AI WEIWEI with Phong Bui

Installation view: Ai Weiwei 2016: Roots and Branches. Tree with The Animal That Looks Like a Llama but is Really an Alpaca wallpaper. Mary Boone Gallery, 541 West 24th Street, New York. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

In 2008, Alanna Heiss, the late Won-il Rhee, and I were envisioning an immersive and full installation using all the available space in the three floors and basement of PS1, even the courtyard and rooftop, for what was to be a comprehensive survey of contemporary Asian art called Spectacle. At our presentation before MoMA’s senior staff, we proposed that “spectacle” was a prevailing feature these artists seemed to share. Many made assertive use of repetition, and the unheralded monumental scale of the image. Many also employed unconventional methods and techniques of either combining found and readymade objects or fabricating industrial materials. Their works tended to explore the social and political contexts of daily lives that intersect with technology and environmental concerns. The work of Ai Weiwei, perhaps more than that of other artists of his generation, was the central focus of our thesis.

In tracing Weiwei’s complex and prolific career since mid-1995, we all felt his work embodied breadth and ambition, which compelled questions regarding social and political issues including the legacy of the long rule of China’s communist party. The undeniable scale and world-wide visibility of his work has sparked expressions of freedom and safeguarded individual expression to such degree that, whatever the differences in ideology between capitalism and communism are, China is straddling to maintain this precarious balance between old traditional values and the new consumer culture.

On the occasion of his four exhibits, Ai Weiwei 2016: Roots and Branches at Mary Boone, and Lisson Gallery, and Laundromat at Jeffrey Deitch, (all November 5 – December 23), Weiwei and I finally got our chance to talk about his life and work in the lobby of the Gramercy Park Hotel two days before the opening receptions.

Portrait of Ai Weiwei. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Zack Garlitos.

Phong Bui (Rail): The first time we met was at your studio in Beijing in February 2008 we were co-curating Spectacle, which would have been Alanna’s swan song from MoMA PS1. But the stock market crash occurred by September and caused all the funders from Asia to withdraw their support. And the last time I saw you was when you came for dinner at what was then the Rail headquarters, at my home in Greenpoint, the night after your first show at Mary Boone in March 2008. We ate and drank a lot. I even drew a map of China on your belly.

Ai weiwei: You also showed us Jonas Mekas’s short films. It was a nice evening.

Rail: I’d like to begin with the path, the formation, the journey if you like, which may mean different things, and probably apply to different times in your growth as a person and as an artist. In September 1976 Mao Zedong died and the Gang of Four was brought to trial and found guilty; that same year your father, the great poet Ai Qing, and your family were allowed to return to Beijing when you were nineteen. They put your father in a labor camp, on and off, for twenty-two years. And you grew up experiencing this harsh punishment as a child. I can only relate because when my family and I were sent to an educational/labor camp by the communist regime in Vietnam, I remember being extremely angry. I remember saying to myself, when I grow up I’ll either pretend nothing happened, live a normal life like anyone else, ignore the humiliation, or deal with the anger through some virtuous, productive ambition or creative output. What was your earliest memory of being angry witnessing this condition imposed upon your father and family?

Ai: It was a horrible situation for all of us. But it wasn’t only him, it was his whole generation of intellectuals who were regarded as enemies of the people. It was like it was raining and everywhere was wet. When it’s raining, you see that everyone is wet. So you learn not to complain that much because it’s the common condition. It’s not raining for one afternoon, it’s raining for thirty to forty years. So you’re part of the environment. It would be very strange if it rained for thirty years and you still complained. You would never see sunshine even for one moment in your life. It seems like everybody in my father’s generation learned to accept this horrible condition.

Rail: And your father never even once acted out in his frustration?

