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Conversation with Ai Weiwei


Submitted By mahaliaparcero
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Summary of A Conversation with Ai Weiwei, an interview conducted by Zheng Shengtian Ai Weiwei, a respected contemporary artist from China is the interviewee in Zheng Shengtian’s article, A Conversation with Ai Weiwei. Conducted in the artists’ studio in Caochangdi, Beijing on July 19, 2013, Shengtian delves deeply into Weiwei’s life before and after his foray into the art world. It is through this interview that we get a sense of what the underlying inspirations were and what the current motivating factors are for Ai Weiwei as an artist and activist. A privileged childhood was far from the reality for Ai Weiwei. At an early age, Weiwei was already grasping what it meant to be wrongly accused and the consequences it had. Weiwei and his family were sent to live in a military camp in Xinjiang, China after his father; Ai Qing was condemned as a “rightist” in 1957 (Shengtian 6). When asked about his life in the military camp, Weiwei did not have a clear recollection and only saved a few traumatizing memories. He recalled the time when their military camp fired the first shot of China’s Cultural Revolution on January 26th. “I remember hearing lots of explosive noises. I saw my family boarding up the door. I heard running footsteps on our rooftop. Because the rooftop was made of tiles, which were not soundproof, I could hear the bullets whistling by” (Shengtian 8). Seeing dead bodies, including classmate, Ma Lu, is still very much a vivid memory for Ai Weiwei. Such scenes would distress any child but for 9-year-old Ai Weiwei, a sense of curiosity and confusion ensued. “I had been desensitized by the constant exposure to these kinds of verbal attacks since I was little. I was aware that something bad was happening, but I was not intensely frightened” (Shengtian 8). At such a young age, Weiwei’s interest in social perception piqued. He wanted to understand the actions and reactions. Using his father as a firsthand example, he was able to grasp the damning effects of a man who was constantly being “publicly denounced and physically humiliated” (Shengtian 8). Weiwei discusses seeing the fear in his father’s eyes as he endured constant mistreatment. Being on hand during these public condemnation meetings made Ai Weiwei uncomfortable. He recounts the scene when his father was forced to walk through neighbourhoods drumming on a broken pan whilst shouting: “I am a criminal and I am a Rightist, for I am against the Party and Socialism.” Behind him, there were children throwing stones at him” (Shengtian 9). Looking back, Ai Weiwei feels sympathetic towards his dad because he was a “poet deprived of writing” (Shengtian 11). Such a simple privilege removed, Weiwei asserts that his father’s writing caused him trouble. After seeing his father’s path, it was a given that Weiwei was not intent on pursuing the arts. It was only due to Ai Qing’s passionate discussions about art that Ai Weiwei began to develop a relationship with it. After returning to Beijing after the end of the Cultural Revolution, a colleague of Ai Qing’s taught Weiwei how to draw. Venturing to places such as railway stations and other monuments in the city, drawing became a sort of escape for him. Inspired by this creative world, he applied to the Beijing Film Academy and studied in the school of Set Design. In 1981, however, Ai Weiwei quit school to move to the United States. He attributes his unconventional, “post-Impressionistic” style paintings as being disliked by his teachers. His straying from the norm and disobedience from school rules led him to his next adventure in New York City. Ai Weiwei credits his time in the United States as one of the most important experiences of his life. It is in this environment where he learned about “personal freedom, independence and relationship between the individual and the state, as well as the power structure of that society – and art” (Shengtian 15). While living in Manhattan, Weiwei did not let his financial struggles and cultural barriers get in the way of experiencing this new life. A life filled with more truth than that of his life in China. Because of this newfound truth, Weiwei did not aspire to be a successful artist in New York. He abandoned painting and discarded his work. His interest was not to fulfill the “American Dream” of earning a living through a stable career. Weiwei had learned that “art is an attitude, a way of life” (Shengtian 16). Through this conversation with Shengtian, one can get a sense that Ai Weiwei was and is influenced by his father. His nonchalant attitude about money and social status in New York is reminiscent of his father’s simple lifestyle. Ironically, both have endured similar bullying and destruction by the hand of the government. Ai Qing was forced to burn his personal collection of books for fear that the guards would raid their home and accuse him of misbehaviour. Like his father, Weiwei’s personal property (studio in Shangai) had been destroyed by government authorities. Weiwei had also been imprisoned for actions he was not guilty of doing. “I thought my father and I were now even. Our “crime” was similar, too. He was accused of “disrupting public order” (Shengtian 18). Present day, Ai Weiwei’s driving force is to understand and facilitate the right of human expression. As a sort of homage to his father, who was denied this basic privilege of expression, Weiwei fights to fulfill this right for him and his fellow countrymen. “We are all entitled to be happy, enthusiastic or even frightened about our dreams” (Shengtian 18). With this credo, Weiwei believes that his dissonance to any authoritative force that deprives people of these basic needs is warranted. In memoriam to Ai Qing, Ai Weiwei is completing the work that his father did not do. Instead of remaining silent, Weiwei has chosen to speak the truth, loud and clear.

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