Ai Weiwei Claims the Chinese Authorities Made Him Famous

Are Ai Weiwei's run-ins with the state the reason for his success?

Ai Weiwei. Photo Matej Divizna/Getty Images.
Ai Weiwei. Photo Matej Divizna/Getty Images.

To mark the start of Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Austrian 21er Haus—the contemporary art branch of Vienna’s Belvedere Museum—the Chinese artist and activist gave an interview with the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung in which he declared that the Chinese state made him famous.

The artist recalled a conversation between him and Chinese secret police in which he was asked by officers “Is it possible that we made you so famous?” to which Ai answered “Yes, I think so. Without the power that you represent I would never have become what I am today.”

However, he denied that it is the only contributing factor to his success. Referring to his sustained criticism of the Chinese state and subsequent 81-day imprisonment in 2011, Ai said “The people only remember that incident and say ‘that’s what made him famous.’ Why don’t they try it for themselves?”

Ai Weiwei’s F. Lotus installation at Vienna’s Belvedere Palace. Photo via @aiww Instagram.

Ai Weiwei’s F. Lotus installation at Vienna’s Belvedere Palace. Photo via @aiww Instagram.

Addressing his activism, he asked, “Why aren’t more artists working in this area? Do they not care about what’s happening? Are they only worried about their gallery, and their sales? It’s certainly not good for one’s career to be an activist.”

But, Ai added, choosing not to speak up is also a political decision. “The role of the artist is to express himself and share his emotions with the public. But in the case of human rights, does one not have to express oneself?”

“Is one allowed to fear the authorities?” Ai asked. “I don’t criticize anyone. I don’t think that anyone else should take the same path as me. I don’t expect from anyone to be political. But if one does nothing, then of course that is very political too.”

As a result, he explained that his work deals heavily with the transfer of ideas. “It’s always about communication, aesthetics play a secondary role in my work,” Ai conceded.

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