Ai: No. We saw others act out once in a while and they were heavily punished. They were writers who wrote letters to Chairman Mao or the Committee trying to explain what was deeply in their minds, which could help the nation. And those people all crashed. Not only themselves, but their families and the people associated with them. But they had to criticize members of the party. My father had to criticize them even though some were his friends. There was no way not to. Otherwise you would crash at the same time. You had no choice. Of course, you could choose to be what you considered so-called “right,” but when one is right in a totally wrong situation it’s hard to justify what is right. Right has to appeal to a higher value which can be proved as right. The only proof was that you would be punished and nobody would help you. You would think you would become a hero, but there are no heroes. Heroes have to exist in other people’s minds. You state a value which can be maintained, that’s why you fight for that value. It’s like when it’s raining, you don’t see someone standing in the rain. If they have an umbrella, they put up an umbrella. If they have a newspaper, they’ll cover their heads with newspaper. This is life. It is not about challenging ideology, but realizing how to survive. And now of course it wasn’t a happy moment. My father was a poet; he studied in Paris. He knows about beauty, about truth, about human dignity and he always fought for those attributes. But under the communist regime, there was no chance. The days just got darker and darker. So I always asked myself how he managed to survive. He tried to commit suicide several times, but never succeeded. I didn’t ask him anything because in those kinds of moments it’s like you’re held hostage. Nobody asked anything; you couldn’t ask. It would have been bizarre to ask.

Rail: He must have talked to you about his experience in Paris?

Ai: Very often. I think he was lucky to still have those moments in his heart. He was a poet and he talked about poetry. He talked about modern poets.

Rail: Like [Vladimir] Mayakovsky and Emile Verhaeren, the Belgian poet that he translated into Chinese.

Ai: Exactly! And from a very young age we read all those poets. We read Lorca and Neruda, whom he knew well, and Allen Ginsberg. Anyway, you keep telling yourself that’s how the world really is. You don’t want to be childish to even ask why the sky is getting darker. And some days it was really dark. But we all try to behave as normally as possible, to be a worker, to live a so-called honest life. And that means we don’t get involved with others’ aesthetic judgments, or make any kind of argument, or do anything political. So sure, you feel quite angry. In my case, it was when I got into university that I developed an attitude. I didn’t want to study after such a terrible event, after the Cultural Revolution. I grabbed the first, and only opportunity, to become involved in an art school, the Beijing Film Academy. I felt so bad that this nation never really examined or criticized its past. It just automatically moved on to a new era. Was that possible? That past is so heavy and everybody is a part of it. Nobody took responsibility; they only blamed the Gang of Four, which is ridiculous. It’s not the truth, but everybody feels that they need to accept the untrue situation because that situation is more comfortable. It forgave everything. Which, up to this day, I cannot accept. When I walk down the Berlin streets, I see those bronze badges marking where people were removed from their apartments and taken to concentration camps. Every day I bring my son to school, when I see this I always stop. I always look at the day. For some, it was only after three days that they were executed. Some of them might still be living today. And you think, “Ah, they must have been taken down in the same kind of sunlight with a lot of people seeing it.” And what happened to them, you know? Millions have been executed, and it can happen anywhere.

Rail: Even within your own family. Mine was divided in half. One half was loyal to Ho Chi Minh and the north, and the other was searching for a democratic solution in the south.

Tiananmen Square, June 5, 1989. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

Ai: Of course, you would know it. You have to protect yourself because your wife can report you, your brother can report you. And you can report your father.

Rail: One of my nannies was a high-ranking communist spy official. We weren’t at all aware until she appeared in the front row, wearing a communist uniform with medals on her chest, parading down the street with such a triumphant spirit! [Laughter.]

So, a lot of things happened in Beijing when you and your family came back in ’76. All the schools and art academies reopened. And you went to film school to study animation. Why animation and not filmmaking, or painting and sculpture?

Ai: It was just the first school that opened. [Laughter.] And I wasn’t aware that there were other schools that opened at the same time.

Rail: It was that random?

Ai: Yeah. I had already rushed into the school. I didn’t even want to go to school but my teacher and a good friend of my father said, “Weiwei, please just apply.” It was almost the last day to apply, but I was accepted. There was no excitement. Anybody would have been excited by it. The universities had been closed up for ten years. Suddenly, they reopened. All my classmates were the sons and daughters of the old intellectual class that had been criticized and punished during the Cultural Revolution. Only their children knew what film was, or what art was. The others were just workers, how would they know? I feel quite bad about it. I think that’s a reason I became more angry. Not because I was punished, but because after the punishment, there was no justice. There was no justice. It was just the same. Everything goes back to normal and no one dares nor cares to talk about the past. That made me very angry as a young man.

