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06/11/2009

Protected by pictures

An interview with Ai Weiwei in the cellar of Munich's Haus der Kunst, where the artist was preparing to turn the place into a battlefield. With Hanno Rauterberg

What would megalomaniac modesty look like? Is there such a thing as relaxed rebellion? A state of peace which is all get-up-and-go? Well Ai Weiwei certainly exists. An artist who is not afraid to take on the mightiest of enemies, the dictators in Beijing. Who demands democracy at the top of his voice, freedom of speech, equal rights for all! Who refuses to be silenced, even if they lock him up, even if the police break down his door in the middle of the night and beat him to the ground, as they did just recently. He kept up the protest , even as the blood pured down his face, pulling out his camera and photographing the the police as they carried him off. It looks likes a family outing. The whole world should see this image: the terror and the un-terrified.











Ai Weiwei, September 2009 © Ai Weiwei

And now he's sitting here in front of me, a man of substance and pride, yet so completely withdrawn into himself. His voice, a whisper, his eyes flitting about the room. "I was so shy in school," he will tell me later, "that I'd blush every time someone looked at me." A man, who now has so many eyes trained on him, whose voice is heard like no other, a man who is probably the most famous fighter of injustice in the whole of China.

"I'm an ordinary person, very ordinary," he says and rubs his fac eyes light upe vigorously with both hands. "It was nothing to do with me," he says. "It was the others, the interviews. I'm probably the most interviewed person in China." Then he smiles for the first time, shrugs his shoulders cautiously, a shrug of wonder – how peculiar, why me?

Right now, the most interviewed person in the whole of China, is living in the cellar, in the catacombs of a Nazi palace in Munich. There, in the Haus der Kunst, which was built between 1933 and 1937, he has made himself at home for a few weeks, setting up camp with a 20-man team on folding beds all crammed into four rooms, to prepare for his first ever major exhibition worldwide, which opens on October 12. He has everything he needs down there, armchairs, TV, computer, close friends, a cook. He has effortlessly transformed this fortress into a cheerful shared apartment. Every now and tempting smells of Chinese food waft up into the museum halls, a museum attendant tells me.

"I'm not really a fan of museums, it so often feels as if they only display the corpses from long forgotten wars. We want to do something else here. We want to turn the Haus der Kunst into a battlefield."
















Dropping a Han dynasty urn, 1995 © Ai Weiwei

A battlefield – his eyes light up. One minute he's the very picture of peace, and the next, he is seized by rage and cannot contain the biting sarcasm. He's contemporary art's sumo wrestler, portly and pot-bellied on short legs, and able to transform sluggish mass into pure power in a instant. He badmouths architects as "smart-arses", the Chinese government as "mafia", then instructs his helpers to say "fuck my motherland" into a video camera – Ai Weiwei's commentary on China's vast national celebrations.

Is that true? Is he a wrestler? Ai Weiwei laughs and shakes his head. "I'm more like a piece of wood floating down the river and no one knows where it will land. I have no plans, no aims."

He dropped out of film school in Beijing. He dropped out of art school in New York. And he has declared his architecture career over. He lets the things come to him and he never clings to them. He has lived from cleaning, carpentry, babysitting, gardening and, for two years, even playing blackjack. He went to New York at the age of 20, having promised his mother that he would return home a famous artist, like Picasso. But although he hung around with the art crowd, meeting Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, and he was a huge fan of Duchamp and his Readymades – he made no headway in the art world. "No one was interested in what I was making. And that's still the case today, however improbable it may sound. This exhibition in Munich is only my third ever."

It was architecture that first brought him fame – and even that was coincidental. He returned from New York and moved in with his mother, who was disappointed that he still had no success, no wife and no children to show for himself. Then one day he stumbled across a vegetable field on the outskirts of Beijing. He liked the place, asked the farmers if he could build a studio there. A house, very minimal, very austere, built using a traditional brick technique. When it was up lots of his friends liked it so much that they wanted one too – and soon it became a settlement. "Suddenly they were telling me I was an architect. I wasn't aware of it myself."
















Dropping a Han dynasty urn, 1995 © Ai Weiwei

Not long afterwards he became the architect of one of China's top construction projects, the Olympic stadium. Basel's Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron were looking for someone at the Chinese end to advise them on their project. Together they developed the structure for the stadium, a chaotic tangle of metal struts which somehow forms a soft but clear order. Ai was over the moon – and then outraged.

