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September 2011, Interview with Simon Kirby

Simon Kirby and Ai Weiwei

An interview with Simon Kirby

Trained as a Sinologist, Simon Kirby has been involved with the Chinese art scene since the 1990s in a myriad of capacities – as consultant, organizer, curator, writer, translator, and interpreter, to name but a few. Currently, he serves as the Director of the Beijing branch of the New York-based Chambers Fine Art, a gallery that exclusively represents Chinese artists. On a humid summer night in 2011, we met up in a hutong bar just next to the Drum and Bell Towers in downtown Beijing to discuss the Chinese contemporary art scene, as well as his experiences in China, in general.

Travis Jeppesen: When did you first come to China?

Simon Kirby: I first came to China as an undergraduate language exchange student in 1986. I studied at Northwest University in Xian. It was the second year of my program at Edinburgh University. If you’d seen China in the mid-1980s – especially Xian, in the Shaanxi Province – there was a sense that you’d seen it all. Everybody’s China reality starts from the moment they arrived. I hate to fall into that trap! (laughs) But as a student in the mid-80s in China, nothing really had changed from the 1950s. People lived mostly without money, everything was rationed, and everything was bought with coupons and vouchers that were given to you by your work unit or the university. Working people that one knew, they lived in rooms in these long corridors – one family to a room – they washed in the corridors. They had rice tickets, oil tickets. They didn’t get electricity bills or utility bills, they didn’t pay rent. Money was kind of irrelevant in daily life. That was 1986, Mao had died in 1976, and so it had been ten years.

Officially, a lot of things had changed. We all said that lots had changed, with the reforms and Deng; in 1979, they were really still mopping up from the Cultural Revolution. But in actuality, not very much had changed. In mid-1980s China, especially in those hinterland towns, it might as well have been 1975.

In a way, there were virulent political movements taking place in China. It was a constant process of pushing this idea of reform and then retrenching. So if you trace those movements through the ‘80s, there was the anti-spiritual pollution campaign, which took place immediately after the reforms started and basically tried to penalize anyone who was trying to push reforms. The next one was anti-bourgeois liberalization, which was a major campaign that went on for a couple of years, and this was going on when we were there as a group of students. And it was real stuff. By the end of the 1980s, there was Tiananmen Square.

Jeppesen: Didn’t these struggles merely reflect the struggle in the Communist Party between the old guard of devout Maoists who were dying out and the up-and-coming people who were more reform-minded?

Kirby: That’s a big mistake to make, actually, to try and put it in the context of “progress.” Because it’s not that the old school people were dying out. They’re still very much with us today. We’re not looking at a process of development towards some democratized future. That persistently fails to happen. In our Western narrative, the “reform” process is a process towards democratization. Well frankly, it’s not. Very demonstrably it’s not. It’s an economic question. But it’s not a political reform process.

Anyhow, that’s how I first came to China. I graduated in Edinburgh in 1989 and my final exams – they were very intensive, it was an Old School set-up, so we read classics, studied poetry, Chinese philosophy, Ming novels, I was basically a Sinology classics major – we had a huge amount of things to memorize, there were translation exercises, classical texts – all through this time, me and my classmates were intensively submerged in this Chinese world. And that was the months and weeks leading up to the big massacre at Tiananmen Square. June 4th, that was bang in the middle of those intensive exams, when you were thinking about nothing except China. It was a really big dilemma. Our group of about 10 students – I’m still on close terms with about half those people – there was a split. Half of us – and I was in this camp – said, “You can’t deal with these people, this is hideous, I’m never going back.” The more levelheaded people said, “No, it’s important for us to carry on engaging.” My line was, “If we were Chinese, we would be underneath those tanks.” Basically, they’re coming after us!

Jeppesen: Because you were students, too.

Kirby: Exactly. They were our contemporaries. If we were traumatized, sitting there in the UK, what could it have been like for someone from here who lived through it? It’s not like we were unresilient Western people who were overreacting. It did affect us. And it was horrible. The message was loud and clear.

