Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Ai Weiwei finds peace in Portugal

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‘Britain is vibrating. I’m too old for that’ … Ai Weiwei at the site near Lisbon where he is re-creating his Shanghai studio, which was demolished.
‘Britain is vibrating. I’m too old for that’ … Ai Weiwei at the site near Lisbon where he is re-creating his Shanghai studio, which was demolished. Photograph: Ricardo Lopes/The Guardian

Ai Weiwei finds peace in Portugal: ‘I could throw away all my art and not feel much’

As he eases into farmhouse life, the artist is preparing for an epic design show that will feature 200,000 spouts from broken teapots and jugs. He talks about Chinese might, western jealousy – and his urge to spend

It is a warm, clear spring morning and Ai Weiwei is giving me a tour of the huge new studio he is building about an hour’s drive from Lisbon. There is not another house in sight, just the flat green landscape of the Alentejo, and a big blue sky dotted with darting swallows. The studio, explains the artist, is a replica of his old one in Shanghai, which was finished in 2011 only to be almost immediately demolished by the Chinese authorities: officially, because it contravened planning regulations; unofficially, because of Ai’s outspoken criticism of the government. Months later, the artist was imprisoned for three months then placed under house arrest. When his passport was returned in 2015, he left the country and has not returned since.

“We live in a constantly changing landscape,” says Ai. His has certainly changed more than most people’s. After China, he set up in Berlin but left under a cloud, saying: “Nazism perfectly exists in German daily life today.” He moved on to the UK, where he has had run-ins with immigration authorities. On his first visit, he was initially granted a visa for just 20 days on account of his “criminal conviction” in China.

He still likes Britain, though. His 13-year-old son is at school in Cambridge and Ai visits often. “Britain is like a jacket with many pockets,” he says. “It has a lot. It’s vibrating. But I’m too old for that.” Ai is 65. “When you walk on the street in London, you feel you’re a little bit in the way of the young people. I needed a place to be more peaceful by myself.” He likes the food, weather and people here in Portugal, he says, as we drink tea on the verandah of the farmhouse next to the site of his studio, with a view of his swimming pool and the countryside beyond. Numerous cats and dogs bask and lope around; birds squawk in a nearby cage.

The studio’s jointed timber structure draws on traditional Chinese architecture. It is not an easy job: no nails, no glue and every piece of wood different. “I realised I needed to build something to create enough problems for me to make contact with local construction workers,” he says. Planning permission wasn’t easy either, but he likened the studio to an agricultural warehouse. With a conspiratorial smile, he explains: “When they asked me what I was going to put in it, I said, ‘Sunflower seeds.’”

‘I don’t care about Lego that much’ … Ai Weiwei’s re-creation of Monet’s Water Lilies at the Design Museum.
‘I don’t care about Lego that much’ … Ai Weiwei’s re-creation of Monet’s Water Lilies at the Design Museum. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Ai is referring to one of his best-known works: his spectacular 2010 installation of 100m porcelain sunflower seeds that filled the vast Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern. Each seed was handmade and painted in China. The scale of the work and the labour involved seemed inconceivable – yet, the artist pointed out, China’s population is over 10 times that figure.

Overwhelming scale is a constant in Ai’s work, often in combination with a human dimension. In his 2015 exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, he made a powerful installation out of 90 tonnes of steel bars recovered from the rubble left by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, each re-straightened by hand. The work drew attention to the substandard school construction that led to many infant deaths – which angered the authorities. He has also made installations out of thousands of bicycle frames, as well as refugees’ lifejackets recovered from boat crossings to Europe. “It destroys our rationality,” he explains of his use of scale, adding that it opens the doors of perception wider than we can generally comprehend. “Maybe it’s good we only can see so far, only hear certain sounds, only distinguish certain colours.”