"I think naivete is terribly important," he says with a smile. "Without a bit of naivete, you'd never start anything. But I was too naοve about the stadium." He hadn't wanted to accept that the Communist Party would turn the building into a propaganda platform. But as soon as he realised what was going on, he became very outspoken and told every microphone that came his way that this was self-glorification of an unjust state. And so it was that his most hated project – he never visited the completed building – that launched his world career as activist and artist.

His phone hasn't stopped ringing since. Journalists want to know his opinion on Tibet, Mao, the death penalty, and all the other hot topics that no other intellectual in China discusses so openly. Of course he feels the pressure, the party bosses are spying on him, and censor much of what he posts online (Chinese blog). But the more pressure they apply, the stronger he becomes. "I'm not a political artist, it just looks that way," he says. "I just don't want to relinquish my civil rights." Where others seek safety in the private sphere, Ai has carved out a safe haven in the media channels, by making his private sphere public. He keeps an Internet diary, runs a sort of private TV channel on Twitter that features images and short texts: him half naked or with his cats, or showing his head wound, a life-threatening haematoma that formed in his skull after he was beaten by the police. Ai has dissolved the classical boundaries of private and public to form another barrier which keeps him out of jail.
















Dropping a Han dynasty urn, 1995 © Ai Weiwei

You can see me, and as long as you can see me, they won't see you – that's his logic. But as soon as you can't see me any more, when you remove me from the screen, then you will be seen, then the eyes of the world will turn on you and everyone will know what happened to me. The images protect him. You could also say that Ai has tapped into the spellbinding power of images that harks back to the Middle Ages, when people thought they were alive and had magical powers.

"We are now seeing the beginnings of what you could call a civil rights movement in China," he says, unfolding his arms. He starts gesticulating, talking about Sichuan, where in May last year, over 80,000 people were killed in an earthquake, almost 6,000 schoolchildren among them." And why? Because thanks to corruption and corner cutting, the schools were incredibly badly constructed. The government should have launched an inquiry, punished those responsible. But what is it doing? Nothing." It didn't even want to say how many children were killed, it didn't want to release their names. People said that bereaved parents were being threatened with having their incomes cut if they talked to the press or even to Ai Weiwei, or told that they wouldn't be able to move into new housing. But Ai Weiwei made a public appeal to people on the Internet and several hundred helpers from across China signed up to travel to Sichuan and start researching names and accountability. Many of them received threats, many were imprisoned, but the list still exists and 5,826 children are on it. "The weak, the broken do not count in our society," says Ai. "Only the successful count. Is that how it should be?"

There is plenty of talk in China about this man who refuses to let anyone stop him researching and asking questions. And plenty of people are amazed that Ai was not locked up long ago, like so many opposition figures. "It's probably because of my father," he admits. "They probably can't do to me what they did to him." His father Ai Qing studied painting in Paris, and soon became one of the leading poets of his time, accompanying Mao on his Long March. But in 1957, the year his son Weiwei was born, the party decided to banish hundreds of thousands of intellectuals. The Ais found themselves on the edge of the Gobi desert, in a camp where the poet and his family spent years living in hole in the ground, protected from sandstorms and the cold only by a roof of twigs. He was not allowed to read or write and had to clean the public toilets in the village. "The children threw stones at him, the adults sprayed ink in his face, us kids would beg for food. We were outcasts."










Rooted upon, 2009. 100 pieces of tree trunks 640 x 3500 x 1100 cm © Ai Weiwei

The worst thing was the return in 1978, when Qing was rehabilitated. The cadre could not muster up more than one meagre sentence, so sorry, it had been a mistake to banish millions of people "For them it was one sentence, for me it was twenty years, my father would often say."

And for the son? A childhood in banishment, with no security, a father who is humiliated in front of everyone – how can you live like that?

Ai doesn't answer. Then he talks in a low voice about the long, dark years, about depression and trauma. And how he was saved by art. "You can change a lot of things. It was a secret haven for me, it gave me a chance to live with all the things I had seen."

His art today is still shaped by these experiences, his rebellion against state repression. Yet however much he fights injustice, Ai never loses sight of injury and destruction. The just and the unjust, the active and the contemplative form a very unusual balance in his art. On the facade of the Munich museum, he has written a Chinese sentence in several thousand rucksacks. They are the words of a mother from Sichuan, who lost her daughter: "For seven years she lived happily in this world."























