If you mention Ai Weiwei in the UK, you’ll most likely evoke an image of the floor of the Tate modern covered with millions of handcrafted porcelain seeds. However, 2010’s highly publicised and well- trafficked Sunflower Seeds is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Chinese visual artist and documentary maker’s work. Weiwei’s creations range from performance art (most famously 1995’s controversial Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn) to jade sculptures to irreverent murals crafted alongside his young son. He is obsessively preoccupied by the boundaries of what we classify as art, incorporating social media into his work and recurrently displaying objets trouvés under his own name. Weiwei is highly political and has emerged as one of today’s most prominent critics of human rights abuses in China. Magdalena Gabrysiak, our Head of Print Editorial, sat down with the Cambridge- based artist to talk all things art and politics.
Why do you create art?
I don’t know. Sometimes I do it because I’m bored, sometimes because I’m feeling ridiculous. I wasn’t thinking any profound meaning when doing this.
The work itself says more than I can explain about it.
What’s your favourite colour and why?
It’s not an exaggeration to say that I don’t like any colour. [Laughter]
I like black and white. Those are obviously very different, but other colours are slightly too aesthetic for me.
What is the most important thing in life?
To eat and sleep well, because if you don’t do that, that’s horrible.
As an artist who creates both political documentaries and creative visual art, do you think that there is something concrete that separates politically engaged art from other forms of creativity, or is all art political by default?
All art and all human expression is political. As the Greek philosopher said: ‘all men are political animals, all human beings are political animals. The moment someone exists as a part of the human society, they must have a relationship with another, and they become part of this global family in which all aesthetic judgement and endeavour are political. There is no thinking which can escape that. Even to be privately sad and reluctant to express an opinion is in itself political.
What does it mean then when an artist says that their art is NOT political or that they don’t want their art to be political?
That is just a political statement. It is just impossible to see art as not political. This kind of long-term bourgeois tradition of saying ‘art for art’s sake’ always makes me think: why do art anyway?
Increased Anti-Asian racism in both Britain and America ,particularly post-covid, is very troubling. How can criticism of the Chinese government and its human rights abuses avoid fuelling this kind of racism in the West. How does your art reflect on this issue, or do you at all wish to reflect on it?
I would say that racism exists in every society. Discrimination is everywhere and it’s not going to end, so that’s my answer.
But the question is whether political art, which in your case criticises the Chinese government, fuels such discriminatory sentiments towards Asians?
That can be a trap because human rights issues are very broad, it’s not just about one race, I already answered earlier it is a very broad issue.
Do you think that there are any limits to art as an agent of political, or social change, or none?
There is no limit.
No limit to what art can do politically?
No, I meant that there is no limit to imagination and creativity, but what they can achieve is a political category. I think art can achieve a lot, but it can also achieve nothing. For me, it achieves everything, but I don’t know whether that is the same for the person who receives it. I doubt it can achieve much besides benefitting me. I guess I’m a very selfish person.
One of your most famous works, the Sunflower Seeds, has been widely received as a commentary on the dire effects of consumerist culture. However, several portions of the seeds have been sold off at auctions all around the world, thus becoming implicated in that consumerist culture. As an artist, how do you reconcile your intentions when you are creating a piece with the way its afterlife might contradict, or undermine those intentions?
Art is the activity of a human beyond a consuming society. If you consider pre-historic rock paintings, those were created before money ever existed, before trade ever came to be. If you look at jewellery, which men created for their lovers years before it could be sold. Unfortunately, today trading and the monetary, commercial world have become a major factors in measuring value. Humans have become much shallower and more narrow-minded. Ironically, all the so-called good works of art, the ones that ridicule and criticize us have the highest prize. So, that’s my answer, but I don’t think it’s contradictory because those are two very different field, art is not made for the market.
But there is an art market.
But most people do not make art FOR a market. Ultimately, I can only speak for myself and I never put my works up for auction.
On the walk over here [to the exhibition] I asked you what do you think is not art, and you said that there is no such thing, so now I wanted to ask: if there is no such thing as not art, what is an artist?
An artist is someone who consciously thinks that their behaviours and acts can be called art, someone who has developed a clear language and definition of art. The challenge is that, for me, everybody can be an artist at any moment.
Interview by Magdalena Gabrysiak, Introduction by Rosa Phelps, Questions written by both, Illustration by Helena Cozzarini