Oak Human Rights Fellow Jinyan Zeng interviews artist, activist Ai Weiwei

January 26, 2018
Artist and activist Ai Weiwei
Artist and activist Ai Weiwei

During her semester at Colby, the 2017 Oak Human Rights Fellow Jinyan Zeng, a Chinese filmmaker, blogger, activist, and scholar, interviewed the renowned artist and activist Ai Weiwei to discuss art, politics and exile. This interview was conducted and transcribed in Mandarin and translated into English.

Zeng: First, I’d like to understand what motivates you to create art. What part does ego play in your motivation to create?

Ai: In reality, everyone is looking for a method by which to express him- or herself. Art works well because its various methods and angles tell who you are and how you view the outside world. This doesn’t mean that I feel this at the very beginning of the process; rather, it’s in the gradual process of expression that this so-called “me” emerges from out of the expression. It was not there originally before the id is formed. Artistic expression is one way in which the ego is formed, as well as being a possibility for life to show its value.

Jinyan Zeng, 2017 Oak Institute Human RIghts Fellow
Jinyan Zeng, 2017 Oak Institute Human RIghts Fellow

Zeng: An artist often plays the role of the “joker,” agitating the status quo of various populations, powers, and cultures. What is the difference between the role of an artist in society in China and in Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world? What do you see as barriers, internal cultural taboos, or external cultural censorship that European and American artists face?

Ai: Artists in every country or region are restricted by their own languages, cultural conditions, and inherent histories. Within these restrictions, what limits a Chinese artist most is the severe political censorship system that exists today along with the misinterpretation and dismemberment of history. These two inhibitions alone have inflicted the greatest harm and distortion upon the development of art and art education in Chinese society. Whatever is left, what we call the phenomena of China’s cultural condition, falls basically within this scope. Since it is hard to give examples of each and every cultural phenomenon, we can only say that the overall condition is such. In other countries—mainly in Europe and the United States—because art is raised to an independent social status, one that promotes social development, that is how it is defined in those countries. In Europe and the U.S., art has taken on a role similar to that of philosophy and ethics, and it includes social criticism. Thus, it plays a relatively advanced cultural role.

Zeng: (Literary critic, artist, activist, and Nobel laureate) Liu Xiaobo passed away on July 13. How would you portray him? What are his contributions to China’s political and social movements and what are his limitations? In the post-Liu Xiaobo era, what is your key message to Chinese activists committed to China’s social and political change?

Ai: I don’t think there is a so-called “post-Liu Xiaobo era.” When an era is represented by a political figure, it must be a period demarcated by his influence on the political thinking of the general public. Such a period never appeared in China. He didn’t have any significant political influence after 1989; neither did he [have such influence] around the time of Charter 08.

Personally, I am one of the activists committed to China’s social and political change. I have been regarded as such in the past and I am so at present, at least by China’s political authority. I think that for China to have social and political reform, it is key for the Chinese people to recognize their own cultural and political conditions. This is a complex issue. The problem with China concerns not just the political power or the political system; the problem largely originates from China’s own culture and how mentally prepared the people are for responding and adapting to political change. Such preparation is extremely inadequate, with a very thin foundation, which is one of the most important reasons why change has been delayed over and over again.

“I have always adhered to one basic belief—that human rights and freedom of speech are a shared value, not a confined topic.”

Ai Weiwei

Zeng: After living in Berlin for a few years, how do you view your relationship with the Chinese government and China?

Ai: My relationship with China is independent of how many years I lived in Berlin or did not live there, before or after I lived there. My relationship with the Chinese authority is a long-term, unchanging oppositional relationship because China’s current political condition is totally opposite of the political ideal that I pursue personally. Being in Berlin freed me from a restrictive living environment and from real-life anxieties, kept me out of danger, and gave me an opportunity to address issues involving more universal human rights and humanitarian crises and to pay more attention to my activities in art. [After all] I have always adhered to one basic belief—that human rights and freedom of speech are a shared value, not a confined topic.

Zeng: Have you felt loneliness or fear? If yes, how do you describe them? Do you fear political violence, losing roots, or anything else?

Ai: If I feel loneliness or fear, it is usually caused by some difficulty that I have in communication when I try to express certain thoughts or certain principles. As for political violence and brutality, I hardly have any qualm or fear because I have always lived in that type of environment. You might also say that I don’t have any romantic complex of “nation” or “national territory.”

Zeng: I often see you speak up about various human rights issues around the world, a recent example of which being your new film Human Flow and related projects. In my understanding, you have become a powerful speaker for global social injustice. Would you say that you are building your own version of global citizenship? How would you define global citizenship? How does an individual act responsibly in the era of globalization?

Ai: For more than a year, I have mainly been studying refugee problems, and a key product of this research is the documentary film Human Flow. This large-scale documentary gave me an opportunity to visit various regions around the world and learn about complex human rights conditions as well as different understandings of human dignity.

I don’t consider myself a global citizen. Though I turned sixty this year, I don’t have the right to vote or cast a ballot in any country. My main realm of activity is social media. I can be called a modern gypsy. All I can do is to discuss a few basic topics concerning freedom of speech, individual dignity, and humanitarianism as much as possible based on my own experience with the limited time that I have.

(Cover Photo of Ai Weiwei: Alfred Weidinger/Flickr)

For more about the Oak Institute for Human Rights at Colby, please visit its website.