Although you now mainly live between Portugal and England, you still have close connections to Berlin and have kept your studio and flat on Greifswalder Straße. What did living in Berlin for so long mean to you?
Berlin, for me, will always mean more than I ever imagined. I love it here. Looking down from my window, there is a tram passing down the middle of the street. I’ve always liked the location, the people, the shops and weekend market. It is a really nice neighbourhood.
Opinions can never be seen as the truth, but they are based on my reflections, which can often be unbalanced or exaggerated.
You recently opened up your flat in Prenzlauer Berg to visitors for the exhibition The Pleasure of Home. It was a surprising mix of your hard-hitting documentaries with intimate images of your family life. Is that what your home life is like – private, but constantly invaded by external events?
In the classical sense, China traditionally always connects the individual home with the nation. So everybody relates to their nation as a larger home. That is part of the culture, perhaps less so in contemporary China – but still, aesthetic and moral judgment in our society is first developed through individuals with families. They don’t have a democracy in China, but they have a sense of family! But to answer your question: the outside, political world always comes in. Even in the most quiet private moments, like waking up in the middle of the night, my mind will be somewhere else. And it’s not fair on my son and my partner. She always says, “You’re homeless, you never have a home.” And ever since I was born, it’s my fate to always be an outsider, someone who doesn’t bring the best message or comforts back to the family.
There’s a bathroom installed in your bedroom in the Greifswalder Straße apartment. I was told this was because your home was always so filled with friends, family and collaborators that sometimes you didn’t feel like having to go out and see them. Is this how you like your home to be, filled with people?
Exactly. I think home is the place to share. It’s your most vulnerable place, where you can be totally open, but it’s also in your home that you feel most protected. It was never just my family – we’d always have two or three other people sharing the place. There’s always a guest or someone you’ve allowed to stay. So that brings a lot of joy, and a lot of frustration, but then I always enjoy the chaotic moment. Guests stimulate my thoughts. I’m a man with a lot of contradictory, questionable ideas. I never play safe, or play for comfort. That’s how I grew up. The experiences I had growing up didn’t give me a normal sense of home. The year I was born, my father was exiled by the Communist Party to the most remote area in Xinjiang, near the Pakistan and Russian borders. So since then, I never had a sense of a home because I don’t have a sense of belonging. Phrases like “forced out” and “living temporarily” – those are all against the idea of home.
In 2011 in China, you were also placed under house arrest for 81 days.
Yes, your house can quite literally become a jail. And that’s how the concept for my exhibition came about. Because after 2015, I moved to this apartment. And, funnily enough, this is the place I have lived in the single longest period of my life. For me, it’s been five years; for my family, six years.
After your house arrest, the Chinese authorities took away your passport, only giving it back in 2015 when you moved to Berlin – your “shelter”, as you called it.
It is my shelter, and from Berlin I visited many actual shelters and refugee camps. I think I visited over 20 refugee camps from here, and this is the place I always came back to, with my cats and plants.
When you left Berlin in 2019, your time here was overshadowed by comments you made about Germany not providing “a good environment for foreigners”. Were you surprised by the media’s reaction?
The comments were made to elicit a reaction. If comments are not made for a reaction, why have comments? So, none of those personal opinions really matter. But in a way they did matter because they came from a person who was being pictured as a hero who had arrived suddenly into an extremely civilised society. Germany is the most developed society in Europe – especially economically. As a person, I have to give my opinions. Those opinions can never be seen as the truth, but they are based on my reflections, which can often be unbalanced or exaggerated.
Your house can quite literally become a jail. And that’s how the concept for my exhibition came about.
I think a lot of people agreed with you: that Germans, and especially Berliners, can be abrasive and not particularly polite to foreigners…
There was a moment when nobody agreed with my father, and he was forced to clean toilets – but he is now regarded as the most patriotic poet in China. Everybody has to read his poetry. So those kinds of mass agreement or disagreement don’t mean anything to me. I just had to be really clear about what I was thinking about at that moment. And what I think is always changing – we are just leaves in a river, and the river’s flowing, so when it changes your angle, you’ll see things totally differently. But at every moment, you have to respect what is in your mind.
Your 2017 documentary film Human Flow was about migration, people who actually don’t have a home. You’ve spoken a lot about how words like “refugees” dehumanise the very concept of displaced people. Why do you think people are more concerned with how refugees’ arrival will impact them rather than what’s driving refugees to leave their homes in the first place?
