‘What Would Weiwei Do?’: Watch Studio Assistants of Ai Weiwei Reflect on How the Dissident Artist Taught Them to Speak Their Minds

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "Change" episode of "Art in the Twenty-First Century," Season 6. © Art21, Inc. 2012.

In 2011, Ai Weiwei‘s 12 bronze animal heads were erected at the Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza near Central Park, launching an official multi-year world tour. At the unveiling, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was in attendance, but the artist was nowhere to be found.

Ai had been arrested in China for so-called “economic crimes,” as part of the country’s crackdown on figures speaking out against the communist regime.

Art21 filmed that press conference in 2011, along with exclusive interviews with Ai’s studio assistants who traveled to New York in his place, as part of an episode titled “Change.” The assistants, E-Shyh Wong and Inserk Yang spoke about working in Ai’s studio and reflected on his incarceration, telling Art21 that although at first they wanted to stay quiet so as not to upset the Chinese government, “then we think, what would Weiwei do? And he would probably make the most noise of anybody…I don’t think the right way is to be quiet.” 

Production still from the "Change" episode of "Art in the Twenty-First Century," Season 6. © Art21, Inc. 2012.

Production still from the “Change” episode of “Art in the Twenty-First Century,” Season 6. © Art21, Inc. 2012.

The episode, part of PBS’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, also features and earlier interview with Ai, who said of his work, “the media is the message,” a particularly apt description for his poignant, often ironic pieces. One work he mentions is a marble object in the shape of a security camera, a comment on the intense observation he was under in China.

“Once it’s become marble, it’s only being watched,” he said, “it’s not functioning anymore.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s PBS series Art in the Twenty-First Century, below. Ai Weiwei’s Safe Passage, 2016 is on view on the facade of the Minneapolis Institute of Art as part of “When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration” 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch episodes of other series like “New York Close Up” and “Extended Play” and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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