Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Ai Weiwei, Artist

As a final chapter of the book MAD Dinner, I spoke with the Chinese artist/troublemaker Ai Weiwei. The intention was to have an insightful and opinionated person respond to some of the book’s central issues, to provide a final burst of external pressure to our work. Weiwei did not disappoint.

This is the final conversation that we’re going to do for this book, so to start I’d like to return to a few of the points that have come up in the other discussions. One of the topics we’ve talked a lot about is utopia. In a conversation we had with the historian Wang MingXian, he mentioned that there is a contradiction in China between the seeming lack of utopianism in everyday life and the utopian elements that can be felt below the surface. What do you make of that contrast between daily practicalities and the willingness to dream about the future and large scale change?

This is a very typical kind of theoretical discussion, which I hate. I think it’s stupid, because it sounds right, but it is not related to reality whatsoever. It just sounds right, because all the scholars or theory-makers are very comfortable with these kinds of topics. It’s so self-serving.

Of course, if you think about earlier times, like under communism, there was a more utopian concept to the society. But, in reality, it had nothing to do with utopia. No matter whether you’re talking about the Great Leap Forward or the san lu xian, the three guidelines for development. All these utopian ideas were separated from the local policies, which were not so utopian.

Especially today, we’ve had this policy to let certain people get rich first, then we had the so-called Open Door Policy and reform. These may seem like utopian concepts, but actually the logic behind them has nothing to do with utopia at all. It has much more to do with power struggles, greed, ruthlessness, and the distortion of social justice. A lot of the changes that came from these policies were really the result of structural defects in the government, and it had nothing to do with utopianism. So it’s absolutely outrageous to talk about this sort of thing. That’s my impression at least.

So is your feeling that the notion of utopia is added after the fact to give these changes a pretty face and a sense that it is moving according to a plan?

It’s like buying a wedding dress for a farmer who works in the fields or fixes horseshoes. Of course she can wear it, but it has nothing to do with what she is doing.

Do you notice that currently there’s less interest in putting a utopian appearance on what’s happening in society?

Globally, I don’t think this utopian thinking and analysis is working. It’s so far from reality. I think it has no value, because the human being is becoming more and more practical, like an animal, he is very reactionary and reflective of his conditions. There’s almost no sense of right or wrong or moral judgment anymore. It’s only based on profit-making and how to make something bigger or faster or more efficient.

Most of the utopian projects, whether political or in terms of architecture, either were applied with great tragedy or simply stayed on paper. As theories, they work, but I think plans to make human society ideological or to impose certain kinds of unity at a large scale always turn out to be very stupid.

Another topic we’ve talked about is the relationship between architecture and art. Hans Ulrich Obrist mentioned that he’s noticed the proliferation of museums and galleries throughout the west has created more opportunities to show and re-discover artists and architects who may have been forgotten. At the moment, China is building museums at an incredible rate and some people worry that there won’t be enough skilled workers or collections to really make these new places meaningful. Do you see the potential for a kind of re-engagement with forgotten or misunderstood aspects of China’s cultural past through all these new exhibition spaces?

I’m not sure about elsewhere, but in China, I think all these galleries are being opened for two reasons. One is the blind planning policies of the state. They think a city might need a lot of galleries, but they don’t think about what goes in them. The other reason is the market. People think art can sell, so naturally they will be attracted to it as a business.

It reminds me… When China first started the Open Door Policy, people started to buy refrigerators. But, at that time, the living style was still day-to-day. Everyday they cooked and ate the food that they’d bought that day. There were people who went out to do the shopping, because they had nothing else to do. That was their daily activity. So there were never any leftovers; they ate what they bought and that was it. The refrigerator was purely an empty box. For years. For many families, the refrigerator had no purpose, but they bought a refrigerator simply as a showcase. I think the galleries are the same. It’s not only a showcase. You need other things – you need collectors, you need curators, you the facilities associated with the showcase.

Also, in China during the old times, people didn’t need a gallery to show their works. This is a purely western, commercial idea. In the old times, people simply made a painting on a scroll, then they would roll it up and put in their sleeve. When they go to visit a friend, they’d take it out. That’s another way to show it. I think the gallery is quite a stupid space, actually. You have a box there just for showing.