So I went to Taiwan after that. I spent about a year doing a silly computer job in Taipei. I had a motorbike and zipped around town. My next step was to go work for the European Commission in Brussels. That was the really interesting, hopeful period of the European Union project around 1990, ‘91. I worked on the China desk of the international division of the European Commission and quickly discovered that wasn’t for me. But I stayed in Belgium, and eventually got my first arts job. I started working for the publishing program in this independent network of theater and dance producers, promoters, artists, and companies.

Around 1996, I moved back to London. And that’s when China started to come back on the horizon for me. One of the important organizations of the network I worked for was the Brussels International Arts Festival. They were doing really interesting co-productions with Beijing. I did some voluntary work at the festival, looking after the Chinese artists.

Another group that I got to know well was affiliated with the Institute for Contemporary Art in London. The ICA was planning a season of live art, mainly performance, which was to mark the handover of Hong Kong. Their idea was to put together a Chinese Diaspora live performance program, a kind of counterpoint to all the official stuff that was going on. They asked me to program the Beijing section of that.

So I came back here in the winter of 1995 with a mission. We had three or four slots to invite some of those body art people to come to London and perform at the ICA. I’d been back to China once in the interim, but this was really a “coming back.” Having these project sessions with all these artists who were important in the underground scene, they were all still suffering from the hangover of Tiananmen Square. It was rough. They lived in total poverty. And it was really radical, what they were doing, people like Zhang Huan. It was very real.

Jeppesen: Were they influenced by people doing body art in the West?

Kirby: Definitely.

Jeppesen: How were they getting that information? Was it through word of mouth?

Kirby: I think the information was very limited. There was little being published in Chinese, so people would take material back to China from overseas. When these artists came to London to perform at the ICA, the only thing they wanted to do was go to the bookshops. No book was too expensive. They were desperate to collect as much important material as they could. The access to overseas material was limited, there was no Internet. So it was all hand-carried.

There was a very radical and legitimate sense that the only meaningful and significant place of action was on their own bodies. There was a very clear sense that their whole area of possible activity had been so circumscribed. So it was very beautiful and moving, actually, and quite harsh.

When I came back and realized I could work with those people, that’s when I realized that this is the China I want to engage with. So I came around, eventually.

Then there was a period of a few years when I did not so much, but I was in London writing and doing production on projects, bits and pieces to do with China. Then I was coming back to do bits of journalism, because people became interested in publishing things that had to do with the Chinese art scene. I did a series of articles for Wallpaper magazine, it was quite mainstream. This was the late 1990s.

And then, the British Council joined with Arts Council England. For the first time ever, they decided to cooperate on a project. They decided they wanted to do some kind of arts project in China. So they advertised, and when I saw the description of that project, it totally had my name written all over it, even though I hadn’t initially intended to leave London and come to China.

That program ran 2002 to 2006. It was called Artist Link. It was a series of process-based artist projects. We had, over those four years, 90 different artists going between the UK and China, 60 different projects, partnerships across different cities in China and England…I set up this whole network of exchanges. It was basically just me. So it was an intensive period of activity, but also quite free, because although I was working on an institutional level, I was actually quite independent.

Jeppesen: Were you in Shanghai doing this?

Kirby: Yes. 2002 to 2006, I was in Shanghai. When that program ended, I decided to stay in China. And set up my own project, SKA Culture. Which I ran through 2009, two-and-a-half years. I was working independently on producing Chinese artists’ projects overseas, acting as an independent consultant if an overseas artist wanted to work in China, and carrying on doing critical writing. In 2009, I was planning on coming to live in Beijing anyway and then I was approached by the director of Chambers Fine Art to run their Beijing space. And that’s what I’ve been doing up until now.

Jeppesen: So you’ve witnessed the emergence of the art scene here in the last couple decades, from the extreme poverty of the 1990s when the performance artists were living in extreme poverty and using their own bodies as a vehicle for expression, up through the new materialism and the boom years of the '00s. What is it like today? Have things improved significantly? Because it seems that the “contemporary Chinese art” hype in the West has died down.

