culture. They reflect the values that can build a more civilised society and encourage individuals to take action. There are also many other artists, such as Olafur Eliasson, Luc Tuymans, and [the singer] Elton John, who showed that they are standing on the frontline. I don’t know all of them very well, but none of them hesitated in protecting the essential values of human rights.

Do you know if, or when, you may be allowed to leave China?

Symbolically I’m very restricted in terms of freedom to travel. When I say symbolically, I mean there is no clear reason or explanation for the limits imposed, and they refuse any communication about the issue.

Are you optimistic for the future of your country?

I am optimistic for the young people of every country. I think they live in a society that is better than ever, with technologies that provide more freedom than any previous generations.

Ai Weiwei at Art Basel Miami Beach

• Lisson Gallery (J1) is offering a new installation of 12 stacked bicycles (Bicycles, 2013) and a version of Jade Handcuffs, an artistic rendering of the manacles used on the artist when he was detained by Chinese police.

• A new bicycle construction, Forever (Stainless Steel Bicycles in Gilding) 3 Pairs, 2013, (edition of two, plus two artists’ proofs), is also on the stand of Galerie Urs Meile (A17). This version is gilded and on offer for €200,000.

• Mary Boone Gallery (D9) has a range of works by the artist including: Colored Vases, 2010, an installation of 12 Han Dynasty vessels painted in bright colours; Untitled, 2010 (pictured), a ball made out of the huali wood that was used by the Ming and early Qing dynasties to construct high-quality furniture, and Stool, a 2012 installation of two wooden stools fused together.

• Neugerriemschneider (C15) is showing a new set of four vases, Colored Vases (BMW), 2013 (pictured), which Ai Weiwei has painted with the lacquer that BMW uses for its cars, a comment on the increasing number of vehicles, many made by foreign companies, on China’s streets.

More from The Art Newspaper


6 Dec 13
1:15 CET


Is the number of bicycles (760) symbolic or is it only adapted to the space available at the Perez Museum?

Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.


Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email


Share this