Ai Weiwei is a multimedia artist and provocateur whose work has frequently challenged the Chinese government. His overtly political tweets and social activism (including his boycott of the Beijing Olympics after helping design its famed Bird’s Nest stadium) may have led to an 81-day detention last year – though the official charge was tax evasion. Still, he continues to speak out for creative freedom and other human rights.
Q: What compels you to cross disciplines?
A: Curiosity. And I get bored easily. If something no longer amuses or attracts me, then I give up. I’ve never planned any part of my career – except being an artist. And I was pushed into that because it was the only way to have a little freedom.
Q: You often work collaboratively. Why?
A: I think I can be creative only in a group. It’s all about the communication. It can help you build something that would not exist if you were working separately. It’s not just one plus one but something more.
Q: How do you manage these collaborations?
A: Management is sometimes very complicated. You have to understand every procedure, all the details and important factors. But sometimes it can be very loose. You just suggest a condition. Maybe you only vaguely know what you’re doing, but during the process you realize the whole idea.
Q: Your art and activism have thrust you into a position of leadership. Do you see yourself as a leader?
A: I see myself not as a leader but as somebody who initiates things or finds the problem or provokes a discussion. You have to be always ready to engage, willing to participate. When events or history happen, you just have to be aware and respond.
Q: What makes people respond so strongly to you?
A: I always emphasize common values, simple truths. I encourage people to see how they can achieve them. Most people, especially young people, have the same feeling I do, but the next step is to make a move. You don’t have to do much. I feel powerless all the time, but I regain my energy by making a very small difference that won’t cost me much. I think many people give up because they don’t know how to change just a little bit to reach a better position.
Q: Do you think creativity can be taught?
A: Creativity is part of human nature. It can only be untaught. Kids are put through a strong social-educational process that makes it impossible to develop unique thinking. The competition is like a tunnel from which there is no escape. That makes society simple and maybe even effective, but it’s not human.
Q: Creative destruction is an important theme for you.
A: It’s like being a clown in a play. You say something funny that forces people to look in the mirror differently. That can be very powerful.
Q: Your father, the poet Ai Qing, was exiled for years to labor camps. What did you learn from him?
A: Sincerity. My father never knew if he would survive, but when he cleaned toilets, he did it to perfection. That gave him the same joy he got from writing a beautiful line of poetry. Today we talk about that as a survival tactic. But he had no purpose apart from trying to enjoy the moment.