On Tuesday morning, MSNBC hosted a live text chat with internationally-celebrated conceptual artist Ai Weiwei, moderated by NBC reporter Ed Flanagan. A vocal critic of government policies, and a liberal user of social media, earlier this year Ai was suddenly detained by the Chinese government for 81 days, and is currently facing charges of tax evasion and pornography. Last year HiLobrow profiled Ai’s installation at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, Sunflower Seeds, composed of 100 million individually-created porcelain seeds, which unfortunately had to be closed to the public because of later concerns about ceramic dust.
For those of you who didn’t happen to catch it as it happened, here we reprise the hour-long chat in full, as it was type/talked, in which Ai fielded questions about art, politics, the artist’s role in art and society, and his thoughts on current events, both in China and abroad.
Even when artists insist his art is just for art’s sake that is still a political statement.
7:38 Chat Moderator:
Good morning and welcome to our live chat with Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei. Mr. Ai will begin answering questions at 9AM EST. Until then, please feel free to submit your questions now.
8:50 Comment From alex
where do you see the china in ten years from now?
8:58 Chat Moderator:
Ai Weiwei, has just sat down and we will be ready to start momentarily.
9:02 Comment From Ai Weiwei
Good morning. This is Ai Weiwei in Beijing. I’m ready to take your questions.
9:03 Comment From Ai Weiwei
In 10 years China will be a very different society. The reason I’m saying that is because people born in 80s and 90s will become major forces in the society. Their sensitivity, their knowledge are quite diffident from the past. Of course they have to face the challenge of the same generations anywhere else, but if China wants to continuously develop, to survive, to be successful the change is necessary and nothing can stop it. That means a more open and lawful society, a society with more respect , with more judicial justice. Otherwise China simply can not survive.
I think art expression can be independent from other practical struggles. But also it can be the same in parallel with the social struggle in the society. And I think it is very important because it is so much related to our emotions and our sensitivity.
9:03 Ai Weiwei:
I think art expression can be independent from other practical struggles. But also it can be the same in parallel with the social struggle in the society. And I think it is very important because it is so much related to our emotions and our sensitivity. And they always can be understood by the people who have different backgrounds, such as religions or education, or even political orientations.
9:04 Comment From Gura (from Japan)
Hello Mr. Weiwei I hope you’re well, I have a question for you. What is for you the meaning of Art expression for a society?
9:05 Comment From Bill
Can art and politics exist together ?
9:06 Ai Weiwei:
I think art and political always stay together in any time. With artists’ consciousness or not. Even when artists insist his art is just for art’s sake that is still a political statement. Of course in different society the political situation are different. So some are more obviously associated with political struggle some are more of a moral choice.
9:08 Comment From Karl
I just purchased your Shanghai studio print and I understand you collaborated with W magazine on a photo shoot. How is your house arrest impacting your work?
9:09 Ai Weiwei:
As an artist I think I live in a society in which very aspect all affect my work. If an artist is honest and open to experience in China I think China is a fast changing society, of course there may be artist still living with some ideas form last century but my interest is in current condition so the daily experience of my life is always reflected in my work, otherwise I would feel no need to produce another work and the 81-day detention have a strong impact to my life. My condition is still not totally free even the interview we are doing now is not allowed. If my art has anything to do with freedom of expression and my sensitivity and ideas to other people I think what happened in the past would have a very strong impact on my work.
My condition is still not totally free even the interview we are doing now is not allowed.
9:12 Comment From Karl
You commented on Chinese building standards in 2006 saying it is “fragile and weak”. In 2008, the earthquake hit and killed thousands of school children. The government does not want you bringing light to their indescretions. Where do you see a society going that does not acknowledge or address its problems?
9:13 Ai Weiwei:
I think if any society or individual want to has a clear understanding of itself it need s to respect the truth, the basic facts. Not doing so would bring them further problems or disasters. What happened in china today, we can easily find out because this society have a history of refusing to reveal the facts, the very essential facts. In the past decades, that is not only a because they are incapable of adjusting them to function better, but also as effectively for people to lose their trust in the society.
I think if any society or individual want to has a clear understanding of itself it needs to respect the truth, the basic facts.
[Untitled, Ai Weiwei, 2010; 5335 backpacks.]
[From the catalog at Harvard's Graduate School of Design: The work Untitled, presented here, makes public the findings of a year-long “Citizens’ Investigation” of the May 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake initiated by the Ai Weiwei Studio on behalf of the thousands of student victims of the disaster.* The survey covered 150 schools in 74 towns to amass the names of the deceased children, their birth dates, and the name of the schools they attended and in which they were killed. The investigation uncovered the subsequently widely reported fact that the defective “tofu construction” of school buildings played a principal role in the disproportionately high mortality rate of schoolchildren, a fact that was strenuously covered up by government authorities. Five thousand three hundred thirty-five backpacks are arrayed here, each in commemoration of a child documented by the “Citizens’ Investigation.” In a sound piece accompanying the work titled Remembrance, the names of the victims are recited.]
