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?
There were almost no cars on street. No private cars, only embassy cars. You could walk in the middle of the street. It was very slow, very quiet and very gray. There were not so many expressions on human faces, After the Cultural Revolution, muscles were still not built up to laugh or show emotion. When you saw a little bit of color—like a yellow umbrella in the rain—it was quite shocking. The society was all gray, and a little bit blue.
Then Deng Xiaoping encouraged people to get rich. Those who became rich first did so because of their [Chinese Communist] Party association. Suddenly luxury goods came in to Beijing. Like tape recorders, because if there’s music, then there’s a party; It is a sexy product. [People listen to] sentimental Taiwan pop music. Levi’s blue jeans came very early. People were seeking to be identified with a certain kind of style, which saves a lot of talking [e.g., to establish your identity].
Can you explain the obsession with brand names in Beijing?
People want to drive luxury cars because it gives them a sense of identity; they want to be identified with high quality, though it may not reflect the truth.
This is a society with no sense of religion; it has completely lost any aesthetic or moral judgment. But it is a large space that needs to be occupied. As a human, you need a sense of dignity. If you don’t have a moral or religious or philosophical opinion on the universe, the easiest act is to trust the winner.
How was the transition to New York City, where you lived in the 1980s?
I remember my first glimpse of New York, when my plane came down. It was early in the evening—it looked like a bowl of diamonds. When I grew up, [there was] no electricity when the sun went down—the whole earth would go dark.
Before I came to New York, I only knew this is the heart of capitalism, the most sinful city. Of course, I am crazy [excited] to go since I hate Communists. I thought, that’s a place I would love to go. But I knew nothing about New York—all of my impressions came from Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.
And when you came back to Beijing in the 1990s, how was it different?
I could see some material changes, but I was very disappointed to see so little political change. I could see so many luxury cars. There is no justice or fairness in this society—so far from it—and the gap is getting deeper and wider.
Education is totally ruined—they [the government] never know how education should teach you to think; they just want to control everyone’s mind. They sacrifice everything just for stability, and [now are] trying to block information from the young generation. This produces a generation of young people who cannot meet the challenges, who are lacking in imagination, passion and courage. It is not a good picture for the future of this nation.
Why, exactly, is the government afraid of you?
My resistance is a symbolic gesture; it’s not just a struggle for myself, but to present certain common values. The secret police told me, everybody can see it but you, you’re so influential. But I think [their behavior] makes me more influential. They create me, rather than solve the problem.
When they demolished my studio outside Shanghai was demolished about a year ago , it made every young person —whether or not they liked me before—think I must be some kind of hero. Just in trying to maintain my own identity, it becomes more dramatic.
I think it [the government’s approach] is a kind of Cold War thinking; they are ignoring the true argument—trying to avoid discussion of principles. It may work for short time, but not for a long time. The society has to become more democratic, [and allow] more freedom, otherwise it cannot survive.
Why do you choose to live in China and in Beijing specifically?
I don’t have to stay in China, but I tell myself I have to stay. There are so many unsolved problems here. There are no heroes in modern China.
What do you think of the new architecture in Beijing? Is it grand, or tacky?
I think if the CCTV building really burns down [it caught on fire in 2009] it would be the modern landmark of Beijing. It would represent a huge empire of ambition burning down.
What, if anything, makes you optimistic about China’s future?
To see parents who have great expectations for their kids.
Lately, you’ve won a lot of awards—ArtReview named you the most powerful artist in the world, for instance, What do you think of that?
I haven’t tasted any of that—I’ve stayed in my compound most of time. I’m a criminal suspect in China; With the media control in China, I don’t think most people even know I was part of the Bird’s Nest [Olympic Stadium] design team.
What art or ideas are you working on right now?
I don’t really know. I’m still a criminal suspect of the state, but I have never formally been arrested. I cannot travel; I’m followed every time I go to the park.
But you know what? I’ve never met one person [members of the police] who believed in what they are doing. I’ve been interrogated by over eight people, and they all told me “this is our job”; they only do it because they are afraid. They have a stable government job and they are afraid to lose it. They do not believe anything. But they tell me, “You can never win this war.”