Humans always learn from mistakes. We can never develop, never become civilised, if we don’t first learn from mistakes. And we have to really learn about human nature and the nation – nationality, culture, background, all those things are affecting our personal decisions. So why do humans become short-sighted or selfish? It’s because they’re very insecure. And we always calculate our demands by taking advantage of the people who are disadvantaged. Not always consciously, but in a political context, it is always conscious. Some nations really act differently from what they propose.
Every director, actor and producer wants their film to show in China. And if you have me in there, the Chinese buyers and investors will not come… But I’m not anti-China.
One of the strongest works in your exhibition was ‘Illumination’ in 2019, which is made from tiny Lego pieces. It’s based on a selfie you took in a lift alongside the police who were trailing you because of your investigations into students’ deaths in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Even in this oppressive scenario, you found a way to make a work of art. That must have terrified the CCP…
People always say: How could you do that? Because it’s so scary. You know what, I always remember one photo of Joseph Beuys being expelled from the art school where he was protesting against admissions. Around him are two lines of people, like soldiers, with Beuys walking in the middle. I know very little about him, but that photo perfectly shows the individual and collective power, and how they have to coexist. When I took that photo, Der Spiegel were the first to publish it. They have a very nice article with the title, ‘The Smartphone Revolutionary’. They compared the image to Picasso’s painting ‘Guernica’, and the article said that both those works were marks of their time.
You once said: “As soon as you start to fight – you can be the weakest or strongest – you have won.” What did you mean by that?
Why were people demonstrating for democracy in Hong Kong? They knew, in the end, that they are not going to beat them. But they are winning because of two things. First, you recognise that you’re not alone. You will have identity, because you find that you don’t belong to the other side – to fight is to defend the integrity of life, which is formed by beliefs. Second, if you fight, you show your opponent or enemy that you are there. And there will be always someone like you there, so they cannot win, it is impossible. You have to have these beliefs, otherwise you have given up before you can win.
You capture those demonstrators in your documentary film Cockroach (2020) in Hong Kong. The footage you obtained showed the brutality of the suppression, something the western media had never seen before.
When you make a film that you are so involved in, then you feel like you’ve given your last drop of blood. I always have that belief. Even when I am doing exhibitions, I always think it’s my last show. Only by doing that do you give integrity to what you’re doing. Then you produce it, then you give it to, let’s say, a film festival. Yeah, they all love it. They all cannot believe it exists. But then what? You know, in the beginning of pandemic, I made the film Coronation (2020) about Wuhan, a very touching film, very modern. But Berlin, Venice, Cannes, Toronto all refused to show it. Then you have to ask them why? Have I not been around long enough to be part of your film festival? Is the film not relevant, is the language not right?
Was it an economic decision – fear of offending China?
A life is something untouchable. If we all understand and agree to that, then no war will ever happen.
I could not draw that conclusion. But in the global market, every director, actor and producer wants their film to show in China. And if you have me in there, the Chinese buyers and investors will not come because they don’t like me, their policy is to see me as anti-China. But I’m not anti-China.
A similar thing happened to you with Lego. For a time, the company refused to sell its bricks to you, saying they should not be used for politically motivated artwork…
Well, that’s a small matter. It gives me joy that we made these works in my Greifswalder Straße apartment, and they were hanging in the apartment earlier this summer. The first time Lego refused to sell more pieces to me, I was in Berlin playing Lego with my son and we put these images on Instagram and wrote: “Lego says we’re doing political work”. Sometimes it takes an individual to make this kind of move, otherwise Lego would still refuse. Now at least they’ve changed their policy.
You’ve also been very vocal in your protests against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As a high-profile artist and activist, what do you think is the best way of achieving change?
I still think we’ve not established fundamental values, such as “No War”. War can be evil, but at the same time, we have to question why war is evil. The answer is because it destroys human life. And a life is something untouchable. If we all understand and agree to that, then no war will ever happen.
One of the world’s most celebrated artists, AI WEIWEI was born in China in 1957. His family was exiled along with his father, a poet, during the Cultural Revolution. After studying in Beijing and New York City, he became active as an artist in the late 1980s and has since become a household name for an oeuvre that includes sculpture, installation, conceptual art and documentary-making. He is also politically active, regularly speak- ing out and producing art that criticises both the Chinese and Western governments. After leaving China in 2015, he moved to Berlin for five years before relocating to Portugal and the UK.