Kirby: Firstly, my whole personal, professional, spiritual, aesthetic motivation behind being here is that I’m very passionate about China, and I know something about China. I think it’s endlessly fascinating. I mean, it doesn’t mean I’m a visionary, that I predicted this Chinese art trend in advance. China had always been there. Everything about it is so overwhelming and vast – more than a billion people. The statistics just roll on and on. Given the literary and artistic heritage of China, and given the situation we find ourselves in now, where we’ve got a kind of totalitarian capitalistic regime here in China – it’s quite ironic, because China is also being viewed as saving the world – given that background, the only place I would look for any significant interest or anything of real value is in what the artists are doing.

Jeppesen: Do you think it’s easier to become an artist today in China? I get the impression that it’s still something obscure and extremely marginal in Chinese culture.

Kirby: Well, the contemporary art world is. China is super elitist. You’ve got more than a billion people. Yet you go around this enormous country meeting the same people everywhere you go. Because the educated class of people is quite small.

Jeppesen: Is being an artist an elite position?

Kirby: In the classic socialist set-up, the artist was a cultural worker in an institution, normally a university. The world of the independent artist arose in the early 90s. You could potentially live as an artist. To do that at the time was viewed as extremely marginal. Those people were considered weird and rather dangerous, a bit sketchy.

Jeppesen: By the government?

Kirby: By people at large. I noticed a difference between 2002 and now. In 2002, if you showed anyone images of what artists were doing, people were generally very skeptical, very ill at ease about it. Now, it’s kind of widely viewed as a cool way of getting rich. The economics of being a Chinese artist in China do work in a way that they don’t work in the West.

Jeppesen: When you’re rich here, then you’re really really rich.

Kirby: I know artists who are very competent, highly talented mid-career artists in London, who’d be really happy to sell a work for five or six thousand pounds. A young guy coming out of college in China would automatically assume a painting would sell for that. He’d probably feel he was being ripped off! Well, if you sell two paintings for five thousand pounds in China, that really covers just about everything you need to live for a good couple of years, if you’re careful. So the economics of being an artist in China do work in a way that they don’t really in the West.

Jeppesen: I know some western art critics have made the charge of anti-parochialism, that contemporary Chinese art is only being produced for the West and is somehow detached from its own cultural traditions. That’s sort of an odd charge to make, but then it resonates with what you just said about the view that being an artist here is increasingly viewed as a “cool way to get rich.” That raises the charge that artists’ intentions aren’t sincere or authentic.

Kirby: I think you have to view it in a historical context. That was something commonly heard amongst Chinese people, too. That all of this cultural production in contemporary art was made specifically for Western people. It’s a bit of a cheap jibe. But there was also some truth to it, because the buyers were Western. So smart people worked out very quickly what appealed to Western people, and they were only too happy to provide.

At the same time, there’s that generation of people who have now become super famous, people like Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun. There’s not a lot to what they do in terms of artistic development, but they’re incredibly powerful personalities and they have basically stamped a whole decade of contemporary China with their image. That’s a remarkable thing. What I always say to Chinese artists, if that ever comes up, is “Listen, if there was no USA, there’d be no Chinese contemporary art.” It was the international people, particularly the American buyers, who had that cultural habit, a curiosity about other places. They did support the whole thing.

But that was always very problematic, this thing about “Chinese contemporary art,” making it into this ghettoized thing. It’s only valid if it’s Chinese! Then you can have a long debate about what was Chinese and what wasn’t. Or, did they just do it for us to look at as foreigners?

What I’d say about that now is that the picture was much more complex than it sometimes appears. There are a few strands there. Those big names, like Cai Guoqiang and Wang Guangyi, they were a slightly older generation and all of them went overseas, they were a kind of 1950s generation. And I think in that generation, there was a much more complicated relationship with the Chinese cultural background. None of it was two-dimensional. Now, we’re witnessing quite an interesting moment in terms of an acknowledged diversification of what “contemporary” can actually be. There’s one very simplistic and quite alarming interpretation of contemporaneity that is very prevalent in China. It’s part of a larger Chinese malaise that has to do with a discomfort with conceptions of modernity in general. That is that modernity and contemporaneity is a kind of strategy for creating a completely oven-ready new thing, which defaces the past. It’s a way of creating a clean slate. That you can leapfrog into a modernity and postmodernity without ever having gone through anything in between.

