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Artist Ai Weiwei on his father's exile and hopes for his own son

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over the decades, Ai Weiwei has become one of the most influential artists and activists of our time, which is why the Chinese government has long fixed its gaze on him. In 2011, Chinese authorities secretly detained Ai Weiwei. And while in detention, the artist thought often about his father, how incomplete his understanding of his father was and how much he wanted to avoid that same disconnect with his own son. So Ai Weiwei decided to set down his thoughts and memories in a new book called "1,000 Years Of Joys And Sorrows."

It's a story passed down through fathers, a work that ponders freedom of expression, how art can move ideas, and the beauty that can emerge from life's ugliest struggles. His own father, Ai Qing, was a famous poet who was branded as a so-called rightist during the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, and I began by asking Ai Weiwei why his thoughts kept wandering to his father while he was in detention.

AI WEIWEI: I realize I don't really know him because I never really directly ask him a single question about his past, you know, going through all those difficulties and the struggles. Until I was arrest, I realize I may have a same kind of relationship with my son. That time, he was just over 2 years old. And the authority told me, after 10 or 12 years, you'll finish your sentence, and your son certainly will not even know you are his father.

CHANG: Well, you were eventually released. But may I ask - when you think back, when you were a boy, did you understand at the time why your father was sent there? Did you have a deep sense as a child that the Chinese government was basically punishing your father for his ideas?

AI: No way to understand. Nobody even understand. At that time, we are totally, like, dropped into water. You got totally wet, and there's no way to have another choice or another possibility. The whole nation was under this very highly political class struggle. Not only my father being punished but over a half-million other intellectuals being punished. They're writers, translators or educators, you know?

CHANG: Between you and your father growing up, how would you characterize your relationship with him? Would you have described the two of you as close back then?

AI: No, I never even think we are close. Also, I never see any family have a close relationship during that period. Love is never a word to be mentioned in any family. The love only belongs to the party and the Chairman Mao, the party's leader. Everybody's so scared.

CHANG: Yeah.

AI: Even all those parents gave the - their children, newly born children - the name is love the country or love the party.

CHANG: Names that would make the Chinese Communist Party happy.

AI: Whole generation have maybe - half of the population would have same kind of name.

CHANG: You know, there is so much in this book that reflects how your life later as an artist inside the Chinese communist system - how that life echoed so much of your own father's life, not just your time in detention but the constant monitoring you faced every day when you lived in China. And I want to ask you - how do you think that constant surveillance by the Chinese government, that constant observation helped you relate to your father better?

AI: Well, modern surveillance is because technology, of course. I have been under surveillance - 25 cameras around my studio, people following me, hiding behind bushes, take photos to see who I meet and, you know, all those kind of ridiculous.

CHANG: Right.

AI: I start to understand that generation, how difficult for them. Today, I have internet. I can easily have my voice being heard. But during that time, they cannot even whisper to their loved ones about what's in their mind.

CHANG: Well, as I listen to you talk about how much of an adversary the Chinese government has played in your life, in your father's life, you know, it made me wonder because, yes, the Chinese government has played a destructive role in your life but, also, in a way, the Chinese government has played a strangely creative role, too.

Like, I'm curious. Where do you think Ai Weiwei the artist would be without the Chinese government being such an oppositional force in your life, driving you to understand what is important to you, what to fight for, what to stand up against? Do you think you could be the same artist without the Chinese government?

AI: No way, no way. It's not possible. Once this interrogator - he already interrogated me for over a year. He asked me very sincerely, without us, you can never be so famous. I said, yes, it take a real enemy to make a soldier. And also, I'm grateful I can really exercise my individual struggle and freedom of speech.

CHANG: Yes.

AI: So I have something to say about it.

CHANG: Without that struggle, you wouldn't have the same things to say.

AI: Without struggle, we don't have life. Life is about the struggle.

CHANG: Well, as we mentioned this book, it is in large part, a written record for your son, Ai Lao, so that Ai Lao can better understand who his father is. And, you know, you write at one point of your own father. You say, quote, "although he never tried to influence my decisions and never asked anything of me, like a star in the sky or a tree in the field, he was always there as a compass point and in a quiet and mysterious way, he helped me to navigate in a direction all my own." Let me ask you - how much do you want a similar relationship with Ai Lao?

AI: I want he recognize he does have a father and that person have his own principle. But I want to be there so he can see me as there.

CHANG: And when you think about your own struggles, what do you want most for Ai Lao's life?

AI: I want him to have a independent thinking and to a healthy life - I would say that's a healthy life.

CHANG: That's exactly what my parents say they want for me.

Ai Weiwei, thank you so much for sharing this time with us. (Speaking Mandarin).

AI: (Speaking Mandarin).

CHANG: (Laughter, speaking Mandarin). Ai Weiwei said, "thank you," and he complimented me on my Mandarin. His new book is called "1,000 Years Of Joys And Sorrows."

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN KAWANISHI'S "LEISURELY TRAIN RIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.