The artist known as the Chinese Andy Warhol talks about the link between politics and art and his investigation into the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Ai Weiwei, whose much-anticipated installation for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall Unilever Series is unveiled today, has often been called the Chinese Andy Warhol: he runs a Factory-style studio just outside Beijing called Fake and he works across a range of disciplines. He also utilises new mass media, employing YouTube and Twitter to get his message across, just as Warhol used the Polaroid camera and television as new democratic forms of expression, blurring distinctions between art and non-art.
But there’s one crucial difference: few would suggest that Warhol was a political artist, while, for Ai, politics and art are inseparable. ‘I think that most art, not only my own, is political,’ he says when we meet in the elegant boutique hotel in central London where he’s been staying while working on his Unilever commission. ‘Even if you’re saying your art is not political, that is still a political position to take, although I do think pop art in itself is quite political. It’s conceptually rebelling against high art – it’s art about real life, it’s about celebrating civil culture.’
For Ai, however, even the act of logging on to a social networking site such as Twitter is an overtly political action. The micro-blogging site, along with YouTube and Facebook, is banned in China, although the government is largely helpless against those with the know-how to get round the official block. ‘We have what you call a great firewall of China – every day they are building it,’ he says. ‘But someone allowed me to hop over the wall.’
He says that around 50,000 people in China use the banned social networking sites. But though this is a very small proportion of the population, he says it’s an active group and bloggers are free to discuss forbidden political topics, such as Tibet. Previously, Ai kept a private blog with a readership, he says, of 12million but it wasn’t long before the government shut it down. However, Ai, who is in his early fifties, is optimistic.
‘Because censorship has been the only tool for the Chinese authorities, the internet has provided a breakthrough in communist control,’ he says. As his own father, the celebrated poet Ai Qing, was committed to 20 years’ hard labour during the Cultural Revolution and banned from publishing during this period, one can fully appreciate why Ai is so passionate about the political possibilities of the internet.
Ai’s practice also encompasses architecture and design. Most famously, he collaborated with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron to realise his artistic vision for the 2008 Olympic stadium in Beijing, known, due to its intricate structure, as the Bird’s Nest. But since then he has publicly denounced the Chinese Olympics. ‘The government just wanted to show the world how advanced they were but nothing has changed ideologically. Of course, they have had to adapt,’ he adds, ‘because they need to survive but they haven’t adapted because they believe in freedom. There’s been no political reform – it’s just like 30 years ago.’
As well as ambitious architectural projects, Ai has utilised the Duchampian ‘ready-made’ for his smaller gallery work, fusing Chinese crafts with a Western conceptualism. But ask him about the work of which he is most proud and it would be neither anything hi-tech nor cleverly avant-garde. He cites, instead, his investigation into uncovering the identities of the schoolchildren who died during the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.
Due to the collapse of so many new schools in the quake zone, there was a series of allegations of corruption against officials and engineers involved in their construction. This culminated in protests from grieving parents. ‘Over 5,000 students disappeared under gravel,’ Ai explains, ‘and the government tried to hide many of their names, playing down what had happened.’ So he gathered together a team of young, computer-literate people. ‘We did the investigation and we found all those names, the birth dates, which school [the children] went to and which class they attended and how the school collapsed,’ he adds. ‘We used the internet as a very strong tool.’