In 2011, multi-disciplinary artist Ai Weiwei was detained by the Chinese government, held captive for 81 days in an unknown place without any explanation, threatened with 11 years of imprisonment, and eventually released without being charged. The government captured his passport and Ai lived in constant surveillance while living at his home and studio just outside of Beijing, with 25 cameras monitoring him constantly.
Ai eventually retrieved his passport in 2015 and is now based in Berlin. In less than three years, he has made 150 trips around the world, and involved in 350 interviews since last October. Although his work has been exhibited in Chicago before, Ai finally visited the city for the first time ahead of the opening of a new exhibition.
On Monday night, Ai spoke with Melissa Chiu of Washington DC’s Hirshhorn Museum (the evening was presented by the Alphawood Foundation). He spoke quietly and deliberately, and his jet-setting, media-intensive lifestyle have taken an effect on a tired Ai. But for almost an hour, he and Melissa talked about his life, initial interests in art, about growing up in labor camps in post-Cultural Revolution China (Ai was born in 1957), about his time in New York City’s art scene in the 1980s and the loneliness he felt there (he dubbed NYC “the least romantic city on Earth”), to developing an expert-level use of social media.
While he may have spoken a bit quietly, he was not without a sense of humor, much to the crowd’s enjoyment. For example, when he was under surveillance, plain-clothes officers were always stationed near his home. Ai would knock on their car windows and offer them a cup of tea. They never accepted. Taking the idea of surveillance a step further, Ai set-up his own 24-hour online streaming service in his home. After a few days, he was begged by police to take it down. “I said I made this for you,” he told them.
Images of Ai’s work were projected above him and Michelle, including famous works like Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, and photos of him flipping off Tienanmen Square and flipping off White House which got a cheer from the crowd even though the photo had been taken during a previous presidency (dates for the series are listed as 1995-2003). Not shown this evening was the photo he did do in 2017 in front of Trump Tower in New York City.
One of Ai’s most prominent endeavors was after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed over 80,000 people in a matter of minutes. Although he was writing multiple daily posts on his blog at the time, he says he was “speechless” after that event. “I didn’t have the vocabulary” to write about it, he said. He launched a “citizen investigation” into the earthquakes, to find out the names of students, their schools, their birthdays, who they were, and why the Chinese government was so secretive about covering up the death toll and accusations of corruption and poorly-constructed buildings.
His project culminated in the names and lives of over 5,000 students whose existences would have been entirely erased otherwise. For his efforts, he was rewarded by the Chinese government by having his hotel room broken into at 3 AM, being arrested, and beaten by police officers that resulted in a brain hemorrhage. Much of this time period was documented in the 2012 film Never Sorry.
As for his newest show, Trace was initially exhibited at Alcatraz in San Francisco in 2014. Ai knew he wanted to do a show about political prisoners (or “prisoners of conscience”) but due to the constraints of not being able to hang anything on the prison walls, he had to be more clever. As an artist who has used backpacks and bike frames and more unusual choices of medium, making an entire work of art out of Legos isn’t that out of the ordinary. Trace uses billions of Lego pieces to create portraits of prisoners of conscience, from Nelson Mandela to Tibetan activists, the plastic building blocks providing a pixelated effect, not unlike blurry surveillance photos taken of these individuals.
Other recent works of Ai’s include the book Humanity released in February and the film Human Flow, released last year. The film was inspired by the Syrian migration crisis, where hundreds of thousands of immigrants have found themselves on the Greek Island of Lesbos. On one New Year’s Day, Ai spent time at the camp to find out how these people live and survive. “They have been totally neglected…the whole image is surreal,” he describes of the camp. “It’s unthinkable.” Inspired by his experience, he then went on to 40 refugee camps in 23 countries, interviewing 600 people and creating over 900 hours of footage.
A brief Q+A after the interview found some audience members asking for advice, a topic that Ai seems to have some fun with spinning on its head, at the risk of offending those who are asking the questions. When asked about advice for making political art within the time and place we happen to find ourselves in, he responded “If it’s a choice, don’t do it.” And for the performer who described himself as an illegal immigrant (much like Ai in the 80s), and who risks deportation with every performance? A straight-faced Ai recommended getting deported. “Deportation can be fashionable now.” And despite his criticisms of and relationship with the Chinese government, when asked by one audience member if he thinks there was any foul play on their part with regard to the election of Trump. “I don’t think so. I don’t think they would be so stupid.”
Having worked in so many realms, Ai still says his life has no meaning. But the advantage of this is that others can label him however they see fit. He is a writer, an artist, a political activist. The evening may not have been overly profound to someone already familiar with Ai’s work, particularly given how drowsily he answered some of the questions. But such a prolific artist is impossible to encapsulate in just one hour’s worth of conversation. Ai’s work continues to captivating, progressive, and important, no matter how jet-lagged he may be.
Trace opens May 9th. It is a free exhibition but tickets are required for entrance; tickets can be reserved here.