Lukas Feireiss sits down with world famous Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei in the barrel-vaulted caverns of his underground studio in a former brewery in Berlin to speak about cultural heritage, retracing family legacies and living in exile.
This conversation was originally featured in our 2018 publication, Feiress’ Legacy: Generations of Creatives in Dialogue.
LUKAS FEIREISS: I would like to start by addressing an earlier work of yours that, to me, represents a very provocative stance towards the subject of legacy, in particular cultural legacy. With Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), you smashed a 2000-year-old ceremonial urn. The Han dynasty is considered a defining moment in Chinese civilization. This is an act of high symbolic power. In its literal iconoclasm, this smashed vase to me, seems to question the very notion of cultural legacy and memory.
AI WEIWEI: My intention here was humorous, even though it obviously has a provocative nature—but provocative towards what? During the cultural revolution in China a lot of history and meaning was destroyed with clear political intent. Antiquities destroyed, temples burned, Buddha sculptures demolished. Throughout China’s history you can observe the tendency of trying to get rid of what has been in the past. When I was confronted with the outcry from many antique dealers at the time, I told them that General Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one. My act is simple, silly and has no profound meaning. From the outside, however, every act of mine is interpreted differently. Sometimes it’s really surprising. I just do whatever I do. I don’t think about it too much.
LF: Let’s talk about your personal legacy.
AW: There is no legacy. The actions are all consequences of consequences of different kinds of actions or situations to which I respond to in my own way.
LF: Ok, but your father Ai Qing is renowned as one of China’s finest and most renowned poets. Shortly after you were born however, communist officials accused your father of being a rightist, and your family was exiled to labour camps in remote areas. As a result, you grew up in exile. To what extent has your family’s legacy—and being the son of a famous father—influenced and inspired your personal trajectory?
There is no legacy. The actions are all consequences of consequences of different kinds of actions or situations to which I respond in my own way
AW: Well, when I grew up his reputation manifested itself in another way. He was a famous enemy of the state, which meant that we were treated like criminals. At the time his notoriety was nothing we could build on or be proud of.
LF: In [a 2018] exhibition at the Musée des civilizations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée you retrace your father’s steps to Marseille in 1929. The show [included] 50 works of yours alongside objects from the museum’s collections. What [was] your motivation behind this show?