Jeppesen: This brings us back again to the black hole project of the Cultural Revolution. I was thinking today about the Ai Weiwei action where he dropped and destroyed the Tang dynasty urn. People are still upset about that today. I think what he was doing was demonstrating on a smaller level what’s been going on for decades on a wider level here.

Kirby: Completely. It’s a very eloquent gesture.

Jeppesen: Avdey Ter-Oganyan did something similar in Russia, chopping up Orthodox icons. It’s not ironic that artists in these two countries did something similar.

Kirby: That would be a reflection of what has been an institutionalized program of destroying the past. When I asked Ai Weiwei about that, he said, “Well, you know, what I did is a very cheap gesture. It’s actually very uninteresting.” So then I asked him where he got the “Han Dynasty urn” from. He told me, and it’s a market here that’s well known for selling fake antiques! His studio is called FAKE Studio. So what has been completely overlooked in all the discussion about Ai Weiwei’s urn is that it wasn’t the real thing! And that’s a typical thing about Ai Weiwei: all of his gestures are very multi-layered. There’s always an element of mischief in there, but for me it’s a perfect gesture. Just the fact that people are so willing to take that at face value without stopping to consider it could be fake, that is the whole point of iconoclasm in the first place.

The key question, when looking at contemporary art in China, is about what China’s relationship is with modernity.

Jeppesen: Or maybe what its relationship is with its own history. The questions that often get asked are: Is it ahistorical or is it inauthentic because it doesn’t follow this “natural” linear art historical evolution that we have in the West? Is it detached from China’s artistic heritage or traditions? If so, is there something wrong about that?

Kirby: These questions are full of false leads. The great defining feature of 20th and 21st century Chinese history at every level is the attempt to make ruptures and complete breaks with the past. That’s the solution to modernity, to make a radical break with the past. You see this in the destruction of the Chinese city. How you make something modern is you destroy the previous one and replace it, wholesale. Unless it’s absolutely systematically done, then the project has failed, according to this logic.

Jeppesen: Why do you think this is done with such ease? Can it really just be attributed to greed? It’s stunning, this lack of consciousness among the officials.

Kirby: It’s very well documented that the Communist program for China has been to eradicate traditional culture. It’s been a part of the official policy for decades. The destruction of historic cities is an eloquent metaphor for that. In the 1950s, there were absolute comprehensive blueprints for the complete reconstruction of Beijing, including demolishing the Forbidden City. This was openly and enthusiastically discussed. The difficulty is that through the ‘50s and ‘60s, there wasn’t the economic means to do that. They did make quite a good attempt, but the thing was basically stagnating because of the economy. So in a way, the mobilization of international capital for the construction of mega shopping malls, condominium complexes, and vast housing estates, it’s just a question of mobilizing it from a different angle. It’s the same aim. It turns out that to mobilize a vast real estate project with huge amounts of capital is a much more efficient way than trying to mobilize people with sledgehammers when you don’t have the means to do it. You know, back then people squatted in the old temples because there was no place to live.

Jeppesen: You said before that if there’s going to be any social change, artists are going to lead the way. Are there more artists like Ai Weiwei who are publicly bucking the system?

Kirby: Well, first of all, let’s just talk about one thing. Who are artists? In my experience, the artists in China that I know, meet, and work with, they are amongst the very few people who are conscious, informed ,and knowledgeable about Chinese culture. If I were in London and really wanted to know about Western culture, I might go to a lawyer as much as an artist. Who are the repositories of cultural knowledge? In the West, it’s much more widespread, and you expect that professional people have a much more intense interest in cultural life – not just contemporary art, but maybe architecture, theater, opera, all sorts of things. There’s a repository of cultural knowledge that resides across all types of people. I’d say, in my experience in China, it’s very much reduced, and the artists are among the very few. They are, in my experience, the people who really do know.

