‘Who Needs Another Show?’ Ai Weiwei Says He’s Over the Whole Museum Thing and Is Moving to Connecticut

But far from retired, the artist is working on three new films.

Ai Weiwei stands with his sculpture Tree at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. (Photo by Alex B. Huckle/Getty Images)

Artist activism is an old tradition, but there has never been an artist-dissident like Ai Weiwei.

At 61, he’s completely fused the two identities into a kind of seamless performance. He’s famous enough to have an asteroid named after him. He floats above the normal concerns of an artist—Museum show? Who cares!—or at least professes to.

Known for making art in various media, especially sprawling installations, he doesn’t recognize constraints. These days Ai makes documentaries about the migration crisis if it moves him (and it does); he changes residences if he feels like it, which he is doing now.

He reflects seriously, but not bitterly, on his home country of China, which once exiled his family to a labor camp and then decades later put him under house arrest. Ai lets his impish side show on Instagram, or when he picks up human rights awards, which he does like some pick daisies.

We chatted with the once and former New Yorker, who lived downtown for a decade, at the Public Hotel on the Lower East Side about his upcoming films and his new life in Connecticut.

 

You’re still in Berlin these days?

My studio is in Berlin, but I’m travelling so much I don’t really feel I’m really related to anywhere.

You told me a year ago that you were going to buy in upstate New York, and I keep hearing things. So what’s the story?

Still working on it. It’s in Connecticut. About two or three hours outside of the city.

Ah, so not New York. What will Connecticut life be like for you?

I haven’t started yet. I never know what it will be like without starting.

Some great artists have worked there: Alexander Calder, for instance. Will you be like a country gentleman, with a hat, like out of a Chekhov play?

I’m afraid I will have a lot of overcoats because it’ll be very cold in the winter.

So what is the idea behind the move?

I want to be on the East Coast, but I don’t want to be in the city. A friend said, ‘Here is the land, not too far from my place, come to take a look.’ So I went to take a look and said, ‘Yes.’ It’s really just that simple.

But will you keep Berlin?

Yes, Berlin will always be my studio base.

And what about China, have you been working on any activism there at all? I know you’re not going back there.

I’m not going back there now, but China for me, it’s not just a border… it’s an idea. So, it’s always in my heart.

But are you allowed to go back?

You never really know… they told me I’m free, I’m allowed to go back.

But you’re not sure that they’re telling you the truth?

I don’t know if they even know the truth. One day maybe I’ll go back.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei takes photos with his phone on May 12, 2016 at the port in Gaza City for his upcoming documentary film on the refugee crisis in the Middle East. Photo Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images.

Ai Weiwei takes photos with his phone in 2016 at the port in Gaza City for his documentary film Human Flow. Photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images.

Now we have President Trump talking about immigration as his main issue, and that’s also one of your number one themes, as in your documentary from last year, Human Flow. How do you relate your work to the current scene?

I think immigration is never a real issue.There’s too much smoke, some kind of political gaming.

It’s a smokescreen?

For a nation like the United States, it shouldn’t be an issue. Everyone is an immigrant.

You got a medal recently from Americans for the Arts and you said that art can still make a difference. Do you still feel that way?

Well, I think art touches very essential emotions, a way of judging ourselves. Those are very important human activities.

I feel like we have more art in America than ever before—so is it working?

Well, it depends on what you call as art. A lot is not very relevant.

You have three things on in Los Angeles right now: “Life Cycle” at the Marciano Art Foundation, “Zodiac” at Jeffrey Deitch, and “Cao/Humanity” at the UTA Artist Space. What has it been like to work in L.A.?

Los Angeles is a society that is very lively and open to new ideas, and the fresh air is very nice.

“Ai Weiwei: CAO/HUMANITY” at UTA Artist Space. Photo courtesy of Ai Weiwei’s studio.

They’re much more relaxed there. They can smoke marijuana legally.

Maybe too relaxed. [Smiles]

What are the venue strengths there?

The Marciano Foundation is a very open platform, which encourages art engaged with new ideas. It’s in a very unique position.

And you like Jeffrey Deitch.

Yeah—he’s been an important voice for the new, for the contemporary. And the other space is UTA, which focuses on entertainment, but it brings in a new set of people interested in contemporary art.

If you could have a show at any New York museum, a big important exhibition, where would you have it?

New York has museums?

Hah.

Certainly not the Met, because they’ve started to charge people money to get into the exhibitions. I don’t like that. It was okay to say pay whatever you can, that was okay, and I would go there often. And now, I say I will never go there again.

That’s a big statement.

There’s a much bigger life outside of there. Without life, what they have is nothing.

Do you not like the Whitney or the Guggenheim either?

They’re alright. I think there’s a much larger reality outside of the museum circle.

So is there any museum in the world that’s ideal for your next show?

I don’t need to ever have another show. I have had a lot of shows already. I’ve probably showed the most out of any individual artist. Who needs another show?

So does public art fill the void?

No. It doesn’t even have to have the title of ‘art.’ It can be anything. I don’t even know yet.

Your Public Art Fund show here in New York was a big deal. Were you happy with it?

I’m very happy with it. “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” was very successful, and a meaningful show for me.

Ai Weiwei, Gilded Cage (2017). Courtesy Public Art Fund.

Ai Weiwei, Gilded Cage (2017). Courtesy of the Public Art Fund.

They gave you free reign to do whatever you want?

Oh yeah. That’s a precondition for any show. Without that, there’s no show.

Do you reflect now, having been under house arrest, if that experience affected your art at all?