9:16 Comment From Lucia Stern
Your art seems to contain elements of social criticism or commentary while stepping between the lines and boundaries. If this quality in art becomes widespread in China, won’t it become more difficult for authorities to punish individual artists?
9:16 Ai Weiwei:
It’s not a necessary for artist to play the role, but it will be awkward if artists can not be critical if he realizes what it’s happening. It is against the philosophy or ethics which his art is needed. So I think only because of these very few artists or writers or so-called intellectuals in china would raise the questions. That makes individual voices very fragile and in dangerous situations.
It’s not a necessary for artist to play the role, but it will be awkward if artists can not be critical if he realizes what it’s happening.
9:21 Comment From Laura
Hi Ai. Thanks for doing this. Hope you know that you have lots of support here in the US, and that you’re a hero in many of our eyes! I wanted to know – are you still optimistic for change in China? And how do you feel about the responses from other nations?
9:22 Ai Weiwei:
Thanks. Even when there is very little communications we can still share very basic values. I think the changes are happening, not only in China but also elsewhere. We are at a time of fast changes because of new technologies and also the technologies bring a lot of possibilities. I think we are living in a stage when old structures are facing real challenges from the new individuals to act, who become more free to associate with new knowledge and information to communicate with others. And china’s economic growth made china become one of the major powers in the next years, possibly. That fact requires china to make a dramatic changes not just with economic improvement, but also china has to face challenge of how to become a modern society. Which means china has to be more efficient to cope with condition. So far china is using the kind of power of authoritarian society which sacrifice s individual’s rights, sacrifice democratic discussion, and sacrifice it’s only environment and education. And this will not last. China understands it. But the change is inevitable. It is not a matter of choice, but matter of surviving. They have to be part of a contemporary society, they have to accept common values, they have to learn to be lawful, to be a more open society. Only that can make china meet the challenge to be more creative, rather than just being a cheap labor market.
They have to be part of a contemporary society, they have to accept common values, they have to learn to be lawful, to be a more open society. Only that can make china meet the challenge to be more creative, rather than just being a cheap labor market.
9:25 Comment From Lily
What are your thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement happening around the world?
9:27 Ai Weiwei:
First I didn’t pay enough attention, but as much as I have to say, I can certainly recognize the need to express the feeling of the people who have suffered from this Walstreet power, that kind of distrust, and misconduct from the Walstreet in many respects. But as a movement it’s a still in a very primitive form, and you can see the kind of hopeless struggle because it seems to have no structure to get the message across, or even let people know what kind of message that is. Or it has become lacking of content or successfully express its own purposes during the development. It’s lack of means to really create changes.
…as a movement [#Occupy is] still in a very primitive form, and you can see the kind of hopeless struggle because it seems to have no structure to get the message across, or even let people know what kind of message that is.
9:27 Chat Moderator:
Bare with us, Ai weiwei’s cat has just opened the outside door on a blustery cold day
9:35 Comment From Larry
How did you react to the love shown by your supporters who raised money to help you with your legal issues with the government? Were you at all surprise, and how did those who oppose you respond to this kind of support?
9:35 Ai Weiwei:
I was deeply impressed, firstly surprised by the reaction of the people who openly support me, who was accused by the state with tax fault. This never happened in a nation like china where the authority is the law. And people really can express their feeling against the accusations. With my unique condition, because I have been working with internet for the past few years, and created a space where the oldest power structure seems much less powerful. So people used the money as a voting ticket to express their feelings against authorities, which was trying to manipulate judicial system, and to punish someone who have different opinions, or even a simple expression which reflects certain kind of freedom. In less than 10 days with restriction that my name can not even be recognized on Chinese internet, we got support over 9 million yuan(about 1.4 million dollars), and that not only came as a surprise to me, but a surprise o the whole society and the authorities as well. That would become a symbolic event which really announced a kind of people’s power from Internet.
With my unique condition, because I have been working with internet for the past few years, and created a space where the oldest power structure seems much less powerful.
9:37 Comment From michael
are you optimistic about China’s future?
9:39 Ai Weiwei:
I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic about china’s future. I wouldn’t even say I’m optimist about human or world’s future. We are still facing problems maybe we are not even fully aware or understand. Also there’re many problems that are not easy to solve. But of course I’m always trustful in humanity. Humanity may succeed in the way we understand beauty or kindness or caring, or to share through struggle.