Now, that raises a very interesting question about notions of contemporaneity. My personal belief is that artists, in a survival mode – let’s lay aside the political question for now and talk about the international contemporary art mainstream – one strategy of survival for an artist has been to attempt to inscribe themselves into the international contemporary art structure – that’s how to make a living. There’s been a very complicated aspect of this for them, and that is – Where do they place their knowledge about traditional Chinese culture? Because some of that knowledge could be a very dangerous thing. Because the way that this international contemporary art world does define itself is very Eurocentric, based on Western paradigms. So I’d say lots of the artists I know, for example Feng Mongbo – who’s sort of the original so-called digital artist in China. You discover that actually, he is really passionate about classical Chinese painting and knows a lot about it. But up until now, he’s been very weary to really rehearse that in public. Because for a Chinese artist, where there is a very institutionalized fuddy-duddy kind of – you know, if you do classical Chinese stuff, you have to go through all those boring old professors at university and it puts you in a kind of very institutional world that no one can really take seriously – so what I believe is that most of those artists actually spend a lot of time concealing their knowledge.

I think it’s a very interesting moment in China now because people like Feng Mongbo are finally starting to talk about it. That’s a very challenging question for Western people. Are we the ultimate arbiters of what contemporary art might be? Or is it possible that there could be many different kinds? If you’re from a cultural background that’s very different, and you have a huge amount of cultural knowledge, and you are confident enough to explore it fully in public, then it raises all sorts of questions about how one interprets the material. It puts you, as a Westerner, in an interesting position, because suddenly there are all sorts of references to things you might not understand at all.

So that’s on one level: “What’s the cultural confidence of a Chinese artist?” Another related one you raised earlier, “Are they pandering to the West?” Well, in a certain sense, they are. Did they create this system of biennials and art fairs? No. Were they relying on it? Yes, they were. Will the situation continue in that form? Maybe not.

Jeppesen: I think an artist like Ai Weiwei is interesting because despite his international celebrity, there’s a real obliviousness to the fact that his work only functions within this context. People in the West were saying prior to the arrest, why doesn’t he just leave China? He can live anywhere he wants, he’s a rich international artist! People don’t realize that he needs to be here because his work makes sense in this cultural context.

Kirby: I think that’s right. And why should he go? The question of Ai Weiwei is extremely relevant and much more urgent than lots of local Chinese people in the art world care publicly to admit. Of course, if anyone is in any kind of official position at all, they have no choice but to reiterate the official line. I do detect a kind of sea change about the way people view the person of Ai Weiwei and his public persona. I believe that people have realized that it has implications for them. That’s what people denied before.

There’s a whole other subject you could go into here: What is the current status of the sociopolitical system in China? The short answer to that is, it’s extremely fragile. There’s a widespread, almost universal disillusionment with the situation. People are really fed-up. That’s also something that’s quite different from four years ago.

When I wrote an article for Index on Censorship on Chinese artists in 2008, I discussed the whole issue of the Tiananmen Contract. The Tiananmen Contract, vulgarly put, is what was enacted in Tiananmen Square. The contract was very often repeated, and it says, “We can look after your material well being, life will get better, your life as a consumer will improve, you will get richer, you will have more opportunities, you can join the international world. But the deal is, this is only available to you if you never challenge the right of the Communist party to lead this country.” And artists almost universally subscribed to this. It extended into the heart of the art world. Because the government is in a position to shut you up. It’s very difficult to do provocative political work. It can look political, but it would have to be anodyne. Or if it was provocative work, then you were basically in trouble. And they can stop you working: They don’t give you a passport, they can throttle off your oxygen. There are lots of things they can do. They can intimidate you, they can put you in prison – and they do.

So when I wrote that article in 2008, my real conclusion was that there was a very broad consensus that this was right: life was getting better; the situation was extremely complicated; those in charge had the people’s best interest at heart and the last thing these people doing those difficult jobs needed were ill-informed people interfering when they weren’t in full possession of the facts.

