Why artist Ai Weiwei doesn't believe in having a personal legacy

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.

Header: Exhibition shot from the Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei show at Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia, 2015 | Top: Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), Ai Weiwei | Bottom: Lukas Feireiss and Ai Weiwei in his Berlin studio, 2018

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?


Ai Weiwei and his father Ai Qing, ca. 1993

AW: I just needed a reason to open a show in Marseille. The only connection to Marseille is my father. He ported there about 90 years ago, when he went abroad to study in Paris between 1929 and 1932. That gave me a good reason to learn more about what Marseille is like. My father even wrote poems about the city. I also tried to imagine how Chinese people were treated at the time in Europe. Usually, they have been treated badly by Western nations. In an international military coalition an eight-nation alliance composed of Japan, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary invaded China in 1900 in order to divide it into colonial outposts for economic exploitation. In this way, the Chinese were always exploited as labour. Between 1917 and 1921 Chinese Labour Corps even served in France and were housed in camps in Calais, where today some of the biggest refugee and migrant encampments are also located. These are some of the things I [explored] in the exhibition. I [was trying to find out] to what degree past and present have similarities and differences.

LF: Talking about similarities and difference in past and present, when your father arrived in Marseille in 1929, he was roughly the same age you were when you moved to the United States in the early 1980s. You lived in New York for a decade between 1983 and 1993. Let’s talk about this period, during which you documented over 10,000 photographs. A selection of about 200 photographs eventually became your 2009 show at the Three Shadows Photography Arts Center Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993. Can you elaborate on this period of your life?

AW: It was actually a period of extreme difficulties; culture-wise, language-wise, and also economically speaking. To make it as someone from China in a society that cannot offer anything to support one’s survival, is an extremely difficult situation. As an artist, I learned a lot though. I experienced what contemporary art is and how it is practiced. I’m also quite lucky, I think, to have spent my 20s outside of China and in New York.

LF: In 1993 you returned to China when your father became ill. Around that time, you published a handmade underground publication that confronted the work of divergent artists from East and West. Amongst the notable Western artists are Duchamp, Warhol, Jeff Koons and Christo.

Ai Weiwei, Han Jar Overpainted with Coca-Cola Logo, 1995.

AW: There’s no such thing as a confrontation between the East and West. That’s all made up cultural vocabularies. I don’t care about confrontations between East and West. I do think, however, that contemporary art is a vocabulary from the West. It can only be understood against the backdrop of Western philosophical discourse—the industrial revolution and all the social changes that came along with it. Contemporary art is somehow imported to different locations around the world that also face similar kinds of societal developments. I made this publication back then, because I thought it was a good idea to introduce what has already been happening. It’s not about saying it’s good or it’s bad, but to say that certain ideas or experiences have been established. Ultimately, the book is focused on what was happening in China during that period of time.

I don’t care about confrontations between East and West. I do think, however, that contemporary art is a vocabulary from the West

LF: The last couple of times we’ve seen each other, your nine-year-old son has always been with you, playing on the side, listening attentively or doodling away. Now almost 60 years later, you are a famous father yourself, and you are also living in exile far from your home country. Do you ever think about what you want to pass along to your son? How do you regard your legacy regarding your son?

AW: I don’t have a personal legacy, and I don’t believe in history repeating. With so many changes occurring daily in our lives, it’s almost impossible to imagine what will happen in the next 20 or 30 years. My son is around because he’s my son. I want to spend as much time with him as possible, because I’m working and traveling a lot. Otherwise I couldn’t be a good father. I don’t care about the rest.

LF: You once said: ‘I want to be remembered as a failure,’ and further explained ‘That means, that guy made an endless effort but failed.’ What do you want to try and fail at doing?

AW: I made a strong attempt to express my ideas in China. Of course, I think that those ideas could help China change to become a more reasonable society and a better environment for individuals. It would especially benefit young people, and encourage them to be more creative. China needs more imagination. As a result of my attempts, I ended up being detained, beaten up, and substantially fined. I’ve had endless confrontations in my efforts in trying to make my point clear. Still, at the end, I was being forced out of the country. I cannot even have my social media and internet activities in China. I’m totally shut off. There have even been threats to me and my family. That’s what I’d call a total failure.

This interview has been condensed for length.

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