Rail: That’s a reason you got involved with the Stars collective, no?

Ai: Yes, I was part of the early Stars group of artists. But soon I realized that I’m not a very passionate part of any group. You start to distrust any sort of ideology. After all, you’re an individual. You can have control and take full responsibility for your own actions. I began to make drawings and paintings. I remember my teacher wouldn’t even criticize my work because it was outside the bounds of what he knew. He gave critiques to each student, but purposely ignored me. Soon I realized then if I stayed, the condition would get worse. Luckily, my girlfriend and I had the chance to come to the United States. With her family’s sponsorship, we first went to Philadelphia, to UPenn to study English, and then later to Berkeley. As soon as I passed my English test, I came to New York. That was where I wanted to be.

Rail: Of all the well-known dropouts in the art world, including John Cage from Pomona College, Jasper Johns from the University of South Carolina, Keith Haring from SVA, Yoko Ono from Sarah Lawrence, and Richard Avedon from Columbia, just to name a few, you dropped out more than they did. You dropped out of the Film Academy in Beijing, then Parsons where you studied with Sean Scully, then the Art Students League where you studied under—

Ai: Richard Pousette-Dart. And I still don’t have a bachelor’s degree. I never finished. The truth is, I always felt so uncomfortable being in class. I came to the United States not to become somebody. I wanted freedom. At that time, the definition of freedom was very clear. You don’t have to play by the rules, no one set out any program for you. You just take your own time, however long. You’re basically alone and New York City is not a city you can romanticize. You’re just an immigrant, struggling to stay afloat.

Rail: You did a lot of different jobs, including playing blackjack in a casino and making portraits of tourists in Time Square, and around 1983 you started using photography to document your life in New York. Was it a conscious decision?

Ai: Not really. I used to hang out on St. Marks and 2nd Avenue where people would sell stolen things, cameras and all sorts of stuff. Very cheap, twenty or thirty bucks, because they needed it for drugs. I could never dream of having a camera before, but I could now have a Linhof or a Hasselblad. First, I was testing those cameras to see if they even worked and then I began taking pictures because I had nothing else better to do. Anyhow, I took some photos of the Tompkins Square Park riot in 1988. That got me interested because I liked seeing confrontation between local people and the police. I also then realized that authority was blind, they just did their job and didn’t care for a reason. The people defending so-called values and interests were also helpless, yet the confrontation was real, and it made a strong impression on me. As a young person, how do you start with or experience some meaningful structure of society? As long as you don’t obey the basic patterns of society, such as getting into a good university, getting a job, securing yourself, to buy a house or get married—none of this I was interested in. Still the question remains: how could you make it in New York? It’s impossible.

Rail: We haven’t spent a lot of time together, but I feel you personify a spirit of rebellion to which I relate. My creative energy thus far sparks from my struggle to maintain the equilibrium between anarchy and benevolence. At any rate, you were in New York when Tiananmen Square occurred on June 4, 1989. The day after, an unknown nineteen-year-old student appeared out of nowhere to stop the advancing tanks of the PLA. It was a symbol of change, inevitable change, for sure. It was widely circulated by Jeff Widener’s photograph and Charlie Cole’s video footage. The world was stunned by this image. Everyone was shocked yet everyone knew it was very familiar. It took a while until they realized it’s an Old Testament episode of David against Goliath. However small and insignificant he is, his will is driven to stand up against the giant. With your arrest, I felt so strongly that the little Tank Man or the “Unknown Rebel” is you as David, the advancing tanks are Goliath. But it wasn’t until 1993, when you returned to attend to your father’s illness, who died two years later, that you may have recognized this significant moment of change and gave yourself the permission to become that unknown rebel, the Tank Man. Is that a fair observation?