Another kind of platform for showing things that we’ve been thinking about is the popular media. One of the points that we tried to make is that, to a certain extent, mainstream media are useful, because they allow people in professions that haven’t had a high level of recognition, like art or architecture, to become more visible.

I think the Internet and and these kinds of media are the most wonderful thing to have happened. Any vehicle that can break the old system is revolutionary. It’s absolutely breaking the old value system, which is a system that is associated with a certain kind of power and rights. So I think this is one the best things to ever happen to human beings. For the first time, individuals have the possibility to announce themselves or get free information, to have an equal amount of information and opportunity to speak as anybody else. This is totally changing the world.

That’s true of the Internet, but for older media like magazines and television, there are still powers that decide what is included and how it is presented. One of the concerns the was expressed in another conversation we had with the critic Shi Jian was that, in order to establish yourself on these larger platforms, you need to subject yourself to being filtered and shaped in a way that the editors feel the audience can understand.

Of course that’s a problem. People always want to filter you into a certain kind of language. They think it’s easier to digest. That concept is totally crazy. They try to imagine a potential audience, which may or may not even exist. But, on the other hand, that always gives an opportunity to somebody who has a new idea and is brave enough to find a new channel or new passage. So this is OK. It’s the normal character of our thinking. You know, stupidity is a remarkable aspect of the human brain. We can never really escape from it. We always have the potential to make a breakthrough, but it always shows that we are very stupid.

It’s funny, because one of the main fascinations of western media toward China is the topic of censorship, but, when you spend time at western magazines and TV stations, you find that this imagined audience that you mention has the same influence of determining what can and can’t be said.

But that kind of thing is always very interesting, because then you realize that people have a weak point. No matter where you go, the weak point is the same: they are scared. It’s the same shit everywhere. The bigger the company, the more conservative they become, because they cannot afford any mistakes.

That makes the game very interesting, because you realize that you have a lot of possibilities. By nature, they cannot compete with you. If you’re a true troublemaker, then you’re always on the front lines.

I think the idea of “the game” is especially interesting in China at the moment, because there is a system here that is mutating, but is also making strong efforts to maintain itself. In that sense, the terms of the game are constantly changing, so the ways that one who plays would probably also have to be refreshed regularly.

Yes, especially in China, because it’s a society that has accumulated a huge amount of power at the top, either through the Communist Party or the old (imperial) structure. Because the size of the structure itself becomes so large, the spaces in between also grow, and the individual can have great freedom. It’s not like a place where power is evenly distributed and you have very little space in between the cracks.

In our conversation with Ma QingYun, he mentioned the idea that, especially prior to reform, there was an unstated contract here that basically said that if you are willing to forego freedom in a formal sense, you can actually experience almost total freedom informally, because there are so many gaps in the structure.

Because it’s such a simplified and brutally ignorant system. So there is a huge space to negotiate from. Because there are many many things that the power is not sensitive to and not aware of.

I think that another of the values of the Internet and online technologies is that they keep widening the spaces over which power lacks control. In or outside of China, the legal or commercial powers are always playing catch-up, so it’s only in retrospect that they can say, “That’s wrong.”

That’s why we’re living in an exciting time – because we act before we give moral judgment. We have a chance to do things without anyone watching. So we do it, and then maybe we find out that people think it’s wrong. But that’s only a moral judgement; it has a different meaning from the actual act. But in many societies or periods of history, it’s not like that. You act and you know exactly what the result will be, and this is totally lacking in adventure or surprise.

Do you think that observation also applies to the ways that cities are changing in China? They are basically growing wildly, and it seems there’s no oversight determining right or wrong, only a sequence of actions made by all sorts of parties.

Well, first, of course we are not trying to find an excuse for wrongdoing. There have been costs and very obvious mistakes there. But, besides that, any wrongdoing today may become a brilliant result tomorrow. If you are a chess player, you know that you play until you die – if you haven’t died then the game is still going on. So I don’t think it’s a problem. Even without planning, even chaotic conditions can later become very humane conditions.

Many things have been said about the environment or population density or traffic, and sometimes people will say, “If you do this, it would be wrong and that would be right…” But I think if you make it even worse, even more wrong, it can become a much better condition. The old judgments about right and wrong are talking about an existing experience, but these times are different. Humans’ minds can be brilliant when they are faced with a problem. If we never confronted true problems, we would never have brilliant conditions. For example, this post-communist Chinese society has the possibility to create real problems, but maybe something interesting, a different sort of conclusion or result, will come out of it.

