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On the cover: ‘Untitled’ by Ai Weiwei

The text on ‘Untitled’ references the 12th May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan and reads: “Love life, don’t forget 12th May earthquake, citizen action”

What’s the genesis of your work?

I make works that relate to my condition. I’m not trying to romanticise or even to explore that condition, but I do feel that everything you touch has a meaning. If there’s a meaning you don’t understand, you need to take another look and pay attention. A lot of times anger or frustration comes from unfamiliarity.

Although you’re still censored in China, the Chinese government allows you to show your work internationally and has eased some of its restrictions on you. Why do you think that is?

Well, that’s something you can never understand. Because when the authorities only appear in such a superior position, they never have to tell the truth. If they’re nice to you or not nice to you, either way you don’t really understand.

It’s kind of disappointing because there’s no clear sense of communication or discussion, there are just clear orders. You don’t know from what level the decision’s been made or who is really the person who ordered it. Even the ones who are dealing with you may not necessarily understand the case or care about the case, so you’re really more or less working with a wall or with a machine. That’s frustrating.

Creating ‘Urn’ 2005

Do you worry about your name disappearing in China even though you’re so well-known internationally?

Recently there was a show in Shanghai by [Swiss] ex-ambassador Uli Sigg, and I happened to be one of the artists. The next news I received was that my work was being removed. Twenty minutes before the show, they had to remake the information on the wall because my name had been mentioned. They had to use a hairdryer to dry the wall, because the opening was getting started. It was like a scene from a badly-made movie. It doesn’t seem like reality, but it happens.

Basically, this nation is controlled through two very clear tactics: one is power through the police and the army, which is very simple. The other is to control any information. Even if it’s historical, it’s pure facts, it’s not arguable, they still have to control it. I think everybody should give a bit of resistance. Just a little bit, to be yourself for one moment. It takes just that little, and society would change. But Chinese people are very practical, they have been since many years ago when they saw tanks running [in the streets of Beijing]. They always say, “Come on, this is not possible.”

Portrait by Gao Yuan

A lot of your work involves antiques or older materials. How do these works come about?

I have a habit of going to antique markets. Beijing is the area where all the most expensive, real antiques come to, and then from here they’re often sent to the world market. In the ’90s, after I came back from New York, there were about six years when I wandered around, and didn’t have much to do, so I completely threw myself into this antique world, at first just from curiosity. Through actually touching them and buying them, I learned about the material culture in our history, how it relates to its aesthetic moral philosophy of the world.

Do you think this is specific to Chinese culture?

It’s very hard to say. I think because I’m Chinese, I’m very disappointed, but I don’t really blame the Chinese people. I think this stuff isn’t easy. If you see what happened recently, people were even just having meetings in their home, trying to discuss some historical factors, and they’ve been put away in jail.

‘Fragments’ 2005

Do you think the Chinese authorities’ attitude toward you has changed?

They’re much more open towards me and much more relaxed. Nobody follows me if I go out – there’s no car outside. I can travel within China quite freely and nobody says: “Where are you going?” They’ve given me maximum freedom, I should say, to do my work and even talk to you. So I consider that a very friendly attitude toward me.

Does the government try to limit the art that you make?

No. They’ve been very clear in that sense – and I have to say something good about them – they never tried to extend their power to the fields which in the beginning they didn’t want to touch, such as my artwork. Although whatever I explain, I don’t think they’re really satisfied with the result. They think I must have some kind of meaning there or some kind of conspiracy behind it.

They never think you do art for art’s sake?

There were several different kinds of suspicions. They said possibly some anti-China forces tried to support me through buying my work. I think that didn’t work that well. Then they said maybe I’m just a pawn being used for that kind of purpose. Now I think they’re closer to the conclusion that I’m an artist, I’m just on my own, and this [politics] is really not an area I should touch.

“He treads a fine line” | Hans Werner Holzwarth on Ai Weiwei

“Ai Weiwei is one of the most exciting artists in the world, so we were delighted that he agreed to do a monograph with us. Taschen have been creating overviews of artists since 2008 and Ai Weiwei felt like an important one to cover because everyone knows bits and pieces of his work, but nobody is able to get the complete picture.

I spent a lot of time with him while creating the book, visiting him in his studio six or seven times. He’s very serious about his work, but he’s also happy to be sidetracked. We’d discuss things in his studio, then over dinner, then late into the night, and all the time he was taking photos, joking, enjoying himself.

These books are artistically important but they are also history books. To understand Ai Weiwei’s work you need to understand China and that’s not easy. Even if you’ve never been to the US, you can understand an American artist’s reference points because they are everywhere in culture, but that’s not possible with China. It is impenetrable. So we try to put his work in the context of China and its history.

Politics is obviously a big part of his work, so it’s a big part of the book. Lots of Western artists have views on history, morality and the ethics of society, but it is much easier to have those discussions in a democratic society. Ai Weiwei is having these conversations in a post-Communist country where it is not clear what you can legally discuss. He treads a fine line.

He is known in China, but my impression is that he is more important as a voice from China to the West than as a voice inside his own country. That said, the Bird’s Nest [the Olympic stadium designed by Ai Weiwei] is one of the most highly regarded monuments in China. They are really proud of something so modern that still carries the iconography of China.

That for me is Weiwei’s greatest skill. He has an incredible level of cultural understanding. He is super knowledgeable about Chinese artists and history and he has a huge collection of historical works. But he’s also able to link these old pieces and ancient skills to the present.

He also has an incredible memory. He could recall everything about creating a piece, what he was thinking, what was happening at the time; he just needs to see a piece to be transported back. The work always gives him the answer.

Ai Weiwei by Hans Werner Holzwarth is published by Taschen Books

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