Ai Weiwei: Remembering, 2009. Photo: Marino Solokhov © Ai Weiwei

But when you enter the museum, these words which are sentimental verging on kitsch, suddenly turn aggressive. We see Ai on a photo, dropping a Han dynasty urn – yes it's real. We see neolithic vases, 6,000 years old, spattered with industrial paint. We see antique chairs, tables, wooden temple pillars, all cut open and transformed into new sculptures. It this the same Ai?

"I love antiques, I collect, I store them, we have half a warehouse full of doors, chairs, everything possible. But you see I don't collect them for collection's sake." Few artists are more interested than Ai in China's cultural heritage. He is a conservative, a preserver of values, both politically and culturally. But can he separate preservation from destruction, memory from loss? "I still remember entire Mao speeches by heart that I had to learn as a child. Mao said we have to destroy the old world in order to build a new one. Sometimes it seems as if we are still following these orders." In the frenzy of progress, Chinese society is crushing its past underfoot. It has lost sight of its values, it doesn't want to hear about war and guilt. Ai's art is a painful reminder of what destruction looks like.

But just as he doesn't collect for collection's sake, he doesn't destroy for destruction's sake. That is the amazing thing about this person. He is driven by fear, which he transforms into courage. He demonstrates how trauma can be turned into power. "Art is always a beginning," he says.

A beginning that, for him, starts with a memory of fragility. "I seem to be something of a sandwich: a layer of politics, a layer of poetry and plenty of mustard in between, both sweet and hot." Then he rubs his face again, in a more leisurely fashion this time. "These things belong together for me, and even if my sculptures are more about meditation, what I'm trying to get at is physical presence, real feeling."




















Ai Weiwei with "Soft Ground" and Rooted upon", 2009. Photo: Jφrg Koopmann, © Ai Weiwei

In the main hall of the Haus der Kunst, he invites his viewers to do just that. He has filled the room with roots and tree trunks, a profusion of twisting and bizarre knotting that is so fascinating because the uniqueness, the droll spryness of these things is only fully revealed in death, once the husks are freed from earth and bark. Contrast comes in the form of black and white photographs that line the walls, Chinese people, posing for the camera, sometimes proudly, sometimes anxiously, just after applying for a travel visa to Kassel. This was two years ago when Ai Weiwei invited 1001 Chinese to travel to the Documenta, to find out what it feels like to be a piece of wood, landing on a foreign shore.

On one side, the uprooted roots, on the other, the people ready for departure, all similar, all very different. And beneath them, a carpet, which is barely visible becasue it so brilliantly imitates the colour and pattern of the stone slabs of the museum floor – a woven trompe l'oeil, which clings so snugly to reality that it reveals it. Because as soon as you realise that the carpet is a carpet, then you notice the different patterns of the stone slabs, the distinct variations in the grain, the tiny cracks. Each one is an individual – in a house that was built to pay homage to the united racial corpus.

It is paradoxes like these that Ai Weiwei adores, plucking things out of the world and planting them in the museum, confident that they will take on another meaning, transform themselves before our very eyes. "I love Duchamp," says Ai Weiwei, "I love his humour, his lack of boundaries. He taught me that not only an antique chair can be a Readymade, but also that the Chinese constitution can be a Readymade."










Installation of "Soft Ground, 2009". Wool 3560 x 1060 cm. Photo: Marino Solokhov © Ai Weiwei

Ai applies the same methods to politics and poetry alike. He wrests things from their ordinary contexts, he wants the Chinese to see them with fresh eyes, take them seriously again, their cultural heritage, bit for bit, their human rights, word for word. But this sort of approach does not guarantee him friends in the west. He has no time for compromises, especially if someone tries to tell him that China needs more time, that democracy needs decades, centuries even, to develop. "We can't wait three, let alone thirty years," he says angrily. "We only have one life. Why should we be patient? What's so terrible about the truth? Why shouldn't we have democracy?" His eyes flash furiously, he hates western pussyfooting. He wants everyone to be able to talk about everything, just like he can.

Then all of a sudden, he's had enough. He wants to go, down to the catacombs. There is a waft of food in the air. But Ai, I persist, will China ever be democratic? A short laugh, and then he says, "A flower does not bloom because we want it to, but because it is spring. I can promise you one thing, though, I won't die before we see signs of democracy." That is modesty. That is megalomania. That is Ai Weiwei.

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This article was originally published in Die Zeit on 2 October, 2009.

Hanno Rauterberg is an art critic for Die Zeit.

Translation: lp
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