For someone so controversial that he’s constantly placed under “house arrest” and censored from Chinese Artist of the Year posts, Aiweiwei sure is able to get the word out about himself. In a country that drags bloggers into detainment over suspicions of “incitement to subvert state power”, “disappears” some prominent activists and has thugs throw rocks at foreign journalists trying to reach other prominent activists, Ai Weiwei has still somehow managed to give a particularly candid interview to Time Out: Hong Kong.
Former That’s Shanghai editor-in-chief Jake Hamilton (now with TOHK) talked to the artist about everything – from whether the Jasmine Revolution is a real thing to what happened with his Shanghai studio to how stupid it is that a supposedly strong government can’t take a tweet. Hamilton was nice enough to send us a preview before the issue comes out in Hong Kong on Wednesday.
On the absurdity of people getting arrested for putting a white flower on the ground in Beijing:
It’s absurd for you, but not so absurd for us, because you can be sentenced here for putting up Tweets. The internet is designed as a space for discussion, for different opinions, so how can a government after 60 years in control be unable to take even a small slight? They can’t take opinions. They can’t take different viewpoints. They are going further and further in the opposite direction of democracy. On the surface it looks fine, with glamorous meetings, such as the Olympics or the Shanghai EXPO. But Shanghai destroyed my studio in just one night. They paid a lot of money to build it, but they also paid to destroy it.
On how the Shanghai studio demolition affected what was supposed to be his first major China exhibition at Ullens Gallery in Beijing:
We prepared that show for a year and a half. All the work was ready. I think from what they told me, it was something like, ‘because Shanghai destroyed your studio there is now so much discussion and it makes us nervous.’ They thought the exhibition would bring them some sad effect. But they clearly did not tell me whether this was self-censorship or an order from high up.
On what happens during house arrest (which he was placed under after deciding to throw a party in honor of his studio demolition) and how it made him feel:
It is a strange feeling. Firstly, I feel bad that I was going to have a party which I could not attend. Over 1,000 people registered to attend, so that means a few more thousand would have attended. I told the police and they said, ‘Oh, then just don’t go, it’s getting to too big.’ But how can I invite people and then not show up? The police said, ‘Easy, tell them you are under house arrest.’ No, no, I said, I cannot do that unless I really am under house arrest. ‘OK,’ said the police, ‘but you still can’t go.’ Well nothing can stop me unless you put me in an extreme condition, I said. So right before I left for the plane a large group of police came right into this room saying, ‘Now we announce you are under house arrest.’ I asked them exactly what did that mean. They said, ‘You cannot leave this house. We will stay outside until the midnight of the day of the party.’ I told them it was ridiculous. If you put me under house arrest that means the party is over, because I am the host. They said, ‘This is an order.’ So I stayed at home, under house arrest, by law…
Well, I realised it was not so much different from my normal life. I stay here every day anyway. People come to interview me, or I Twitter; it’s just the same. In fact I did about 20 interviews while I was under house arrest and the whole world knew about the situation. It even triggered the British Prime Minister to write a letter asking to pay more attention to human rights. Yet still you are being watched, your bank account is being checked, your emails are being checked, your phone is being tapped, you are being followed and monitored, and there are people outside your office. But this always shows the weakness of their power. It’s such a pitiful thing that you don’t even want to say it: their lacking of confidence, their lacking of skill of communication, their refusal to discuss intellectually any matter. They [the Communist Party] have to have an enemy. They have to create you as their enemy in order for them to continue their existence. It’s very ironic.
And speaking of the Communist Party and its creation of its own enemies – a bit on Liu Xiaobo:
[Visibly angered] Even his wife cannot see him! You don’t sentence the one person, you sentence the whole family! He has totally disappeared. All the lawyers cannot see him. Nobody can see him. I mean, come on! If you are so right, if you think justice has been served then you have to do it correctly; you cannot do it secretly. This is not the time to do that. Sentence him, yes. In front of the people in open court, fine. But not secretly.
Not that I wish it on him in the least, but with interviews like this, I genuinely wonder how Ai Weiwei’s gotten as little (comparatively) harassment from the authorities.