Over his 45-year career, Ai has made films and documentaries; he has defaced and destroyed Chinese antiques; he has made jokey sculptures, such as surveillance cameras carved out of marble; and he has designed buildings. For 10 years, in fact, Ai ran a successful architecture company, FAKE. The name is a characteristic play on words: read phonetically in Chinese, fa ke sounds like fuck). “I was the only designer,” he says modestly. “And we created the most primitive type of buildings.” Still, FAKE did more than 60 projects, including his various studios.

All of this makes London’s Design Museum less of a surprising venue for Ai’s latest exhibition. “We’re not presenting him as a designer,” explains curator Justin McGuirk. “We’re presenting him as an artist who has a view on design.”

I’m a big teapot … Left Right Studio Material, an installation of fragments from porcelain sculptures destroyed when Ai’s Beijing studio was demolished.
I’m a big teapot … Left Right Studio Material, an installation of fragments from porcelain sculptures destroyed when Ai’s Beijing studio was demolished. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Ai’s best-known contribution to design was the “Bird’s Nest” stadium, the centrepiece of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, created with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. While he finds it hard to explain what exactly he brought to the building, he does say: “Without me there would be no such project. It would be completely different visually and conceptually.” He thought the building should be “totally exposed, so from inside or outside, you can see the same thing, and nothing attached to make it more pretty”.

It could have led to a lucrative side-hustle, but Ai refused to attend the Olympic opening ceremony, dismissing the event as propaganda and closing down FAKE soon after, “because I thought it would ruin my life”. He remains on good terms with Herzog & de Meuron (they later collaborated on the 2011 Serpentine Pavilion) but says: “The relationship only functions when we’re different, otherwise why be together? At that moment, they were eager to find new energy because basically architecture is pretty dry.”

The Design Museum exhibition, called Making Sense, draws from right across Ai’s career, including more of his industrial-yet-human scale installations. These include stone-age tools, smashed pottery from his Beijing studio (that one was demolished by the authorities in 2018), plus some 100,000 cannonballs and 200,000 broken spouts from teapots or jugs – all handmade in ceramic during the Song dynasty, roughly 1,000 years ago. They’re a reminder of how China was a prodigious manufacturing hub, founded on human labour, long before the industrial revolution. They’re also a reminder that Ai collects a lot of stuff: spouts, roots, cannonballs, pets, passport stamps.

Where does he get them all? The broken spouts he began buying at flea markets about 15 years ago. Farmers in Jingdezhen, which has a history of porcelain-making, would dig them up in their fields. As word spread that someone was interested in buying these relatively worthless artefacts, more and more of them came his way, and prices started to rise. “Just like in any market,” he says. “It’s very interesting.”

‘Without me there would be no such project’ … the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing.
‘Without me there would be no such project’ … the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing. Photograph: Wang Xinchao/AP

He shows me another collection nearby: a mini-forest of twisted, gnarled olive tree roots, requisitioned from neighbouring farmers. “Many things I collect are useless for others,” he says. “But it would be a waste if those things were not being paid attention to. We see everything and we don’t see anything.”

What else is he collecting? “Many things that cannot be exposed,” he says, cryptically. But he gives another example. “One day on Twitter, I see there’s a British factory closing.” This was A Brown & Co in Croydon. “They said, ‘We have 30 tonnes of buttons we have to throw away.’ I said, ‘May I have them?’” Now they’re piled in a huge mound in his Berlin studio. “I still haven’t had the time to think what to do them,” says the artist, who still has all those sunflower seeds, in another warehouse. He’s not sure what to do with them either.

And then there’s Ai’s latest fixation: Lego. The Design Museum show includes a 15-metre reinterpretation of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, painstakingly hand-assembled from 550,000 coloured Lego bricks. It took 10 workers 100 days to make, in Italy. He shows me a time-lapse video of the process. He is not the first artist to exploit the creative possibilities of Lego, but it is a typically Ai kind of medium. It echoes digital pixellation but also harks back to the earliest eras of art, such as Greek and Roman mosaic, before painting, which became a more “personal” means of interpretation, as demonstrated by artists such as Van Gogh, Rembrandt or indeed Monet. “I don’t care about Lego that much,” he says. “I care about finding a new way to create a two-dimensional surface that can be an illustration and some kind of mass image.”