Ai: I think it’s true. It takes a long time, a long journey to be naïve, to be innocent and standing in front of power. You can’t be too sophisticated. On the other hand, that naïveté takes sophistication, developed from the great pressure of decades of oppression. Even when you have strong strategies, it still takes an individual to stand up at the right moment. Everything is symbolic, everything is a ritual, especially when we talk about revolution and change. Why does change happen? Why do the leaves fall from the trees? It’s full of poetic meaning, but even the simplest things in life require a clear gesture. Sometimes it comes naturally, sometimes it feels like it will never happen.

Rail: What about the subject of repetition, the use of repetition, which means different things in the West and the East. In the West it seems to amplify abundance, plenitude, lavishness, grandeur, and wealth. We saw how ingeniously Warhol had depicted in his thirty-two canvases of Campbell’s Soup Cans, which were among his last hand-painted works even though they had been painted to look as though they were mechanically made. He discovered the mechanical process after, as seen in his ten screenprints Marilyn Monroe (1967), which hence enabled him to make limitless numbers of precise repetitions and variations of his subjects and whatnot. But among Asian cultures, repetition is meant to empty your head. In Buddhism for example the idea of nirvana is about “not being there.” It’s interesting to be reminded of this difference: in the West you repeat in order to feel how much you gain, and in the East, you repeat in order to get rid of things.

Ai: That’s a good point. In the West, you use it to secure or amplify an image. In the East, you use it to dismantle an image. This meaning itself is very Zen, to see everything as is, to the point in which even the interpreter disappears. That practice is a completely different direction, because the East thinks of one who wants to give meaning, as an artist, his or her condition is questionable. It has to be redefined each time. Even if you do the same thing, it’s completely different because you’re the one who’s doing the action and you’re never the same. That’s the most interesting part.

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio.

Rail: It is, but don’t you feel that’s how the government of the People’s Republic of China sees you, as someone who positions himself in between the two worlds? You’re able to utilize whatever you learn from the West and subversively apply it, and transform yourself as the Unknown Rebel. In reading Jonathan Napack’s essay, I thought the two epigraphs were so telling about where you get your spark from. One quote was by Duchamp: “Doubt in myself, doubt everything. In the first place, never believe in truth.” The other was by Warhol: “All the light things in life [. . . ] are the most important things.”

Ai: Warhol said, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” It’s close to oriental thinking in a way.

Rail: So you feel your endless mediation allows you to be in the middle, in-between things, the West and the East, the past and present, the old and the new, and so on as a coexisting and simultaneous condition.

Ai: Between all the arguments.

Rail: And how much are you aware of your leverage with the regime?

Ai: I think you have to see everybody as human. You have to see they have rationality, they’re not just blind. They try to maintain some kind of image to maintain the structure and power, but by doing that they obey a whole set of regulations. It’s not what we agree with, but they have to be disciplined in their own way. I think the question for them is the same: to understand who you are. They are very fascinated with my case. They pay so much attention, a dozen officials focusing on this one person. I think that’s the charming part of being followed and watched—every possibility of what a sophisticated machine can do, they did to me. But before I was released, a high level official came to me and said, “Weiwei, from our study, even if we put you in jail for ten or twenty years, when you come out you’ll still be the same. Is that right?” I said, “Yes, that is right.” I’ll remain the same, it’s unshakeable.

Rail: Did he say it with a certain respect?

Ai: I think so. The truth is, I don’t see them as enemies or bad people. I see them as intelligent—trying to figure out how to deal with this situation effectively. Making someone disappear is very easy, but is that going to benefit them? They’re trying to survive, to protect their nation or their party and it’s a very difficult game.

Rail: Do you feel in retrospect that the three years you came back to Beijing to tend to your father’s illness was a gestation period which allowed you to think through what you did, and what you were about to do, including Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, and the Study of Perspective series in which you gave the finger to various symbols of power. Both were initiated in 1995, then there was the infamous group show, Fuck Off, introducing 46 emerging artists which ran alongside the Third Shanghai Biennale that you curated with Feng Boyi in 2000.

