Ai Weiwei on His Favorite Artists, Living in New York and Why the Government is Afraid of Him

The Chinese government has long tried to contain the artist and activist but his ideas have spread overseas and he's got plenty more to say

(Jacqueline Moen)

Do you feel a connection to any artists that came before the Communist period in China? Landscape paintings or ways of working with ceramics, for example. Why is old Chinese art important?

 China has a long history, and also a vast area of land. About 2,000 or 3,000 years ago, the Zhou Dynasty had a high performance in art: Early jade, bronzes—the skill and concept and how they actually crafted is a miracle—it was the highest form in human art.

[At that time] the whole culture had this kind of total condition, with philosophy, aesthetics, morality and craftsmanship—it was just one; it’s never been separated.

That’s why art was so powerful. It’s not just a decoration or one idea, but rather, a high model for this condition which art can carry. If you look at what Van Gogh did, you can see a similarity: The art was a belief [expressing his] principle views of the universe, how it should be.

Besides Van Gogh, what Western artists or art schools do you feel a connection to? Jasper Johns? Joseph Beuys? Damien Hirst?

My education [about Western art] was not so good, but I think it’s interesting to put the intellectual back into art—to always have a strong idea. I like Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, but Joseph Beuys? People often mention him, but I’m not influenced by him because I was in New York in the 1980s when he was more influential in Europe.

[What I admire about] Jasper Johns [is] his very narrow focus —to repeatedly do the same thing, again and again, is very interesting. He has a very scholarly approach—some kind of a philosophical language and exploration; he is clearly trying to define the meaning of the activity. Van Gogh was a very typical religious type, with a strong belief system; he worshipped art..

What do you think about the global art market today, with rich collectors paying enormous prices and viewing art as a status symbol?

Art can be sold as a product, but the price it sells no one can understand. This has been part of the condition of art since ancient times. It still has this quality; it hasn’t changed. [It results from] an obsession with rare goods that reflect power, identity and status. People who have a lot of money want to show uniqueness or a rare product —art is often described or misinterpreted as that. It’s not that different than 3,000 years ago when kings used one piece of ceremonial jade to make exchanges of state. There is so much garbage, misinterpretation and fantasy around [the art market]. It’s a big industry that helps to build this kind of hype.

What was Beijing like in the late 1970s and 1980s, when you were a young artist?


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