Ai Weiwei interview: ‘In human history, there’s never been a moment like this’

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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.

Among the Lego donators is Ais young son.

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.

Ai Weiwei in Melbourne: I have to make people understand we are not different, we are all created equal. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ AAP

To fulfilled the Australian exhibition deadline, which features a commission using toy bricks to depict and quote from notable local campaigners including Julian Assange who he met at the Ecuadorian embassy in London Rosie Batty, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and Peter Greste, he turned to Legos challengers. Chinese companies have copies of everything, and with a wry smile says he was able to quickly buy the required two million pieces much less expensive, and the same quality.

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.

Monica Tan (@ m_onicatan) December 9, 2015

@aiww hhDCg8dpxI

Along with his wispy, black facial hair he bears a similarity to the Chinese god of wealth, a little ironic considering he was detained for 81 days without formal charge by the Chinese government in 2012 on the grounds of investigating tax evasion.( His company was eventually ordered to pay 15 m yuan or $2.4 m in back taxes and penalties .)

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.

Ai Weiwei in Melbourne: No topic is hard to answer. Photograph: John Gollings

Does he feel he cant has become a belligerent as he used to be?

Ai asks what belligerent means. I explain it as: Where you go fuck you, Chinese government, and stick your middle thumb up.

He says: We are all draw lessons from our own past and also we are all draw lessons from our struggle with the opponent. Ai is still negotiating with how to preserve his beliefs , not to let it merely disappear, burn out, or make it too simplified.

His reply may seem evasive compared with the straight-shooting of past videos such as Fuck Your Motherland( the title is self-explanatory ), but perhaps his is a example of losing a few combats to win the war.

I mean you cannot always merely demand for ideology you have to see a way how to make it happen.

It is important to always brush up as close as possible to the line, I suggest. To play smart, rather than too aggressive or too safe. Thats politics, right? Ai says.

He claims to have never stopped speaking his mind. If anybody checks my record theyll know nobody can change my beliefs. But also, Im an artist. I always topic my language, my skill and the way to present an idea.

Ais enduring relationship with the world beyond Chinas borders stretches all the way back to 1982 when he moved to New York as a young artist. Partially the result of his fraught relationship with the Chinese government, much of his run, surely his biggest exhibitions, have all been held in international galleries.

It has led some to question whether his pieces are ever attained for a Chinese audience in intellect, or do they simply pander to long-held and oversimplified western premises about China and its deficits?

Ai says he creates art for human beings who understand their own essential values and requires. And they dont have to be western they can be Indian, can be Vietnamese, or can be Russian.

He takes issue with the idea of Chinese exceptionalism, which is nothing new in China. They call themselves zhongguo [ Middle Kingdom ]; they call all the west barbarians, he says.

China is no different from the west, he says. Any gap that might exist is merely a result of the basic human rights that have been sacrificed in recent history. Most[ Chinese] people dont know what theyre lack. Thats why I have to fight. I have to make people understand we are not different, we are all created equal.

Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei at the NGV maps out where the two artists intersect. Works such as Ais neolithic urn defaced with a Coca-Cola logo seem to echo Warhols Campbells Soup Cans. But it would be reductive to call Ai the Andy Warhol of 2015. He says the show is interesting because it simultaneously highlights how close but also so far away, so far apart the artists are in their respective culture backgrounds.

In their art, Ai aggressively engages with politics and current affairs( such as his moving roll call of the more than 5,000 students that died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake) while Warhol was forever occupied with consumerism, pop culture iconography and celebrity.

A frisson is created by their respective portraits of Mao Zedong hung in tandem. Ai says Warhol was a very keen and very sensitive artist, but portrayed the chairman as no different to Marilyn Monroe or a Coca-Cola sign strictly a sign or signature of that time.

Ai Weiwei on Beijing: Its a prison for freedom of speech

The Chinese artist has a very different relationship to the ruthless political leader who he says was very responsible for damaging the nation, the extermination of so much Chinese tradition and so much personal, family crisis( Ais father, the notable poet Ai Qing, was exiled to Xinjiang as part of the late 1950 s anti-rightist campaign ).

In another room Warhols photographic impressions of China during a 1982 visit face Ais photos of his life in New York. Ai finds it strange Warhol visited the country since it was every bit the opposite of what he believed. He said China was not beautiful because it didnt have McDonalds yet.