Ai: Well, since I published three books, The Black Cover Book (1994), The White Cover Book (1995), and The Grey Cover Book (1997), I recognized even if I was given a moment, I never felt I had one. I needed to create this little moment just as a reminder to myself that it’s not a game that’s started yet. Simply, what happened to my father’s generation is not over. You just want to remind yourself of who you are and what you’re defending. And it has no effect at all. When you don’t have a platform, it’s not going to happen. It just doesn’t work when we talk about political gesture or protest amongst just your friends. It has to be in the public realm because that’s the real nature of freedom of expression. It’s no good to freely express yourself into a mirror by yourself. You have to show it to a neighbor, or to society. Later, I got involved with architecture, and architecture is very political, especially in China. You’re dealing with all the government bureaucracy, and you’re dealing with the people including the ones who are on your side. You deal with the regulations and questions like, “Who is going to use it?”, “Why did you design it a specific way?”, “What do you expect from them?”, and “Do they really care?” All those considerations make you feel alone. You only have your heart. You only have your energy. But eventually I gave up. I cannot do something if I cannot control it. I was making things, but could not really be responsible for them. So, I quit, right after the National Stadium was built for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. But lucky enough, by 2005, I found the internet as a platform. Sina, an online web portal, invited me and said, “If anyone should open a blog, you should.” I was very well known in the architecture world and I was always doing many interviews in fashion magazines, talking about style. It’s easy to make comments about various events in New York and have strong opinions on aesthetics and so on. So they said, “My god, you’re the only person in China that has his own ideas about how things should be.” So everybody interviewed me, but all the interviews were in fashion magazines. [Laughter.] And architectural ones, too, because they need to feature new lifestyles, which is fine. That made me famous and they wanted me to open up a blog because they said, “This is a famous person that can always give an opinion.” But nobody, not them, not me, understood what that meant. Because I never touched a computer, I didn’t know how to type. They said, “It’s okay, we have an assistant for you. You just tell us.” So while standing in front of a computer, I felt so fascinated. I said, “My god, this young person lives in such a very remote area,” which reminded me of when my family was in the Gobi Desert in the ’60s and ’70s. You can see and watch this young person and stay in touch with him. I thought this was amazing. So I typed my first sentence on the internet, “To express yourself you need a reason, but expressing yourself is a reason.” It was to convince myself that I could do it. [Laughter.]

So I gradually put my first interviews and some older artworks on there, which I realized wasn’t at all interesting. I have to directly work with current situations. So every morning I would open the newspaper and choose a topic to give my opinions. That generated so much heat. Each article could have 200,000 people reading and reposting, and it would even become newspaper headlines. They generated social discussions, meaningful discussions. And at that time in China, the authorities didn’t know how to control it. They knew it was a problem because so many people began to direct these social arguments and they did so well that nobody could stop them, until the earthquake in Sichuan occurred in May 2008. I told them, “If you don’t give us names, on the internet I’ll organize the first demonstration of civil disobedience by conducting a Citizens’ Investigation.” We went to the earthquake area, family by family, school by school, and located 5,000 names. It was unthinkable in China. We discovered the students’ birthdates, their classes, and their parents’ names. We sent a few dozen young volunteers, to go make camera recordings. Many of them were arrested a few dozen times. It was like the 1960s in the U.S., but I think it was successful because there was a very simple target. We were not talking about anything. We were only respecting life, trying to find the truth and to not forget what took place.

Rail: And you made a huge exhibit, So Sorry, at Haus der Kunst in Munich a year later, in 2009, where 9,000 children’s backpacks covered the whole museum’s façade, spelling the sentence “For seven years she lived happily on this earth” in Chinese, so the whole world knows about it.

Ai: Yes, not to mention that each day we posted the names we found that day. And so many people were watching and said, “This government cannot give any truth, but this stupid guy, this maniac, is doing that and very successfully.” So many people started to know me, and to understand me and my way. You have to show a way. You cannot just have a simple ideology; you have to show how it can be achieved. The project was so successful. The result, of course, was that they shut off all my blogs, which happened before my exhibit in Munich. My name cannot even be typed on the Chinese internet, it became an illegal word. I think we achieved a big victory on this matter, and that is when I became a so-called activist. But I always think that’s an indivisible part of my art. My work as an artist is not about using the language already given, but rather creating my own language. And the internet gave me this possibility. The language came out itself. It’s so smooth, so natural, so unpredictable, and so free. The next moment, the next second, it can change to another subject and that’s so critical. For those reasons, I became one of the most fluent users of social media in China. Everybody knows.

