The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon talks to Ai Weiwei about pressure from the authorities, its effect on his art, and his ongoing state of heavily restricted freedom which, MacKinnon writes, “could only be possible in the China of 2012.”
After barely speaking to him during his 81 days of solitary confinement last summer, the men who held China’s most famous artist and dissident captive came to him with a suggestion: Focus on your art, they told him. Stay away from politics, and you’re free to make as much money as you can ….
“I tried to explain to them that I’m artist and expressing myself is my job, my duty. That communicating is very important for me.” It wasn’t an argument that impressed the security men. “They kept telling me that I’m part of a Western strategy to change China ….”
“My art comes from my understanding of the world in front of me, which includes the politics,” Ai says when asked how his battles with the government have affected his artistic output. “It includes all the human struggles – mental, aesthetic, moral, philosophical, and of course, in China right now, politics is part of it. But I don’t have to put politics in my art. It’s all part of it.”
The authorities’ support for Ai’s art career appears to be a relatively recent development. According to Edward Wong’s account in Saturday’s New York Times, one of his interrogators last year questioned the artistic merit of his Zodiac Heads, expressing bewilderment at the high prices they had fetched. “Very few people know why art sells so high,” Ai told him. “I don’t even know.”