Ai find humour in this statement and says it an illuminating peek into Warhols values. He couldnt believe in that whole society at the time, maybe nearly a billion people , not a single one knew who Andy Warhol was. That shocked him the most.

Ai says what drew him, an immigrant from China, to New York was the same thing that depicted Warhol, who grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as the son of working- class Slovakian immigrants: Bright illuminations, big city.

Where Warhol saw the vanity, fame and success hed been searching for, the cards were stacked a little higher against Ai: the culture gap, his lack of fluent English, difficulty earning a decent wage( his tasks ranged from construction to house-cleaning, and babysitting ). I could not contribute to that society. I didnt consider New York needing me at all, so after 12 years I went back to China.

“We’re here to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow”( LEGO_Group) In June 2015 Ai Weiwei Studio began to design artworks which would have required a large quantity of Lego bricks to create. The works were planned for the exhibition “Andy Warhol/ Ai Weiwei” at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, to open in December 2015. The artworks’ conception relates to freedom of speech. The museum’s curatorial squad contacted Lego to place a bulk order and received Lego’s respond via email on 12 September 2015: “We regret to inform you that it is against our corporate policy to indicate our approval of any unaffiliated activities outside the LEGO licensing program. However, we realize that artists may have an interest in using LEGO parts, or castings hereof, as an integrated part of their piece of art. In this connection, the LEGO Group would like to draw your attention to the following: The LEGO trademark cannot be used commercially in any way to promote, or name, the art work. The title of the artwork cannot incorporate the LEGO trademark. We cannot accept that the motive( s) are taken directly from our sales material/ copyrighted photo material. The motive( s) cannot contain any political, religion, racist, obscene or defaming statements. It must be clear to the public that the LEGO Group has not sponsored or endorsed the art work/ project. Therefore I am very sorry to let you know that we are not in a position to support the exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei by rendering the bulk order.” Ai Weiwei Studio was informed by NGV about Lego’s rejection of the bulk order. As a commercial entity, Lego makes and sells dolls, movies and amusement parks attracting children across the globe. As a powerful firm, Lego is an influential culture and political actor in the globalized economy with questionable values. Lego’s refusal to sell its product to the artist is an act of censorship and discrimination .

A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@ aiww) on Oct 24, 2015 at 3:14 pm PDT

Ai Weiweis Instagram response to Lego

But by then he felt just as much like a misfit in China as he did in the US. He says he didnt are all part of a society which had no freedom of speech, but remained on because his father was ill and would soon die. He started getting into antique collecting, then architecture, but it was his 2005 discovery of the internet that really opened up another world for the artist.

The internet gives him a sense of belonging.

I can spend day and night on the internet and talk to people and exchange ideas. He says the impression is a kind of numbness but also one of immense power, of energy, imagination, and a burning desire to communicate In human history, theres never been a moment like this.

Warhols famous phrase In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes seems to foreshadow this era of around-the-clock social media. Ai says the artist was 50 years ahead of his time and that whats happening on Twitter was precisely like his writing punchy and pointed from brilliant ideas to very stupid sentences. And selfies? He did that a long time ago.

If there is anything the two artists share, says Ai, it is this: He loved his time.

Warhol was the greatest chronicler of contemporary culture, much like his Chinese equivalent. I love this time for is available on China and I do create a certain kind of social movement and social consciousness.

For Ai, social media is much more than a storehouse of cat videos( he also shares with Warhol a love of cats ), or even a vehicle for his ideas. It is both weapon and armor, are applied to ruthless consequence in his long-running tangle with the Chinese authorities. His footage of police brutality has been broadcast to thousands over the internet airwaves and was transformed into artworks and documentaries. In one telling scene in Never Sorry, Ais videographer, Zhao Zhao, is shot filming a public safety officer who is filming Ai and his friends feeing dinner on a Chinese street: like a serpent, feeing its own tail or mirrors infinitely reflecting into one another.

At one point during our dialogue, which is being filmed, he takes out his smartphone and movies me back. When he does it a second time, I call it disconcerting.

I have to do it. As revenge, he says.

Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei is at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 11 December 2015 to 24 April 2016

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