Rail: So the Tank Man may have disappeared but you’ve found a way to stay visible.

Ai: If I hadn’t found that language through the internet, I would have just become another angry guy. I could not have a chance even to laugh like now.

Rail: That’s part of what you do through your political motivation, you gain the clarity for your art. And in order to support that social and political ambition, you have to maintain making monumental works that evoke social and political narratives while facilitating the funding for what you do. Thus far, they coexist simultaneously, quite nicely and dangerously.

Installation view: Ai Weiwei: Laundromat. Jeffrey Deitch, New York. November 5 – December 23, 2016. Photo: Genevieve Hanson Courtesy Jeffrey Deitch Inc. New York.

Ai: You’re right. But if you look back, I’m just a lucky guy. It could have ended very differently. If I only cared about those issues, I would not have spent ten or twelve years in the United States achieving nothing: no degree, no money, no property, never learned how to drive. I went back to China empty handed. My mom would always say, “It seems like he never left.” So you have to become you for a long time. Consider the work I presented at Documenta 12 involving the 1,001 Chinese people. Where does the money come from? I didn’t have a penny. But I always have an idea, and I will work for that idea. I’ll do anything for that idea. Even today, I’m still paying back the money that I borrowed, but I’m happy. That work I designed and it doesn’t look like a work. There’s no product, which is fine. I wanted to be different. It’s worth it. I still have this kind of attitude. I always believed that if I wanted to make money, it would be too easy for me. That target is too low. It can seem like I’m overconfident, which is stupid, maybe, but that carries me. And you know if you’re not going to make it, nobody is going to help you. I was silent for years and nobody noticed that this guy could possibly be an artist. Impossible. I would not have believed it. If I asked myself, “Can I make it?” I would not have believed I could make it. But since it happened, that’s fate.

Rail: I happened to be in Florence for two days so I saw your show at the Palazzo Strozzi.

Ai: There are a lot of works in that show. Did you go to the basement?

Rail: Yeah, I saw the whole thing. I was very impressed that in Florence of all the Italian cities they gave you such a platform.

Ai: They didn’t know what they were giving to me, and they didn’t know what they would get. But now they are very happy, partly because they have never had such a strong response to contemporary art. Things can still happen. It just takes the right energy and the right people coming together at the right moment.

Rail: The exhibit entitled Ai Weiwei: Libero came about right after you visited Lesbos, which was the first thing the viewer would notice: all the three sides of the palazzo’s windows on the second floor were covered with twenty-two orange rescue dinghies. It’s a sweeping political message on the urgent issue of human rights.

Ai: Yes, those were very small gestures. But to society, that’s one of the only gestures related to such a topic. But it’s not enough. I was in Lesbos when they were installing the show [at Konzerthaus Berlin].

Rail: Do you think your political activism became more driven, more ambitious, due to the recent refugee crises?

Ai: All I know is when people asked me, “When did you become a rebel?” I reply, “I was born a rebel.” It’s true. But it takes a long time for you to find the right language and the right platform as I’ve mentioned before. And once you take full responsibility, you anticipate that when the going gets tough, the tough gets going. For me, it’s very natural. I respond to the situation. I think that if you don’t measure it by normal daily values, then you’re liberated. Because daily values cannot match up to it. It’s larger than that. When we talk about another person drowning, that’s perhaps normal. But when you see over 3,000 people have drowned, like twelve jetliners have been shot down, because they’re Arabs, Palestinians, and Africans, then you really have to confront the question: Do we really care? To what degree do we care or why is it that we don’t care?

Rail: I was told that you’ve been making a new documentary film on the current refugee crisis. When did it begin?

Ai: It actually started before I got my passport. I was invited [by the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq] to make a selection of drawings, poetry, and prose made by refugees in various camps in northern Iraq for a publication [Traces of Survival: Drawings by Refugees in Iraq] which was published to coincide with the Iraq Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. They were beautiful and touching drawings, testaments to their dreams and all they’ve gone through. Anyway, I said, “Yes, I can be on your jury but I cannot just stop there.” I sent two assistants to the camp to make interviews. We did over a hundred interviews along with videos and photos, some of them were very compelling. But I couldn’t pay much attention because I wasn’t allowed to travel then.