Fast forward to 2011, and I’d say that that situation is almost completely reversed. Nobody believes in the Tiananmen Contract anymore. Everybody views the Communist Party as completely corrupt. There are daily examples of gross – not miscarriages of justice, because there is no justice – but gross abuses of power using really hideous intimidation. Every single person in this country knows that’s how it works – there are no illusions about this anymore whatsoever.

So they can’t pull that card anymore, where they say, “Oh, you’d better not interfere with things you can’t understand because things are much more complicated than you know and we have your best interests at heart.”

Previously, many artists despised Ai Weiwei – usually, for rocking the boat for them. When they saw him being rounded up, there was a real pause for thought. Even though they might be jealous that he’s much more famous than them, they see how incredibly vulnerable he is. They realize that he’s taken an extremely principled position. Which he maintains. This is more than can be said for most. And, when people look around themselves and think, then the question that emerges is, what’s the alternative?

There are other artists who are political-minded. The work they produce tends to be very coded.

Jeppesen: Necessarily so.

Kirby: Yes. The one thing they would never do is make provocative public pronouncements. That’s the difference between them and Ai Weiwei. In lots of ways, Ai Weiwei’s work is extremely humanistic. He’s kind of a humanistic modernist.

Let’s not forget, Ai Weiwei was brought up in the Gulag. His father, Ai Qing, was China’s most famous poet and they arrested him during the Anti-Rightist Movement. The entire family lived in a prison camp, in some squalid hut. His father was routinely humiliated in front of him by groups of Red Guard thugs.

So it’s like father, like son. Chiang Kai-Shek put Ai Qing in prison in the 1930s, then Mao Zhedong put him in prison in the 1950s for sixteen years. And now, the government of China is going to put Ai Weiwei in prison, also for being an artist and outspoken. People are endlessly taught that they have to buy into these things for the sake of economic development. But what’s the point of all this economic development if there’s no actual progress? Fifty years later, China’s most famous artist, son of China’s most famous imprisoned artist fifty years ago, is being put in prison, because he’s unpalatable to the government. There’s no progress. But in the meantime, absolute havoc has been raked on the whole culture, in the name of “progress.”

Ai Weiwei’s father was then rehabilitated in the late ‘70s, given a leading position in the Chinese Writers’ Association, and his poems were put on the national curriculum so that every school child had to learn his poetry. Of course, he never wrote another poem because he had been creatively destroyed!

Ai Weiwei then went to New York. When he came back, after ten years in America, he asked his father, “What position should one take?” His father apparently said to him, “You’re at home here. There’s no need to be polite.” That’s a classic Chinese folksy way of saying something that’s very direct: “You know what? You’re a Chinese person. They don’t own the country, we all do. Including you. So you’re at home here. There’s no need to be polite. Don’t hold back. Say it like it is, like you would at home.”

Jeppesen: Given that artists are so marginal in the society here, can they really lead the way in social change?

Kirby: It’s a good question. I had this discussion with Wu Jian’an. He is really a nationalist patriot. He’s a young guy, born in 1980. In a weird way, he doesn’t belong politically to his generation. In some ways, he’s such a kid, but he has such an old head. I think he’s a really good example of somebody who, a few years ago, would have given you a very hard line: “This is China. You don’t understand.” But I had dinner with him recently, and he said some things that were very shocking to me. It shows you the extent to which a Communist Party member-in-waiting, someone who has a successful art career in front of him, who’s super productive and widely respected, what he said was a couple of really radical things. He said categorically, loudly, in a very crowded restaurant, “The Chinese Communist Party today is more corrupt than the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-Shek in the 1940s.”

That was an unthinkable thing for someone to say in China only a few years ago. Even the idea that someone would think that. Because you’ve had fifty years of polemic about Chiang and how he was the leader of a thuggish group of gangsters. I said, “How can you say that?” He said, “Listen, at least in the 1940s, in China, these people maybe were failing at democracy, but at least there was the idea of democracy and an independent judiciary of law. We’ve got no concept of an independent legal system in this country. These people holding on to power are exploiting everyone around them and the law exists solely to serve their purposes. Now, you tell me which one is more correct.”

