Ask the artist and dissident what he has in common with Andy Warhol and he says he loved his time. Ahead of his Melbourne show he talks about China, America, Lego and the wonders of the internet in conversation with Monica Tan
So how many pieces of secondhand Lego does Ai Weiwei own? Millions, he says. We havent had the chance to count it yet.
There are a huge number of gifts still pouring in from 20 collect points at museums around the world, a response to an appeal when Lego declined a bulk order on behalf of the artist, on the grounds that supporting the blockbuster exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei would contravene corporate policy.
I told him: Anything special dont give it to me; I just require the simple blocks. But it was still such a difficult option for him. With every decision the child was inundated by compunction, the Sophies Choice of six-year-olds. He had a lot[ of Lego] but ultimately he only “ve given me” a little.
Speaking to Guardian Australia at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Ai says the appeal illustrates how essential the toys are to every child. I mention there is something wonderful about the symbolic childhoods of so many disparate strangers snapping together with that distinctive click. Its a beautiful game. I think its important for people to think about constructing together.
After its repudiation, Ai retaliated against Lego by reposting the letter text on his Instagram with a photo of a toilet bowl clogged with the toy bricks. The lavatory the signature R. Mutt 2015, a including references to Marcel Duchamps readymade porcelain urinal, Fountain.
The Danish companys refusal to sell its product was an act of censorship and discrimination, he wrote.
So, is it easier to go up against a multinational company than it is his traditional sparring partner, the Chinese Communist party? I dont think so. All those big companies have the same kind of bureaucracy, same various kinds of ignorance.
In both Lego and the CCP, Ai recognises a refusal to negotiate or change their line, even when mistakes have been induced, even historical mistakes by an organization forebears. They have to stand by them because losing even one piece can collapse the whole structure.
Corruption and repression of individual rights and voices are just as much trademarks of corporations as they are authoritarian governments, he says.
Since the end of October, Ai has been collecting Lego for some future unknown artwork. I present him with my own sandwich suitcase of 25 pieces of Lego, which he graciously accepts. Every number countings, he says, in the softest voice. At days he is barely audible, which is so incongruous to his hefty figure.
After his detention, Ais passport was retained by the government and he staged a simple, yet solemn, ritual protest: placing fresh blooms in the basket of a bicycle outside his Beijing studio every morning. Over the four years, there were multiple times the authorities concerned claimed to be on the verge of returning his passport, merely to push back the date. I started to think theyre playing a game, he says.
Ai stopped believing he would ever get his passport back after all, he would hardly be the first. Tibetans cannot get their passports, Xinjiangs Uighur people cannot get their passports millions of people and many, many lawyers , not only can they not get a passport but their children, too, cannot analyze outside China. He contrasts this with the thousands of officers living abroad with their partners and children. They live very comfortable, glamorous lives, but they treat anybody who has a different sentiment as the enemy.
Ai lives in Berlin, as does his son and his sons mother for the past year, and is teaching at colleges and universities. But he still deems himself a Chinese citizen. Ais mother and other family are in China; most of his work is still generated from his Chinese studio where dozens of people are hired.
I plan to go back any time I want to or need to, he says. True freedom must include the ability to return to China , not to simply leave it, otherwise its not freedom.
He has already tested this facility of movement, recently visiting Beijing for 2 week without issue. Its fine, but it can change at any moment.
Other than his bicycle protest Ai has apparently taken a step back from political activism since his detention. News footage included in the 2012 documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, captured the artist attempting to quietly return home after his detention. He looked harrowed and several kilos lighter.
He was polite but firm in refusing to speak to media. It seemed the person who is once blogged at least once a day, installed a live webcam in his studio, and tweeted and posted selfies with the fever of a adolescent had abruptly fallen silent.
When asked why he wasnt giving interviews, he said: Live your life. Everybody just living through. The cameras continues to flashing in his face. I cannot say anything, Im on bail. I cannot devote any interviews, please. So sorry.
When I preface my next question as maybe being hard to answer he interrupts and says: No question is hard to answer.