Thu, Jan 02, 2014 - Page 12 News List

INTERVIEW: Ai Weiwei on creating art in a cage

By Didi Kirsten Tatlow  /  NY Times News Service

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is shown at his home on the outskirts of Beijing on April 10, 2009, shortly after canceling his first large solo exhibition in China under political pressure. In 2011, Ai was detained and stripped of his passport against a huge tax evasion fine. The US$2.4 million tax evasion case is widely seen as an attempt to muzzle the outspoken artist who uses his works to criticize Chinese authorities.

Photo: AFP

Ai Weiwei (艾未未), the artist and dissident, places flowers in the basket of a bicycle outside his Beijing studio in protest against the Chinese government’s confiscation of his passport. Ai discusses in an interview what it’s like to be trapped in a country he loves, but may not leave.

He’s concerned that his art is suffering. An exhibition scheduled for April in Brooklyn (a reprise of a show at the Hirshhorn, titled Ai Weiwei: According to What?) and another in September at the former prison at Alcatraz, in California, would benefit if he could curate them on site, he said. But in a gesture against his confinement, he is proceeding with plans to open a studio in Berlin, saying it would, at least, stand as a symbol of his desire to work outside China again one day.

Ai was detained in April 2011 and served 81 days in jail. Now he is allowed to go about in Beijing, though “every time I leave, I’m supposed to tell them where I am going,” he said.

Following are excerpts from an interview with Ai in his studio, conducted one morning after he placed flowers in the bicycle basket as he has every day since Nov. 30. Ai spent some time showing his collection of ancient Chinese and Tibetan fabrics. At the end of the interview, he referred to the fabrics, their beauty and history, and how they express something important about art.

Q: Why do you put the flowers out at 9 every morning?

A: Nine in the morning is when I start work. I put the flowers in the basket, take a couple of photographs and upload them to the Internet.

Q: Why flowers?

A: I think flowers are the most common language. For one thing, they’re about life. And I use fresh flowers. New ones every day. In this cold weather, they may only last a day.

Q: What do they mean?

A: They are an artwork of mine that is very powerfully tied to my life. Starting on April 3, 2011, when I was taken away and detained in a secret place, until today, I haven’t had a passport. I was detained for 81 days, and when I was released on June 22, on that day they said I would have to have a year on bail. Every time since then that I’ve asked about my passport, they’ve said they’d give it back. But they never have, nearly three years now. Today is the 1,001st day since I lost my passport. I don’t know how long it will go on for. Another 1,000 days? Thousands more days? It’s all possible.

So that’s one reason, but not the whole reason. This is a society that claims to have rule of law. We have a constitution, criminal law, all sorts of rules. When a government forces a person into detention like this, what they are doing is not legal. At the very least, it’s against the spirit of the law. You don’t have the right to restrict where a person lives, their ability to travel. When I get off a train, there are people there to photograph me. They follow me if I go to a hotel.

Q: What is the deeper feeling that this situation produces?

A: Our basic worry in this country is that we only ever see what happens, we never know the reason. That bicycle, it belonged to a young German, he was arrested, but never officially. They detained him for I think more than 10 months. He worked for a German art-shipping company, and the German government made a real effort to get him out. He’s out now, back in Germany. Before he left, he gave it to a German journalist, saying he wanted to give it to me. So suddenly I had this bicycle, and I knew that he had been really badly treated. He hadn’t done anything wrong, and they locked him up for so long. The government accused him of smuggling, but the real reason was that officials wanted to open a tax-free art zone and take over his business. I was just out of detention myself, and I thought, what can I do with this bicycle? So I bought a very strong lock and locked it to a tree in front of my front door. It’s just like the kind of bicycle you would see anywhere in the world. Sometimes these bicycles are abandoned; in New York you see that all the time. In China, the owner may have been taken by the government or whatever, so it’s very symbolic. So I decided to put flowers in it, and I will do it every day until I get my passport back.

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