From the very first line, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s memoir, 1000 Years Of Joys And Sorrows, is an intimate and gripping portrait of a life of creativity, repression, dissent and non-conformity. A fervent free speech advocate and an intensely political artist, Ai is known for work that speaks about universal values, freedom of speech and human rights. In his recent memoir, he documents the formative years spent with his father, Ai Qing, one of China’s renowned poets, who was exiled and sentenced to reform labour in “Little Siberia”, part of China’s far north-west, during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
Ai, now 64, writes that about 550,000 intellectuals were subjected to “reform through labour” during the time, and when they were “rehabilitated” 20 years later, only about 100,000 were alive. “By then, dissidence was all but dead,” he writes.
1000 Years presents an insight into Ai’s life and influences, as well as China and its people over the last 100 years, especially under Mao Zedong’s rule. It’s a short history of China told through the very personal lens of his life and art, and that of his father’s. It’s a story of courage and pain, loss and hope. He writes of the time he spent in “Little Siberia” as a child, where a dugout the family lived in was infested with rats, a raised earth platform with wheat straw on it was their bed, and his father cleaned communal toilets.
As a young man, Ai lived in New York, in and out of art schools, befriended Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and saw photographs of himself published in The New York Times. He moved back to China in the 1990s and built a studio in Caochangdi, an arts district in north-east Beijing. His political activism has made him a target even though he is one of the country’s most renowned artists—he helped design the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Ai is always provocative and defiant. In 2012, soon after he was released from a nearly three-month detention in 2011 and placed under police surveillance, he responded by installing cameras at his studio-home and broadcasting a live 24-hour feed of himself. It’s among the performance art pieces that established him internationally as an artist and an irrepressible voice for democracy and human rights. It was during that 2011 confinement that he began reflecting on the past, on his father’s experiences of incarceration, and memory as a form of resistance. Ai, who now lives and works in Germany, Portugal and the UK, speaks to Lounge about his writing, art, and more. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
Beijing has often invoked the “century of humiliation”. You refer to the humiliation inflicted by the state on its own people, like your father and other intellectuals, during the Cultural Revolution. How do you explain this paradox?
The invocation of “century of humiliation” shows how they get stuck in the feudal mindset of Imperial China, 100 years ago. China has always been a land of emperors. Throughout the history of China, it was ruled by ethnic minorities half the time. When the Eight-Nation Alliance invaded northern China in 1900, China was under the rule of the Manchus, who established the Qing Dynasty. So I think the view of history implied by “century of humiliation” is problematic.
The concept of a nation is fluid. Its territory and regime are constantly changing. “Century of humiliation” cannot explain the dilemma that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faces, but it rather illustrates their narrow world view. Instead of coming from a historical perspective, the CCP uses this statement to stir up nationalism and patriotism. The hardships that the Chinese people endure, and the damage done to Chinese culture since the founding of the CCP, are far greater than that of any other period.
In “Little Siberia”, you lived in a dugout, found a dead man inside a warehouse while playing hide and seek. How did you process the trauma as a child? What bearing do these have on your career as an artist?
Many people might find my childhood experience unfortunate but looking back, I find it very fortunate. Thanks to it, I am under no illusion about the world. When I was a child, I lived in a world which was reduced to the bare essentials; there were no ethics or moral standards. People obeyed the law of the jungle for survival. This experience helps me see the essence of problems directly.
When your father was assigned to clean toilets, you write he “accepted his lot stoically”. He believed it wouldn’t be unreasonable for him to clean toilets, though earlier he didn’t know who was doing it for him. Would you say the sense of justice that has propelled you to activism comes from your father?
I have a strong sense of justice when it comes to people’s basic rights. It comes from the experience that I shared with my father. This kind of experience alone did not make me an activist; it is not a unique experience of my own, but, rather, what tens of thousands of people also experienced. My sense of justice is probably also related to my study-abroad experience, or to the fact that I am an artist.
As an artist, you push the boundaries. Is that the purpose of art?
Art does not need any purpose. Its purpose is precisely not having any concrete political purpose. It is about human beings being human beings. It is about human nature and an extended form of human-based behaviour. If art is understood as purpose-oriented, art would be detached from philosophy, aesthetics and ethics. This is what is commonly believed, and it also shows a lack of understanding of art.
Preserving memory has been a strong theme in your art and work as a documentarian and an activist. Do you see art as an act of remembering? Is the artist a documentarian?
Art is fundamentally narcissistic behaviour and a self-awareness of human beings. Human history has been documented by art and expressed through art. It is an act of remembering facts but also expressions of psychology, aesthetics and ethics. We want to preserve memory, of course, because forgetting is too powerful. Forgetting can erase everything. When forgetting erases memory completely, human beings will be going towards extinction. As long as people are still alive, memory will always exist.
You write about how Western firms gloss over issues of citizens’ rights while striking deals in China. What is the West’s moral obligation to freedom of speech and human rights?
Human rights and freedom of speech are what we call universal values. They are a part of human instinct and human nature. When they are violated, people would lose what it means to be human. When these values are violated in an area, these values for all human beings are violated. The West and China thus have the responsibility to protect these values. When it comes to these issues, the West behaves poorly, just like China; they continuously compromise human rights and universal values for economic prosperity.
You have used the internet to reach out to audiences around the world. What do you feel about the internet’s negative aspects, especially lack of privacy, cancel culture, fake news?
All life-changing tools, inventions and technological advances came into being because they could be used by political and economic systems effectively. Without the support of corporations, militaries and governments, the internet would not grow into what it is today. Today, the internet is encountering even bigger problems globally. It partially facilitates free speech, and partially violates free speech. We can see that the internet has become authoritarian regimes’ tool of control. As a Chinese idiom goes, mud and sand flow together.
How do you see the role of an artist evolve as the world changes?
Art is an act of human beings. Some people are conscious of social justice, equality and human ideals, and some people do not care about any of these. It is a common social phenomenon. It is the same for art. People who care would care, those who do not care stumble blindly through life. This is the status quo.
Your art sometimes has involved breaking old things or salvaging materials to create something new. In your own words, “by alternately damaging the past and reconstructing it, I was able to make something different. Disdain is a chasm that no power can cross; it makes space for itself by subverting order”. Is that how the world can be a better place, by breaking existing order and recreating it?
We live in a world with constantly transformed viewpoints. Philosophers and artists continuously challenge and redefine our time. The world is changing all the time, and we are advancing with it. We have to use our own language to explain this world, to reform structures, and to shape new possibilities. The prerequisite is the freedom to doubt and challenge. Without it, the world would be dead silent and dull, and people would not be able to come unstuck from the status quo.
Delhi-based Arnika Thakur writes on business, culture, and sustainability.