You can’t help thinking he has a point. I never thought I’d hear a Mainland China person say that in public. But then, the following month, two other people, completely independently, said the exact same thing to me! “China is more corrupt now in 2011 than it ever was under Chiang Kai-Shek.” And Chiang is the arch villain! He’s the gangster who robbed the country, that’s what they’ve been taught. People just don’t buy it anymore.

The other thing he said was that Deng Xiaoping, who is traditionally thought of as the good guy who saved people from Mao’s policies – the saint of the post-Mao period – when I mentioned him, Wu said, “Do not talk to me about that person. You know what? Take a look around you. All these Deng Xiaoping people and the people going on about him now…Who are they? They’re low level, cheap people who have stolen the country from under our noses. And now, those people, under the mantel of Deng Xiaoping, are starting to say, ‘How corrupt and hideous all the Mao years were!’ These cheap, ignorant people who are billionaires – and how did they get their billions if it wasn’t stolen from everyone else? Now they have got the temerity to criticize what happened in the 1950s and 1960s in China when real people like my parents stood up and worked together. They worked honestly and selflessly with other people to try and make something.”

Of course, there’s lots of criticism you can make about that, but it was still extraordinary, because it was the first time I had ever heard anyone say that about Deng Xiaoping. It’s also quite a compelling, plausible position to take. But then a Western person would say, “But Mao killed millions!” But then you’re trapped in a circular argument about evil.

The reason why I started saying all that is because our conversation went around. Wu was basically saying, What can people do? That crazy paper cut work he did that we showed in Hong Kong, that was a really political work. He was trying to express something in a very coded way. It’s all about the dignity and capacity of the common man. For him, although he’s using all sorts of metaphors from Chinese mythology and legends, his point is basically one of struggle. And one of social and political struggle. The reason he produced that 23-meter long thing containing individual paper cut pieces and that massive crazy mural is because he was burning up with passion. That’s what pushed him through. He didn’t know how to express his frustration. There are very few channels in which you can.

So my thing to him was, and this is why I continue to work with Chinese artists, “Wu, you’ve got to keep the faith. Don’t forget that in this world you live in – and I don’t belong to it because I’m foreign – you are one of the few people who has a voice. And your absolute responsibility as an artist living in China is to push harder. Keep working. Make your work more radical. Don’t stop. You are one of the few people with a voice. What you’re saying is extremely potent. The mere fact of you doing that makes a massive difference. As an artist, as far as I’m concerned, you’re a political activist, and you’ve got to use your voice.” SO I was haranguing him a bit, but you know what? He was so relieved to hear someone say that to him. That’s what I think. Can their work effect political change? Can they cause a revolution? No, they can’t do any of that. But, like Wu Jian’an, his work existing now, he has added a voice. There are too few. We need hundreds more.

Jeppesen: Realistically, it has to be about making a crack in the wall, rather than making the wall crumble.

Kirby: Right. Their choices are very circumscribed. It must feel immensely discouraging. At the same time, like Wu Jian’an, they’ve got no fucking choice. If they want to be an artist, they have to do it. I believe that this is taking place on lots of different levels. A radical action in this context can be rather subtle, but still be radical. So, for instance, with Feng Mongbo, the act of exploring a genuine knowledge of Chinese painting from a contemporary vantage point, that’s a radical act. What he’s doing is linking contemporary Chinese people to their past. That is what’s been eroded, and what’s really sorely missing.

So a radical act for an artist isn’t necessarily a very provocative anti-government diatribe or a blog. An artwork can be very subtle, and maybe should be. So that’s why I want to work with Chinese artists and why I believe it makes a difference. Every voice that goes out there is registered. These works can be visited and revisited. People will gradually begin to understand that the artists are ahead of us. Maybe they need a few hooks and tools to begin to understand what the visual language is all about, but the Chinese are the smartest people in the world, as far as I’m concerned, so they’ll get there.

So, to answer your question, yes, I think artists can make a big difference. Otherwise, we’re all stuck.

Two days after this interview was conducted, Ai Weiwei returned to blogging, effectively breaking the terms of his probation.

Travis Jeppesen

Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio. 

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