I think that’s a particularly important point in terms of the issues you mentioned before, environmental and population issues, etc. Because, in confronting its problems, China has the opportunity to come to solutions that would be useful for other parts of the world, especially because they would have to be low cost solutions.

I think if the problem is created by people, the solution will also be given by those people. It’s their lives, they have to find their own way. They have to live with their mistakes, and wisdom will be generated from that. Most the time, the worst dangers are not caused by a crisis, but by the attempt to control. That, to me, shows the great danger in our society, because the whole civilization is based on problem control and safety-oriented thinking. I think to make a true mistake is a true opportunity to find new wisdom. But in many societies these kinds of mistakes are not allowed, so there’s no new wisdom there. It’s just a routine performance.

One of the interesting points in our talk with Jia JiangKe was that China is currently in a state where it does not look to the past or forward to the future. People here are only engaged in the challenges and dreams of the present. And I wonder if that refusal to think backward or forward is enabling people to forego moral judgments and potentially make “true mistakes”.

The conditions in China are very much the result of a dialogue with the communist ideology – the struggle between the old feudalistic society and the modern contemporary society. I don’t think, philosophically, Chinese people trust democracy as a scientific development. It’s just not in their blood. But, of course, after being beaten down, they realized that it is absolutely necessary for them to change the model. So the philosophy became extremely practical. In Deng XiaoPing’s words, “Touch the stone to cross the river.” You can’t stay on this side of the river and you can’t stay in the river. You have to cross it, but you go step by step. It’s really practical.

There’s a good side and a bad side. There’s no ideological struggle in the minds of most Chinese people, because they never look further than daily problems. But, actually, problems can’t be solved by looking only at the present, because whatever you do today creates a new problem. It’s very stupid, but that’s also based on those in power thinking that maintaining their power is the absolute first priority.

In an interview we did with Huang Yan, a Beijing city official, she mentioned that government participation has increased with the spread of free market values, like private property. People feel invested in defending what is theirs and so they have more interest in influencing the decisions that the leaders make. Even if it is not in their blood, perhaps people here are becoming more interested in democracy at least as a way to protect their own things.

What the communists are doing is also very practical. They will never announce the reforms, but they will deal with the obstacles. The current government thinks it is necessary to give some space for human rights and property rights. That seems very small; people might not consider how small policy changes will effect the whole, but a strategy for how to protect the whole city may come from these individual property protection laws.

I think, somehow, this powerful government has started to set up obstacles for itself to overcome. There used to be just one player, and now they’ve tried to introduce other players.

In talking about the possibility of change here, the British writer Ian Buruma made the point that the Party uses a strategy where it expands individual freedom while still limiting any kind of organized form of dissent. What do you think is the potential for group rights in the process of reform?

That would be the next thing. More and more individuals have the same kinds of problems, so it becomes a group automatically. Sometimes you see an entire neighborhood block a road, because they all have the same kind of problem. There are one hundred thousand illegal protests every year. Those are by people trying to protect their individual rights, but in the exact same conditions.

Do you see any possibility of these thousands of isolated protests ever linking together?

I think once their problems become unified, they will become unified. Now China is becoming more and more simple – rich and poor – the people who take advantage and gain all the power and property, and the people who lose all the property. I think it’s a danger for the society.

What do you think is the role of the educated middle class in this situation? Buruma argued that the affluent urban population, that you’re a member of, is not engaged in what’s happening to the mass of Chinese people, because life is getting better for them individually. He seems to think that the greatest potential for change in China is if this middle class starts to engage the pockets of dissent that you mentioned before.

It’s like being at a dinner where you have five dishes for five people. Then ten or twenty people come and, of course, people feel very different. Now fewer people are sharing more people’s profits and property. So maybe there is a space there, but the conditions are also changing.

What is the need for so-called social justice? I don’t think it’s only about spreading money and property. It’s more about the belief in a system that can be good for everybody, even the poor. But China has never had this system, that’s the problem. Even the people who have money – they’re rich, but they still don’t believe it. They will do anything to protect their own money. And that creates an unstable society, because there’s no justice in that kind of society.

