“My duty is not to politicise but to humanise”
Ai Weiwei has turned his piercing gaze on Europe. He has been a nomad for the past six months, away from his native China since the Chinese authorities returned his passport in July 2015 after a four-year restriction. His story is almost mythological by now, having sparked international outcry and propelled Ai, the dissident Chinese conceptual artist, to global fame. He is admired for his political outspokenness, for his investment in issues surrounding human rights and freedom of speech, and for the sheer beauty of the artworks that illustrate these commitments. His work melds traditional Chinese craft with contemporary political messages, often using reclaimed materials such as ancient pottery, wood from destroyed temples, marble or jade to comment on modern-day conditions in his homeland, uniting the old China with the new. Today, however, he casts his attention further afield. Michael Frahm, director of the Blenheim Art Foundation, catches up with him on a spring morning in his new Berlin studio, in the run-up to the opening of Ai's exhibition at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, which they have organised together. They discuss the artist's prolific practice, his new-found freedom, and his blossoming relationship with Europe, far from the Red Dragon of China which has so far defined him. he was insulted and humiliated in every way. My father was exiled and so we lived with him in a round house in a remote area near the Gobi Desert. He had to clean public toilets for many years – it was a scandal and a punishment, both mentally and physically. I grew up with this but I didn't recognise the effect it had on me until years later. It's like gravity, a force that you are not necessarily aware of.
Do you see yourself as having a duty to politicise the art world? My duty is not to politicise but to humanise through my artworks. Politics is part of our lives. You may be unaware of it, but it's there in every individual and aesthetic judgement, every cultural movement and decision, every aspect of our lives, overtly or otherwise. I've spent quite some time in China, so I'm very aware of the importance of human rights and freedom of speech. These are essential values for anyone who wants to express feelings or ideas.
Do you think that your work is having a transformative effect, either in China or abroad? It's hard to evaluate the effect of art, no matter which artist or movement you're talking about. But I can say that my work affects my own life. I believe in what I'm doing and I'm fascinated by what happens through my practice. Through the internet we can find other people who share that fascination, who say, "That's an interesting effort you have made." That's enough for an artist to keep moving forward: the knowledge that what you are doing is important to yourself and that someone else might share in it.
The last exhibition of yours I saw was at the Bon Marché department store in Paris in early 2016. It was called Er Xi, Air de jeux. As the title suggests, it was more playful and lighthearted than much of your other work dealing with your native country, although it still celebrated traditional Chinese culture and mythology. Are you nostalgic for a China you never knew? We are here only for a moment, our lives are no more than a fragment of human history. There were people long before us and life will continue, although I don't know for how long. So it's always fascinating to look back at other times and places, at what people did, how they handled their emotions, fantasies and fears, and the symbolic language they used to illustrate their state of mind. I often look back to see what was done in the past and how ideas and images relate to our own time. It's not nostalgia but rather using history as a ready-made and reinterpreting it within a contemporary context.
You now have an exhibition open at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, displaying your most canonical works alongside artefacts from Ancient Greek and Cycladic culture. This exhibition puts emphasis on two materials ubiquitous in both the Grecian and Cycladic artistic traditions and in your own oeuvre: wood and marble. Could you talk a little about the significance of the materials you return to repeatedly throughout your career? It is my fascination with the past that inspires me to use wood and marble in my work. Throughout the history of civilisation, both western and ancient Chinese craftsmen have employed wood and stone. Sourced from nature, these materials have strong personalities and their textures and shapes instil emotions that resonate with human sensibilities. Skilfully manipulated, wood and stone can illustrate concepts that elucidate contemporary issues.