‘I’m Very Interested in These So-Called Useless Objects’: Watch Ai Weiwei Describe How He Chooses a Format for Pointed Critiques

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

Ai Weiwei, 2022. Photo: Helen Dickman.

On a spring morning back in 2011, then-mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg welcomed visitors to the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s first major public sculpture project in Grand Army Plaza, near Central Park. The momentous occasion was marred of course, by the artist’s inability to attend the opening—because he was in the midst of an 81-day long incarceration by the Chinese government.

A staunch activist who makes no compromises, despite ongoing threats of surveillance and censorship even after his release from imprisonment, Weiwei’s art blends traditional Chinese imagery with contemporary concerns for human rights and social issues. Right now at Kettle’s Yard at the University of Cambridge, an exhibition titled “Ai Weiwei: The Liberty of Doubt” features many of the artist’s seminal works, along with new installations.

In an exclusive interview filmed back in 2011 as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, the artist discusses some of his early sculptures, such as the security camera he produced in marble, stripping it of its utility and power.

Ai Weiwei, <i>Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera with Plinth,</i> (2014). Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio.

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera with Plinth (2014). Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio.

“I’m very interested in these so-called useless objects,” he says in the video. As for the security camera, “surveillance has a very clear meaning. This is to monitor, or secretly monitor, people’s behavior. But once it’s become marble, it’s only being watched.” 

The exhibition in Kettle’s Yard explores themes of authenticity and globalization, which are on display in the artist’s juxtaposition of historic Chinese objects purchased at auction alongside replicas from later years, often indistinguishable from one another. In other cases, the artist’s own works, created in the manner of similar vessels, blur the definition of original, as in the Han Dynasty Urn with Coca Cola Logo (2014). The show’s title, “The Liberty of Doubt,” invokes Weiwei’s observation that in China, “the concept of ‘truth’ is also part of nature, and hence not an absolute.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. “Ai Weiwei: The Liberty of Doubt” is on view at Kettle’s Yard at the University of Cambridge, U.K., through June 19, 2022. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all 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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