A system like today’s communist structure tries to avoid acknowledging basic truth and providing basic justice. It’s stupid, because eventually it only protects those people who are not going to support it. The middle class and people who are getting rich today will definitely not support the [communist] system.

In talking to the government official I mentioned before, she made a point of saying it’s necessary to suffer for the good of the city or country as a whole. For instance, in Beijing there is terrible traffic and pollution, but the government won’t put a limit on the number of cars, because it’s a policy to have Beijing raise up the Chinese automobile industry. People living here just have to accept it.

That also comes back to the subject of justice. Who is suffering and who is profiting from this? If it’s not an elected government and the suffering is not worthwhile then of course it’s not fair. And in order to maintain this unfairness of course you have to control the newspapers. You have to control the freedom of expression, and, in controlling that, of course you become another kind of society. You’re not only suffering from car pollution, but from crimes to our minds and humanity. So I hate the kind of argument [the official makes]. We’d have to start from a very small element – justice, fairness, and individual expression. Otherwise it’s just an excuse for the wrongdoing of the government and the rich.

Certain improvements are visible in the media here though. There are more negative stories in the press than there were even a couple years ago, so clearly there’s an understanding that certain feelings have to be acknowledged even if the overall coverage is being controlled.

That’s true. I’m not saying that they’re not making an effort. The change is there, but is that because they believe in change or because it’s necessary for their survival? Those are very different reasons. Is it ideology or just necessity? Of course it can never be purely one or the other, but if there’s not enough discussion, no intellectuals, no healthy self-expression, then one side is missing and that automatically supports this kind of wrongdoing.

One day they plan to end this [system]. I think they are quite sure that it will come to an end, but, on the surface, it seems no one is willing to announce it. It’s crazy.

Do you think the government really has a plan like that? An exit strategy almost…

I wonder… If anybody has any rationality they should have a plan. They cannot maintain a society like this. It’s impossible.

At a certain stage, reform becomes more necessary but also more difficult. It requires much more effort and sacrifice. You cannot control it. I’ve never made a close study of this, but I can sense that it’s like a chess game. Everybody is trying to play a game where you make moves that don’t not draw immediate attention, but that can eventually be useful. Otherwise, the game would not be so interesting.

Another topic we’ve explored in the book is the idea of going abroad and the ways in which international recognition can help establish an artist within China. Zhang YiMou mentioned the model that his generation of filmmakers established where, through international prizes, you empower yourself domestically. You have a peculiar experience in that you’re well-known abroad, but have only recently started exhibiting in China.

Yes, and it was only one work. But I don’t think personal power is derived from [recognition]. Even if you get more opportunities, what are you going to do with the opportunities? Both powerful and powerless people constantly struggle; it’s just that the powerless have less of an effect.

It’s not about how much power you get, but how it’s used. Otherwise it’s a waste, just as with Zhang YiMou. He has no power, because the true power belongs to another – the government. He’s used as a part of the propaganda machine. These stupid kung-fu movies or whatever never touch reality; they don’t give you any valuable personal reflections on today’s condition. What’s wrong with them? It’s because they enjoy this collaboration with power so much. But actually you’re losing power, you’re not gaining it.

A final issue that we cover in the book, but we’ve not discussed here yet is nature. Nature is a theme at Ma YanSong uses a lot in talking about his work. Of course he’s not alone, many designers make these sorts of references to natural objects or images…

I think that Ma YanSong is absolutely a liar. His work has nothing to do with nature. It would be insulting to connect the terms Ma YanSong and nature together. He’s just a retarded liar. Print that.

So you’re saying that, in this case, the nature reference is added after the fact to put a pretty face on something, similar to what we talked about in terms of utopia.

Many people say their works relate to the spirit of nature, but you see that only people who are far from understanding nature talk like this. You’re human, you’re part of nature. Whatever you do, even your shit, is part of nature. Just because you talk about being part of nature doesn’t make you any more a part of nature. It is absolutely naive to talk this way. You can only say this to some government officials or developers who know nothing about architecture. So to use that excuse only shows a lack of educational background. It’s a kind of romanticism. I often see architects claim there’s some kind of connection to nature. But then you immediately think it’s just somebody wanting to sell a bad idea. A good idea is obvious. This kind of reference really underestimates human intelligence. It’s crazy.

Originally published in MAD Dinner (Actar, 2008)