I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic about china’s future. I wouldn’t even say I’m optimist about human or world’s future. … But of course I’m always trustful in humanity.
9:41 Chat Moderator:
With a bowlful of fresh tangerines at hands, Ai has agreed to take a couple extra questions over the time limit.
9:41 Comment From Hari Kunzru
Why do you think there has been such trouble about your representations of nudity?
9:49 Ai Weiwei:
This is complicated because china has never been a society with no freedom of sex, they have such a rich expressions in language or in practice, no matter in history or in current situations, the sexuality has much less restrictions than any other societies because there is no religion (in temporary society at least) but at the same time, police try to use this so-called pornography issue to slander me because they try to create an image that my moral standard is degraded. I think that type of actions really comes from a very old behaving pattern they’ve been using for years to criticize someone. If they can not challenge the ideas, they target your morality. I’m not saying the moral accusation shouldn’t be there, but to really accuse a nudity photo as pornography, it would only make authorities look absurd. Nudity for me is a kind of recognition of the body, and it’s respect of life, the kind of form we don’t even understand. Most of the people don’t even have a chance to really look at it and understand the hidden meaning of those images. What authorities are afraid of is the naked truth, the truth about ourselves and the truth of recognition.
What authorities are afraid of is the naked truth, the truth about ourselves and the truth of recognition.
9:50 Comment From Marcus Howard Bryant
Can I expect to see your art on display in the US?
It seems to me I have unfinished business in china.
9:52 Comment From John Miner
Do you ever see yourself not living in China? Or is it more important for you to do your art in China?
9:56 Ai Weiwei:
It seems to me I have unfinished business in china. Of course in today’s technology and environment it’s not necessary for me to stay in any places physically because you can always communicate through internet and the world becomes one. And gradually china will not be so unique, china will be a place of less sense for me to stay with. So hopefully I will not have responsibilities or obligations to stay here.
9:57 Comment From Angelina
Ai I just wanted to say disappointed I am in your comments about the Occupy movement. Your release and safety from the Chinese authorities was in large part due to the worldwide outcry for transparency and accountability, much the same issues that OWS are advocating for. It seems to me that you haven’t bothered to inform yourself because it isn’t all about you, and you have lost my moral support for your art, it seems overtly self referential to me now, and less empathetic with the people’s struggle, sorry.
9:59 Ai Weiwei:
I already said my knowledge about “Occupy Wallstreet” is limited because in china we don’t have free flow information, we don’t have CNN, Twitter, Youtube, or Facebook. Therefore our knowledge about it is very limited. Forgive me if what I said is not appropriate. If I was in N.Y., I would be part of it.
I’m not talking to press. I’m talking to people.
10:01 Comment From tim
I didn’t think you were allowed to talk to the press after being released from prison, what’s changed?
10:02 Ai Weiwei:
I’m not talking to press. I’m talking to people.
10:02 Comment From Henry
Thanks for doing this, Mr. Ai. What do you think would be the most fundamental thing to do to make China a more open, fair and lawful society?
10:05 Ai Weiwei:
I think everybody, when he’s thinking about china, or dealing with china, has to respect the people who still don’t have freedom of expression, still don’t have independent judicial system. We always have to be conscious about it and we always have to remind our politicians to face it. There’s no excuse to sacrifice humanity for short time profits in any circumstances.
There’s no excuse to sacrifice humanity for short time profits in any circumstances.
10:08 Comment From Paul
Do you believe that you can beat the tax evasion charges?
10:12 Ai Weiwei:
In current conditions I don’t think we can change the outcome of tax evasion investigation because we don’t have independent judicial system. We don’t even have independent tax department. Chinese media, tax bureau, and the court, they are all under one party’s control. There’s no miracle about it. But at the same time, we already won the trial outside the trial. People openly discuss it and support me. It’s already a victory. It will also be a reminder to the powers that they should never use justice as a means for revenge, otherwise that would really hurt themselves, and put the nation in a shadow when there’s no trust in justice.
But at the same time, we already won the trial outside the trial. People openly discuss it and support me. It’s already a victory.
10:14 Ai Weiwei:
Thank you very much for all your questions and care. I’m going back to the studio to work. Good-bye everyone!
More information on the chat, politics and set-up:
Replay the chat on MSNBC.
Peek behind the scenes: The Story Behind the Chat with Ai Weiwei.
Untitled, Ai’s contribution to The Divine Comedy exhibition at Harvard University, along with Olafur Eliasson and Tomás Saraceno.
Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern.
MSNBC slideshow of selected works.
Ai Weiwei’s blog, now in print from MIT Press.
(Unsolicited) naked photos Tweeted in support of Ai Weiwei.