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An interview with Ai Weiwei

Self-portrait of Ai Weiwei in a room with a mirror behind him, and the flash of the camera above him.

Ai Weiwei, Illumination, 2014, Ai Weiwei

The following is an excerpt from Eric Shiner’s interview with Ai Weiwei that appears in the exhibition catalogue Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei. The catalogue was produced in conjunction with the exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei, on view at The Warhol June 4–August 28, 2016.


Self-portrait of Ai Weiwei in a room with a mirror behind him, and the flash of the camera above him.
Ai Weiwei, Illumination, 2014, Ai Weiwei


Eric Shiner: What compelled you to move to New York City in the early 1980s, and how did Andy Warhol factor into your thinking at that time? Did you, in fact, meet Andy in those early days?

Ai Weiwei: My father, Ai Qing, was a poet. He was accused of being a ‘rightist’ and was exiled to the remote desert region of Xinjiang. We lived through the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and political struggles. Those early experiences informed my decision to leave China; to be far away. Throughout my childhood, the United States was portrayed as a propagator of imperialism and as an enemy of the state. America seemed like the furthest place I could possibly go. I wanted to be in New York, the cultural center. I arrived in the United States in 1981 and went to New York in 1983, where I remained for ten years.

Early on, I was exposed to Andy Warhol and was immediately drawn to him. He was, and remains, an interesting figure, not only for his art and personality but also everything related to him. The first book I bought in New York was The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) (1975). I found a signed copy of the book at the Strand.1 Reading it gave me a firsthand account of who Warhol was as a person, what he was like and what his interests were, what his style and attitude was towards everything. I read other books from his generation, but to me Warhol always remained the most interesting figure in American art. I saw him a few times during openings in the downtown art scene, around the Lower East Side, and once at PS1.


ES: Prior to leaving China, what was your work like in the 1970s? What informed it? What changes did you see as a result of your move to New York?

AW: Before I went to the United States, I was a student at a film school. My major was in animation and the kind of work I was doing involved very simple drawings. I realized much later that my way of making drawings was similar to Warhol’s, particularly his early drawings of cats and portraits for his friends. At the time, I knew almost nothing about contemporary American art. I had received one book, as a gift, on Jasper Johns’s work. In our so-called art circle, nobody appreciated what Johns had done. It was not until after I had arrived in New York that I began to appreciate his work. Johns became an early influential figure in my studies and a bridge to understanding the work of Marcel Duchamp and ultimately Warhol.


ES: Warhol’s father died after drinking contaminated water in West Virginia when Andy was only fourteen years old. It was the most traumatic event a young man could endure. Can you talk about your own relationship with your father and how that shaped you as an artist?

AW: I come from a very different kind of family. My father was an intellectual, a poet, but he was also exiled. Growing up, I never saw my father write a word. During the Cultural Revolution, the most difficult period, he was forced to clean toilets. At the time, those kinds of public toilets in rural China were beyond one’s imagination. But he made the toilets so clean and I never saw someone put so much effort into cleaning toilets. I really respect my father as someone who was highly aesthetically trained and lived and breathed poetry, but who at the same time handled the most lowly and brutal work, while never really complaining. That mentality, and his actions, had a very strong influence on me.


ES: What was the most rewarding part of your time in New York? Can you talk about how long you were there, what it meant for you, how you survived, and ultimately what compelled you to return to China?

AW: I spent my time in the United States as an outsider, never really aspiring for so-called American values. I never tried to get myself established with position, status, economic satisfaction, or material things. I had very limited resources, so I worked all kinds of jobs. From carpentry to house cleaning, gardening to print and frame shops, I took many different kinds of jobs to survive. I saw no opportunity for me to feel comfortable in that society and to be recognized. However, my stay in the United States was a chance to immerse myself in the arts and to be involved in intellectual discussions. This allowed me to be quite independent and liberal. I enjoyed spiritual freedom there.

After twelve years in the Unites States without returning to China, I received news that my father was ill, and I decided I had to return. Before he passed away, I had to come back and stay with him.


ES: Describe what it was like to return to China after so many years in New York. What surprised you the most? What angered you the most? Do you think your decision to return was the right one to make?

AW: Before I came back, everyone was saying that China had changed dramatically, but I was under no illusions. I knew there were some things that could never change. When I returned, I realized I was right. Yes, we have very tall buildings, wide roads and many cars. Economically, China has developed tremendously; however, the state is still under strict Communist control. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, universal suffrage and an independent press are not accepted. All of these common values are restricted and controlled, which is very disappointing.

When I first returned, I did not have much to do. If I wasn’t at home, I would go out to the antique market. Visiting the antique market imparted experience and knowledge I would have never gained elsewhere. I soon attempted to establish an underground culture, to publish independent books and develop a platform for contemporary activities. I made The Black Cover Book (1994), The White Cover Book (1995) and The Grey Cover Book (1997).2 I organized an exhibition titled Fuck Off. With Hans van Dijk and Frank Uytterhaegen, I established the first contemporary gallery in China, which we named China Art Archives and Warehouse. There we exhibited early works by artists working in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many artists active today came from that period.

I never really evaluate decisions as being right or wrong. I could not know what my life would have been like if I did not come back. I guess every decision is the right decision. I never think that I have made any wrong decisions in my life. I do not even think I can make a wrong decision.

The full interview is printed in the catalogue Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei, available for purchase in The Warhol Store. The catalogue is published by NGV, in collaboration with The Warhol and Ai, and edited by Eric Shiner, The Warhol’s director, and Max Delany, former NGV senior curator, contemporary art. Alongside reproduced images by both artists are essays by an international team of art experts, curators, and scholars that survey the scope of the artists’ careers and interpret the impact of Warhol and Ai on contemporary art.