Once I got my passport I went to Berlin partly because I had previously accepted a visiting professorship at the Universität der Künste, and partly because the German representatives were proactive in communicating with Chinese officials during my detention. My partner and my son had already settled there. At any rate, once I got there, I met many refugees who came to Berlin. I always asked the same question “Where did you want to go?” They all said Germany. So I asked “Why Germany?” In my mind it was very strange. Why do they have to go to Germany? Many of them came through the island of Lesbos. I said to my partner and son, “Okay, since I have to do a show in Athens, we can go to Lesbos for a vacation before Christmas.”

Rail: [Laughter.] Unconventional idea for a vacation!

Ai: They loved it because in Germany the winter is so cold. I said, “Let’s go to a warmer area. We’ll walk on the beautiful, blue beach.” Then we see boats approaching. People getting off the dinghies, women holding babies, pregnant women, old people. That moment, I understood everything. There was nobody there to save them. They have been put in camps, treated inhumanely. There’s no light in their hands, barely enough food. At that point I asked my family, “Can we spend New Year’s here?” They agreed. I called my studio and asked my assistants to send solar powered lights as gifts because it’s pitch black at night. These perfect families. Why did they have to give up so much by coming so far to be in a place like Lesbos? I thought a good solution would be to make a documentary to understand who they are since I knew so little about them. I have to set up something for me to start to be able to understand. So after Greece, we went to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Gaza, Africa, and Mexico, and our team went to Bangladesh, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and now they’re shooting in Syria. We’ll have a big film made, to be released next year in 2017.

Rail: Let’s talk about the four simultaneous exhibits: two at Mary Boone Gallery, one at Lisson Gallery, and one at Jeffrey Deitch’s space. How did they all come about?

Ai: Jeffrey has been saying that we should do something together for a long time, and I had hesitated for a long time because he is someone I respect very much. He wanted to do an exhibition on my work from the ’80s but I wasn’t interested in looking back. So when I proposed this immersive installation Laundromat, filled with clothes, shoes, images, and information about the refugee camp at Idomeni on the border of Greece and F.Y.R.O.M. [the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia], he immediately responded and liked the project. As for Lisson Gallery and Mary Boone Gallery, the two exhibitions came together at the same time with Jeffrey’s mostly because I don’t have the time in my schedule to travel frequently to New York, although I’ll be coming also for next year’s Public Art Fund and an exhibition at the Armory Drill Hall. I had to organize everything together in one go. But yes, they’re great to work with.

Rail: Why the trees as a subject?

Ai: I have actually been dealing with trees for many years, since my exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. I showed a group of works titled Rooted Upon which dealt with the classic Chinese understanding of landscape. Scholar’s stones, for example, are traditionally appreciated by scholars and laymen. They’re seen as a universe. For my porcelain practice, I have a kiln in a mountainous area and found these dealers that trade in ancient roots and tree parts, usually collected for decoration. I found these trees which are very rare in China, because after 1958, the Great Leap Forward, they cut up all the trees for iron production because iron production was a measure of state power. During that time, they encouraged millions of families to give away their cooking woks, so the iron cookware could be melted down and recasted to meet the iron production thresholds. It’s ridiculous and typical communist behavior. This is when the idea of eating in a commune where someone cooks for everybody got started. This was when all the trees were burnt to cast iron. All the trees disappeared. Only the trees of very tough and high mountain terrain survived. They were dried for decades. They were taken down to be sold in the antique market. Some were found at the bottoms of lakes and have been dead for hundreds of years, so I thought of casting them as monuments to memory.

Rail: Since you were initially the unknown rebel [laughs] and now you are a very well-known rebel, would it be fair to propose that as an artist you maximize every possible means, including your fame, to support and materialize your political activism?

Ai: I think for the ultimate rebel, the last act is always to destroy themselves, to destroy that title. Otherwise, they’re not a true rebel.


Phong Bui

PHONG BUI is the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.