Having said that, Ai’s relationship with technology is ambivalent. He was an avid and outspoken blogger on Chinese social media in the early 2000s. He still tweets assiduously, although he is no addict. “I only do it in the morning and evening,” he insists. “It’s just funny to watch people’s arguments.”

But he is highly sceptical about artificial intelligence and where it might be leading us: “What you get is all the mediocre ideas mixed into something like a fusion, where there is no character and you avoid all mistakes. That is really dangerous to humanity, because we are all equal but we are all created differently. The difference is the beauty. Art, literature, poetry design – they are rooted in human mistakes, misjudgments, or character differences if you prefer. They should be dangerous and sexy and unpredictable. That’s totally against the AI world.”

‘You are as rich as how much you can spend, not how much you have’ … Ai Weiwei near his farmhouse in Portugal.
‘You are as rich as how much you can spend, not how much you have’ … Ai Weiwei near his farmhouse in Portugal. Photograph: Ricardo Lopes/The Guardian

Ai has added his own personal element to his Lego Water Lilies. At the centre, he has inserted a square black hole: a reference to the entrance to the underground house in Xinjiang where Ai grew up. He shows me the original photo: it is the screensaver on his phone. His father, the poet Ai Qing, was exiled to Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution and forced to clean communal toilets for five years. After Mao’s death, the family returned to Beijing, where Ai studied before moving to New York for 12 years. Back in China in the 1990s, his combination of conceptual wit, playful mischief and bold provocation brought him a profile internationally, and a heap of trouble domestically.

Is his impulse to collect driven by his history of displacement and dispossession? He shakes his head firmly. “I hate that. Because in China we have a saying, ‘You’re born as nude as a baby, you die as nude as a baby.’ I grew up in a communist society where you didn’t have private property.”

Despite his criticisms, he still seems to admire his home country’s growing economic strength. “China has become a headache for the west,” he says. But western paranoia over Chinese technology, such as moves by the US and EU to remove TikTok from government devices, is in his view overblown: “Those discussions are really fake. In the larger picture, in a capitalist world, competition is encouraged. But then the west meets a giant like China – whatever it creates, like Alibaba or TikTok, immediately becomes strong and powerful. I think that makes the west jealous.”

Although he is visibly well-off (his house even has a grand piano for his son to practise on when he visits), he says he cares little for possessions. “I have a habit of spending all the money I have. Because I have a theory: you are as rich as how much you can spend, not how much you have.” The same applies to his art: “I could throw away all the works of so-called art I’ve made. I will not feel too much about it. These things coexist with our life, but our life is very short.”

Ai’s love of art is not really about the end result. “I don’t even look at the final product,” he says. “I don’t care about that much. The process is sensuous, it has blood. But the final is just a corpse to me.” As for his new studio, he’s enjoying the process of making it more than the prospect of actually using it. He doesn’t really know how long he’ll stay in Portugal after it’s finished. “I don’t worry so much,” he says. “I enjoy the moment.”

This is the ever-changing landscape of Ai’s life. And if it comes with success and material comforts, it has also entailed persecution, beatings and displacement. He almost makes it sound like it’s his fate: “Everything seems very logical: my father, me, maybe this will also be part of my son’s life.” It seems he has been chosen, he says. “And I feel very grateful. It gives meaning to my life.”

Isn’t there an element of self-selection, though? Not that he’s to blame, but Ai has consistently put himself forward, raised his voice, created problems for himself, you could even say. “Everything that’s happened to me,” he says with bemusement, “if it was difficult, people say I deserve it. If it’s something glamorous, then I don’t deserve it. But I hope the principles I defend benefit everyone. Then it would feel worth it.”

  • Ai Weiwei: Making Sense is at the Design Museum, London, 7 April to 30 July.