Ai Weiwei, the ‘most powerful artist in the world’, comes to Cambridge – and blasts Brexit

‘A nation should be generous’: The Chinese dissident spoke to The Tab as part of his extraordinary May Week visit

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“I behaved myself a little bit to get permission to travel again, and so I am here.”

Taking a break from holding the Chinese Politburo to account, Ai Weiwei, world-renowned artist-rebel of postmodernity, somehow ended up in Cambridge in the middle of May Week.

In fact, he has just launched a new exhibition at Downing College’s Heong Gallery – but that did not make his visit any less extraordinary.

His previously bushy beard now trimmed and tidy, the legendary artist has taken to mixing a different kind of politics with his art of late. Having got his passport back in 2015 after almost five years of confiscation, much of his focus was not on China but on Europe. His critical eye turned towards Western modernity, he has recently ruffled feathers with his recreation of that most harrowing of photographs from the refugee crisis, in which he replaces the infant lying on the beach with his own body.

After somewhat half-heartedly, and half-audibly, answering questions on China – “politically there is almost no change, no change at all” – Ai lit up when asked about the refugee photo.

“I don’t understand why people were saying I can’t do this picture. As an artist, I need form, I need media, I need performance.”

Source: YouTube

Ai wanted to “find a language to give status” to those crossing into Europe.

If Ai Weiwei and his art are almost impossible to pin down – his mind and voice not infrequently wandering off, challenging even the most ardent listener – it was this thread of internationalism which united the disparate elements of what he had to say, from his time with Warhol in New York, to his current residence in Berlin, and his caution regarding nationalism, be it in China or increasingly within the EU.

It was on my question of Brexit, ironically enough, that he offered a straight answer on this, musing that the “most important thing today” is “to recognise that you are part of somebody else, to recognise that somebody is part of you.”

“To separate is to go backwards, and not a good move.”

Adding pragmatism to his philosophising, he noted: “All the European nations have a very strong character. But in terms of economic power and political power, staying together, I think, will be better than to separate, to be so self-protective.”

“I think a nation should be generous – to accept and to exchange and to overcome those difficulties [of difference and cooperation].”

The man himself

The parallel tension, as it were, between the open Hong Kong system and closed mainland socio-economic system received similar treatment by the artist.

“China has to move forward for its own survival. It is such a struggle to have free enterprise and liberty and at the same time have strong state control.

“It is self-destructive and doesn’t work that well and as you can see has come to quite a difficult moment.”

Ai is nonetheless a little reticent on the China question and the reason becomes clear when I press him on the division between art and politics.

Some critics have suggested that all his campaigning has subsumed his art, which has become one-dimensional, little more than a mirror of whatever particular political campaign he happens to be pursuing at the time. Although much-celebrated, his Johnnie Walker piece, for instance, so unambiguously suggests that Western consumer culture has engulfed Chinese culture that there is little be more to be said about it.

He shoots back that the Bird’s Nest stadium, for which he is perhaps most famous, is “an architecture project, not a political one explicitly.”

Note that Ai Weiwei also enjoys selfies – even with Tab journalists

In fact, he says “it would be nice to give space to a more democratic” interpretation than the one it seems to have been given, “of China’s ambition to have a very strong image”. He adds: “I like the architecture part, but I don’t like how it’s being used.”

“The stadium is supposed to be a public building, but it is never really used for the public and it has never become an active part of the city.”

Interestingly, he says he “never purposely uses art to achieve something else.”

“I think art itself is a language. It is a very dependent language. Sometimes it carries a political message. The political message is so crucial to everybody’s life, of course. So I don’t see why these two cannot be combined and I don’t see why people endeavour to separate things into ‘this is art’ and ‘this is political’. I just don’t understand that.”

With more than a small army of museum directors and critics willing to defend Ai’s aesthetic mission – his Royal Academy exhibition last year was quite something – it’s not hard to see how ArtReview awarded him the accolade of most powerful artist in the world.

Lauding him as a rare case of a celebrity artist focused not on ensuring the dollars roll in, but on “reconnecting art with issues of social and cultural value”, their assessment certainly seems apt as I reflect after our interview finishes and hear yet more about Nigel Farage’s dangerous little posters.