Everything changes with every experience. It always makes me look at human rights, and human conditions, and freedom of expression very differently. And it makes me understand that those things are very important. Even if it scares the hell out of powerful dictators.

What’s the next project you’re working on?

We don’t have a next one, and we don’t have a previous one. The work is always on.

It’s constant, like a loop?

Yeah.

So what is the “current constant”?

We are making three other films besides Human Flow, and they are all about the human condition, justice, social justice, and the crisis.

What’s the first one?

The first one will be out in the spring. It’s about a community of refugees.

Now you’re a filmmaker as much as you are anything else. That’s a big shift.

Yeah, very soon I will become a myth. You know people will remember, “There was a guy like that…”

Do you have a lot of museum directors asking you to please do a show?

Quite a lot.

And do you send a polite “no?” How do you deal with it?

In our lifetime, we’ve never applied for a show, a gallery or a museum show.

So all these offers from museums are not tempting you right now?

We only work with people we know, through a friend or something.

Ai Weiwei takes a selfie with one of his sculptures. Photo: Museum of Cycladic Art via Facebook.

You give a lot of interviews, you’re on Instagram a lot. A friend of mine said he had to unfollow you, you post so much.

It’s on purpose, to ruin people’s patience. I don’t want to be occasionally noticed, I’d rather people say, “This guy, I have to get rid of him.”

Is it working?

So far I haven’t received any suspicious packages.

Thank God.

I still may get one someday.

You have a very public self, but you must keep a lot private, too.

Even if you have a palace, you still have quiet corners, private rooms. I’m just an ordinary guy. This side is out here, the other side is shadow.

Do you think it can ever hurt the art if you’re too famous?

Well I haven’t seen anybody who’s too famous.

Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective, Paris Eiffel Tower (1997).Photo: via Geffken Miyamoto

Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective, Paris Eiffel Tower (1997). Photo: via Geffken Miyamoto.

Where are you going next?

Tomorrow we’re going to Boston. My new book [Ai Weiwei: Beijing Photographs, 1993-2003] is coming out. It’s published by MIT Press, so I’m going there to do the launch.

What will we see in it?

It’s just my life. I was successfully alive and shooting the photos. Much less busy than today.

And so after Boston where do you go?

Then I fly back to New York because I have to prepare for Los Angeles. We’re receiving an honor from PEN America [the 2018 Artistic Expression Award]. It’s a big day. Then after that, I fly back to Berlin.

You could probably spend your whole life receiving awards.

One week I was receiving four or five awards.

Is that a strange experience?

An award is just a piece of metal, you know. But you see the audience, people of different social sectors, and that’s what’s really rewarding, you see you’re not alone.

And you use that as an opportunity to get your message out.

Yes. So those awards are never really given to me, but they extend my voice for the people who have no voice.

That’s a full-time job.

It is. Accept awards, take selfies, eat things you don’t necessarily want to eat… but at the end of the evening, you walk home alone, in the darkness.

Do you find it takes time away from making art?

I’m lucky, I never have a fixed time to make art. I find inspiration when I’m taking a shower, or when I’m sitting on the toilet, or in the transfer at the airport, or taking selfies. It doesn’t matter for me. I’ve already perfectly trained myself for art in the most strained conditions.

I was going to say, once you’ve made art under house arrest, it’s probably not a stretch.

That’s true. The worst condition is house arrest. It’s totally against any kind of human expression.

So when you get back to Berlin, will you be focused on making new art and film?

I want to rest a little bit, spend some time with my son. He’s almost 10.

Does he ever comment on your art, or ask about it?

The first English sentence he said was, “No more Ai Weiwei.”

What did he mean by that?

He meant he’d heard enough about me. Today he’s in Beijing, in my studio that hasn’t been torn down. He’ll spend a week there with his mom [the artist Wang Fen]. Let’s see what he’s doing today [holds up a video on his phone of his son]. He’s collecting some urns for me because my other studio was destroyed not too long ago.

The rubble at Ai Weiwei’s studio in Beijing on August 3, 2018. Photo: Pak Yiu/AFP/Getty Images.

And he’ll bring them back to Berlin for you?

I guess! That’s what he told me. He said he’s going back to see my cat, and he’ll bring me back some art.

Your other studio, why was it destroyed?

If I knew why [laughs]. Half of China was destroyed.

It was the government that destroyed it?

Of course. Only the government can decide they want to destroy it.

Are you enjoying yourself in New York?

I do enjoy myself. It’s probably the only city on Earth with this kind of energy and madness.

Have you seen any art since you’ve been here?

No. I haven’t seen art for a long time. But I visited a friend, Julian Schnabel, I really think he’s a great human being besides making very important works.

And he’s an artist-filmmaker, like you.

I just watched the film last night, his new one [At Eternity’s Gate]. I think the film is basically a self-portrait. He just wants to experience what painting is, why painting matters.

What is the subject of this one?

It’s about van Gogh—another crazy artist. But I’m glad Julian still has two ears. Van Gogh cut off one.

Ai Weiwei at his former compound in Beijing in 2012. Photo: Ed Jones/AFP/GettyImages.

I love the idea of you two together for some reason.

We do feel as a body of one. He loves art, it’s like a religious love… I’m more cynical, more critical, but I appreciate some artists like him.

Is there anyone else like that?

I have very few contacts with the art world. He’s the exception. Because when I was arrested, he didn’t know me but he made a T-shirt with my face that said “Missing.” He made it for the Venice Biennale and, years later, I see him and he’s still wearing that T-shirt.


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